Dr Paul Howard-Jones knows he's courting controversy by arguing that video games stimulate the brain in addictive ways; nothing so riles hardcore gamers as the suggestion that they've got a problem. But Howard-Jones has turned this compulsion into a positive spin; he argues games could save education.
His training is in psychology - despite that he's the Senior Lecturer at Graduate School of Education at University of Bristol, specialising in Neuroscience and Education. "I'm a psychologist working in education who does neuroscience" he explains, which obviously prompts queries about where video games enter. The explanation is a little complicated. His research focuses on better ways of helping students learn and he's settled on the compulsive-aspects of computer games as an exceptionally good technique.
"It certainly didn't arise from trying to find an application for interactive whiteboards." says Howard-Jones. "It actually arose from the nucleus accumbens (the NAcc, a knot of neurons important in reward, pleasure, addiction, aggression and fear) and realising we'd missed a big trick in education, in that we have an overly simple idea of the relationship between reward and learning."
Dopeamine accelerates the process that's already taking place so, whatever stimulus is in front of you, you'll remember it more. Action video games are like environmental Ritalin.
The background to this is dopamine. This chemical is present in the brain and the speed of uptake into the NAcc is proportional to, Howard-Jones explains, the amount you desire something. (Notably, dopamine uptake is sped up by cocaine and amphetamine.) Dopamine helps orient your attention, but it also enhances synaptoplasticity - that is, how easy it is to learn something. The more you desire something, as measured by NAcc dopamine uptake, the more you remember.
Video games are hugely desirable - on a level with amphetamines. "You can see what's happening with the help of our new neuro-imaging tech," says Dr Howard-Jones "and it's very clear that the reward is being very, very stimulated (by video games). What's clear is that when the rewards system is stimulated your efficiency of learning improves." And nothing stimulates the rewards system like video games.
For example, Howard-Jones points to studies that find parallels in the neural activities of hardcore gamers when viewing images of games and the neural images of addicts of drugs or gambling when viewing the cues of their addiction (such as Weinstein, 2010). "Video games are very, very engaging. If you apply the diagnostic criteria of addiction to gaming use, then you find that 1 in 5 teens in the UK are addicted to gaming," he says.
Before we suffer the slings and arrows of angry gamers, let's be clear - Howard-Jones sees this extreme dopamine-stimulation as positive, whatever the language we use to describe it. "There's a huge opportunity here for education. No-one's going to worry about 'over-compelling' when we're talking about somebody's lesson." He compares gaming to nuclear fission, saying that there's a light side and a dark side - power and bombs, learning and addiction.
He's also wary of how divided his audiences are. "I go from a conference where people want to hear about the negative effects of gaming in terms of this process to another conference where they want to hear the fantastic educational potential of this process, and they don't want to talk about each other's world, but it's the same process and the same research. By furthering it, we can get much greater insights into not only educational approaches in the classroom, but also in terms of looking after the well-being of our children when playing computer games."
So, though it's clear games are, par excellence, dopamine-stimulators. It's not yet clear how, exactly, dopamine stimulates learning. "It could do it simply by orienting our attention more, but it seems very likely that in fact the very mechanism by which a neuron learns, by which it changes its connection weights, which is called long-term potentiation, is actually accelerated by the presence of dopamine. And though, the dopamine is taken up into the nucleas accumbens, that area of the brain can stimulate dopamine release in a much broader sense in many different cortical areas. It's basically like a catalyst. It accelerates the process that's already taking place so, whatever stimulus is in front of you, you'll remember it more. Action video games are like environmental Ritalin."
Indeed, action video games have the potential to be used in the treatment of ADHD, just like Ritalin. "There's no evidence to suggest that playing video games causes ADHD. There is evidence to suggest that being given video games can reduce your attention in the classroom - but so does being given a pony, though no-one's done studies on ponies. The link is that children with ADHD have trouble with attention and one hypothesis is that because there's insufficient dopamine being generated in their rewards system. That's why we give them Ritalin, as it actually increases their stimulus-specific dopamine uptake. A video game can sort of do the same thing, and doesn't involve drugs." It's not just pupils with ADHD that could benefit from this Ritalin, of course - as a general cognitive enhancer it improves healthy people's ability to attend to stimuli as well.
Howard-Jones does advocate using games in the classroom, but is aware that the mechanisms employed thus far haven't always worked "Much of this learning game activity has been somewhat of a failure" he says. He thinks we need different sorts of games to turn this unique learning power into something useful and his research is focused on producing those sorts of games and testing them in classroom situations.
Small, bright screens are superbly good at blocking melatonin secretion, the chemical that makes you sleepy. So using technology, particularly games, near bedtime is going to disturb your sleep and prevent learning.
So Howard-Jones doesn't just advocate using games in the classroom; his research also provides lessons for how teaching should change on the basis of what gaming has shown us about the chemical pathways in the brain. Notably, dopamine release is maximised not by certain rewards or by wholly unexpected rewards, but by uncertain rewards, which produce a long dopamine tail from the moment of anticipated reward. "That may explain why a lot of situations in gambling and gaming generate a lot of motivation." Youngsters given the choice between a certain reward and a gamble that, on average, produces the same reward are more likely to go for the gamble - and boys much more than girls.
It seems strange that we'd have this attraction to uncertain reward; one would think that the brain would orient attention towards certain reward rather than uncertain reward, but Howard-Jones can point to an evolutionary explanation. "To explain something in evolutionary terms, we often have to go back to prehistoric practices hunter-gathering. Foraging behaviour can be totally modelled by the reward response, using neuro-computational modelling. On the other hand hunting means you have to sustain attention for a long time and the outcomes are very, very uncertain. We also find that this mechanism is more present in males than in females."
On this basis, Howard-Jones advocates the reintroduction of uncertainty into the classroom. "I do emphasise that is not something unnatural, it's everywhere. Everywhere you go, apart from possibly school, your rewards depend on not just your ability, they also depend on chance. That's important for your motivation." It's also important that it's not determined by the whims of an individual teacher; "It's very important that the randomness arises from some technological source, nothing to do with the source and their whims." Notably, unlike the current certain system, which produces uncertain results, Howard-Jones says that "during a learning game, we can predict learning."
Of course, there are apparent problems with this fundamental alteration of the structure of education. Notably, given the issues society already faces with addictive behaviours, encouraging them in the classroom seems problematic. "One of the things that people seem anxious about is that we're turning kids into pathological gamblers because suddenly they're not necessarily getting the point, they're winning the chance of getting the point. What we're forgetting is that real life has all sorts of uncertainty in it and what we've done in schools is try to take out all the uncertainty between the learning and the reward relationship. And that's something we've done because we've got a moral and just feeling about it, that it's right. But the neuroscience tells us something else - if they know something, they should only have the chance of winning the point."
Howard-Jones refuses to be drawn on how the increased certainty in schools over the past twenty years has affected education. Notably, given the discoveries of boy's preferences for gambling and uncertainty, the increased certainty in school curriculum's over the past 20 year might explain the increasing disparity between educational results for boys and girls, compared to the arbitrary and unjust days of older school systems. But Howard-Jones refuses to speculate on such matters.
What he will say is that there's simple advice about what he calls "digital hygiene" - that is, healthy use of computers, technology and games. Firstly, he talks about sleep deprivation and how it's connected to learning and memory. If your sleep is disrupted, simply put, learning is disrupted. Small, bright screens are superbly good at blocking melatonin secretion, the chemical that makes you sleepy. So using technology, particularly games, near bedtime is going to disturb your sleep and prevent learning. This is difficult, he jokes "as teenagers are biologically connected to their mobiles." He recommends that to improve recollection and sleep, we should stick to offline everyday wisdom - choose activites with obvious benefits, moderate those activities, try to restrict total screentime to two hours a day and schedule screentime so that it's healthy.
By turning the negative compulsion aspects of gaming into positives for education and providing a convincing critique of education from the point of view of neuroscience, Dr Howard-Jones is certainly striving to make positive use of gaming. Yet, It's not clear whether the wider gaming community will accept his conclusions on the addictive nature of games themselves, central to his educational thesis.
For more information on Dr Howard-Jones' research, visit neuroeducational.net or read his book Introducing Neuroeducational Research.