Paul Howard-Jones thinks he knows the answer to a question that has long puzzled both parents and professors: Why is it that the same teenagers who turn sullen and despondent when faced with a half hour of learning French verbs or organic compounds are happy to spend hours mastering the computer game Minecraft’s physics engine or the counterfactual history in Call of Duty?
A neuroscientist at Bristol University, Mr. Howard-Jones says that “computer games are very, very engaging. And just as nuclear fission can be used to make bombs or generate electricity, games also have a light side and a dark side.”
Speaking at the Learning Without Frontiers conference in London last week, he said that computer games stimulate the brain’s reward system to produce dopamine, a chemical “which helps orient our attention and enhances the making of connections between neurons, which is the physical basis for learning.”
Mr. Howard-Jones said that research has shown that the introduction of a chance or game element into any reward system increases dopamine production. “For generations, we educators have done everything we can to maintain a consistent relationship between reward and achievement, but the neuroscience is telling us something different,” he said in an interview.