Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Intrinsic Reward Structures in Games and Learning

First published on the Iridescent blog on 5/7/12.

This is a quick follow-up to the last post on games and education, I’d suggest reading that first, or at least the section on “Reward Structures,” before jumping here.  

After writing my last post, my girlfriend Hannah posed a question that has constantly bothered me over the past few weeks. Are there any intrinsic reward structures in real life?  

Clearly her inner evolutionary biologist is kicking in here: if there is some tick in our brain that responds to reward structures, that psychological tick probably has an evolutionary purpose other than addicting us to games.  Gaming companies have just learned to co-op this urge for their own purposes.  But what might be the original purpose of our psychological tick? Phrased differently, what real life activities hook us because they have intrinsic reward structures?

After over a week of puzzlement, the best answer I could come up with is hobbies.  Why do we have hobbies, like say knitting? Sure, knitting has a useful purpose, you can make sweaters and scarves.  But many people knit as a hobby, not because they need to make a pair of socks, but because they enjoy it.  There is an end product that you can show others, and perhaps the motivation for knitting is simply to acquire more of the end product, in this case getting more socks.  But then, time would be better spent working at a job, and earning the money to just buy tons of socks (which not many people do).  No, it’s something about the process of making a sock that makes knitting an engaging hobby.

Consider this idea.  People knit to get better at knitting socks, which allows them to knit socks even faster and learn new stitches, which allows them to get even better at knitting socks.  The process of learning how to knit compels someone to keep knitting, since that skill is actually embedded in an intrinsic reward structure.  By practicing a hobby, you get better at the hobby, which allows you to practice the hobby even more, which allows you to get even better at the hobby.  This can also go for learning to play a sport, or learning in general.  The process of learning is an intrinsic reward structure. Thus, reward structures provide us with an inherent motivation to learn new skills (which would increase our survival, and may be the evolutionary cause of our psychological tick? But that’s a different topic.)

Let’s take a step back and talk about games again.  In this light, it makes perfect sense to view games as the way James Gee does, as learning tools.  Games are simply packages of virtual skills. When games embed skills in a virtual intrinsic reward structure (analogous to the real intrinsic reward structure that compels us to have hobbies) we become addicted to the game, or more specifically addicted to learning the skills in the game. Whether the skill is virtual or real, embedding the skill in an intrinsic reward structure makes the learning fun and engaging.

If we then take it for granted that people have an intrinsic desire to learn, why is school typically so tedious and difficult to engage in (much less become addicted to)?

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