As parents, we’ve been concerned about the impact of video games for a long time. Our concerns have only worsened during this pandemic, as housebound kids spend more time on their electronic devices while we attempt to juggle the chaos that has become our new normal. Various “experts” fill the air waves with all kinds of horrifying possibilities about video games damaging kids’ brains, causing ADHD, contributing to obesity, promoting violence or interfering with learning academic skills.
I’m here to offer you a different perspective on video games—one that rarely gets any attention. I’m here to shed light on why our kids become so addicted to playing video games in the first place. I’m also here to suggest that the way kids master video games says a lot about the failures of our educational system.
As a scientist-educator who has been accelerating academic achievement with students for more than 20 years, I have encountered countless learners who become masterful at complicated video games while failing to master academic skills. Many of these learners were also diagnosed with learning disabilities. However, these kids had absolutely nothing wrong with their ability to learn things, like the complicated skills involved in video games. They only struggled to learn the academic skills that schools were responsible for teaching them.
Video game designers understand the science behind how learning works. They aren’t required to operate according to the beliefs, traditions and myths of the educational establishment. They’re free to design their games in a way that ensures kids learn how to play them, and more important, get really good at playing them.
Kids become addicted to video games because they are designed in such a way that enables kids to master them. For example, they must master lower levels of the game first before advancing to higher levels. Mastery of each level requires the achievement of fluency—indicated by the repeated achievement of a certain score within a certain amount of time. Not only does mastery of each subsequent level produce access to the more advanced level, but it involves other kinds of reinforcers like earning points or access to new characters, tools or weapons. In other words, while practicing each level, there are many reinforcers built in for improvements in performance such that the necessary component skills are selected and strengthened to fluency.
The amount of positive reinforcement built into video games ensures that kids are motivated to play them… a lot. As such, kids engage in repeated practice of the skills required to become fluent at the game. That’s why kids don’t advance to the next level based on the amount of time that has passed or exposure to rules about it. They advance to the next level after they have practiced the previous level to mastery.
What I just described about how video games are designed has absolutely no relation to what occurs in schools. To the contrary, kids are pushed ahead from skill to skill based on arbitrary timelines set by the school district. Teachers are required to expose kids to a lesson, test them on that lesson, and move on to a new lesson—regardless of test performance. Practice is not built into the school day and even homework doesn’t provide the amount of practice kids really need to master skills. Kids advance to the next grade based on their age—not based on mastery of the prerequisite skills required for higher-level content. When kids fail, schools attribute this failure to learning disabilities, personality characteristics, low IQ or laziness. And the cycle repeats itself: year after year and student after student.
Yet, year after year, the video game industry increases the complexity of the video games being produced. And guess what? Kids continue to master them—including those kids labeled by their schools as learning disabled, intellectually deficient or lazy. Isn’t it time to call a spade a spade? It’s time to consider the possibility that academic failure has nothing to do with problems inherent to the student and everything to do with the fact that the way schools are designed actually doesn’t work.
I’m not a traditional educator. I’m a behavioral scientist and behavioral science is the science of learning. Our science has discovered that learning occurs through the repeated reinforced practice of skills over time until they are fluent—automatic, effortless and neurologically permanent. Moreover, complex repertoires cannot be learned and mastered without fluency in the component skills that comprise that complex repertoire. Video games are designed according to these basic principles of learning. Conversely, traditional teaching practices are based on beliefs, traditions and myths—none of which reflect the science regarding how learning actually occurs.
So, rather than worrying about how much our kids are playing video games, maybe we should ask, “Why aren’t schools producing this same kind of fluency in academic skills?” With behavioral science, teaching practices can be designed in such a way that kids become addicted to academic skills in the same way they become addicted to video games. Kids become addicted to things they are good at and to get good at something requires repeated reinforced practice of skills to fluency.
We all want to do the things we are good at. When we become fluent at something, engaging in the skill itself becomes reinforcing, which increases the likelihood that we want to continue doing it. We tend to avoid areas where we aren’t fluent because it feels difficult, effortful, clumsy and unpleasant, which defines the school experience for a majority of students. But when we become fluent at a skill, it feels fluid, effortless and powerfully reinforcing.
Behavioral science can lead our educational system to evolve into one that produces kids who pick up a book, work out some math problems or write an essay as eagerly as they play their video games. We should actually view kids’ proficiency at video games as good news! This proficiency is an indication of their overall learning ability. If kids can become fluent at video games, then they can also become fluent at academic skills. However, accomplishing academic fluency requires that schools evolve and incorporate behavioral science into teaching practices. Until then, we will have an ever-growing population of kids who become experts at very complex video games without acquiring expertise in the core skills required for academic success. The result? Generations of students unable to access higher education or pursue careers that will enable them to make a difference in the world. As this pandemic has made very clear, we have a lot of complicated problems to solve. We need an educational system that reliably produces the people who can solve them.
Kimberly Nix Berens, Ph.D., is a scientist-educator and Founder of Fit Learning. She co-created a powerful system of instruction based in behavioral science and the Technology of Teaching, which has transformed the learning abilities of thousands of children worldwide, including those who are struggling, average, gifted or learning disabled. Her learning programs effectively target such essential areas as early learning skills, basic classroom readiness, phonemic awareness, reading fluency, comprehension, inferential language, basic and advanced mathematics, logical problem solving, grammar and expressive writing. Her first book, Blind Spots: Why Students Fail and the Science That Can Save Them, is due for release in fall 2020.