Digital Learning Games Must Be More Than Skinner Boxes

I appreciate the conversation on video games as learning tools. It's a very important discussion, and I'm not saying this just because I think video games present outstanding opportunities for learning (or am I?).

I say this because, in the midst of all of the new learning technologies we've been presented over the years, the video (or digital) game -- or some form of it -- seems to present a very strong case for tool of the future. Learning is inherent in games -- we need to learn in order to make progress within a game, in order to overcome challenges or defeat our rival. The question as we create games that intentionally facilitate learning goals: how do we design experiences that best help players transfer what is learned in the games to real-life contexts?

As we design digital learning games -- many of which are indeed video games, just published through digital platforms -- we must remember to think about why video games are so powerful in the first place. Video games have enormous impact on players and non-players for reasons beyond what I can fit in this article (but I do talk about a little here). I would be remiss to ignore that two of the things that draw people to video games are the potential for instant reward and gratification. Yet as we move forward with the design of digital learning games, two of the things that worry me the most are -- you guessed it -- over-emphasis on instant reward and gratification. In other words, I'm afraid the lure of creating games akin to the Skinner Box could limit the potential of the digital learning game.

The Skinner Box refers to the infamous experiment by psychologist Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner. The experiment entailed having a hungry rat in a box that contained a lever that could be pressed. When the rat pressed the lever, food dispensed, which allowed for the rat to eat.

Make the right choice, get a reward. Lever pressed, yummy treat.

This is the theory of operant conditioning, a form of behaviorism. Without getting too psychological I'll just say this -- this dynamic actually threatens the digital learning games of tomorrow.

I know certainly that the dynamic of "make the right choice, get a reward" is important for video games (and any kind of game ever!). So I understand why taking this approach tenfold would be enticing to those who want to create and use digital games for learning. By using a "press the lever, get a treat" method, designers can create experiences that reward right choices and either don't do anything for wrong choices or provide a negative result for a wrong choice (such as, a game character losing health points or something of that sort). A player could be, in a sense, conditioned into learning what is right knowledge versus what is wrong information.

While focusing on this for some of the game's design is perfectly fine, we must be careful to remember that video games mean much more to players than just a set of choices and rewards. They are immersive experiences that become highly personal due to our participation. This is part of the reason why they are so popular today. To ignore or limit that and instead over-focus on the "press the lever, get a treat" sensation dooms the learning game, I believe, before it even gets off of the ground. That game will struggle to reach the level of relevancy in the player's life that an entertainment-based video game may have. And if that happens, isn't that a disadvantage for the learning game right from the start?

If we want digital learning games to consistently reach a high ceiling and truly touch the lives of many across the world, I believe we need to keep in mind that they must be more than Skinner Boxes. They must be more than a set of choices with rewards that possibly lack the need for any real critical thinking and problem solving. They also need to be experiences that whisk the players away into fantastic, immersive experiences. They must connect with the player, so that the player cares about their participation, involvement, and hopefully, the learning that they will transfer to real-life contexts.

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