My TED talk: 7 ways games reward the brain

I’ve had the huge pleasure of giving a talk at TED Global in Oxford, about the lessons games can teach us about engagement and about learning itself. The full video is now online on the TED website; below is a brief summary of a few central points.

We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to be satisfied by the world in particular ways; and to be intensely satisfied as a species by learning and problem-solving. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the virtual arenas that games create is that we are now able to reverse-engineer that, and to produce environments that exist expressly to tick our evolutionary boxes and to engage us.

When it comes to games themselves, the “fun first” principle is an absolute: before anything and everything else, a game must be fun. Not everything can be made into a game, though; and it’s simply misleading to think of games as potential solutions to all our ills.

So I’ve come up with seven larger ideas for motivating and engaging people on the basis of observing many games’ stunning power as engines of human engagement:

1. Using an experience system. This is something that Jesse Schell has talked about brilliantly in this last year, and that is actually being done in places like Indiana University. Don’t have grades, for example: give students an avatar or a profile that levels up steadily based on things like attendance and performance. Everything should count in some way towards this precisely-measured, steady individual progression: a far more intimate, involving and nuanced way of measuring progress over time than most conventional means.

2. Multiple long and short-term aims.
You break something down into many parallel tasks. You don’t just to say to someone, do 5,000 sums, or 100, or even 50: you create a whole spectrum of larger and smaller objectives that help people take take ownership of their progress, and keep them feeling they are progressing and succeeding – as well as targeting particular sets of skills.

3. You reward for effort.
People should be credited for everything they try and do. Don’t punish failure. Instead, reward and reinforce, and make everything count towards a clear measure of progress. As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the most profound transformations we can learn from games is how to turn the sense that someone has “failed” into the sense that they “haven’t succeeded yet.”

4. Rapid, clear, frequent feedback. This is absolutely central to all forms of learning and engagement. With many of the most intractable problems in the world today, like global warming and pollution, it can be almost impossible to learn or understand something when consequences and feedback are distant from causes. Showing a clear link between things, and allowing people to experience this experimentally, allows learning to take place: you need to be shown and to experience exactly how an action plays out, what it caused, whether your attempt worked or not.

5. Uncertainty. This is the real neurological gold mine so far as gaming is concerned. Dopamine elevates when you get a little prize for doing something, but what really lights up the brain is the unexpected reward: the one that couldn’t be predicted. And so the right amount of well-calibrated uncertainty can create intense engagement in all manner of tasks.

6. Windows of enhanced attention. This is about using the emerging field of neurological modelling to identify those moments when attention and memory are enhanced in the brain by an elevated dopamine level, and putting learning into them – literally dropping the nugget of fact into those few seconds when attention is elevated. It’s early days here, but the potential of the field is vast.

7. Other people. If games should remind us of one crucial aspect of our evolutionary natures more than any other, it’s that reward is not just money or personal achievement points; and it’s not just solitary individuals slumped in front of screens: it’s the intense validation of doing something in comparison and in collaboration with others.

Collective engagement can be transformed by the unprecedented laboratory that virtual worlds offer for observing group psychology and motivation; from analyzing Guild structures in games to exploring how the public visibility of participants’ levels of achievement can encourage both competition and collaboration. This is, for me, perhaps the most thrilling area of all.

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