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Saving Education Through Games Addiction

If games stimulate learning, how do we use that to further education?

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."

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