Why do kids love video games? The short, and obvious, answer is, they’re fun. In my psychological interviews and surveys about video game play with children, I often find that the games kids love are not the easiest games to “beat,” they are the challenging and difficult games that take time to learn, explore, and master. Many of their favorite games require learning from their mistakes, remaining highly focused, overcoming frustration, and teaming up with or getting advice from their friends. For example, in several interviews with players of Minecraft, I heard that the variety of challenges and the sandbox nature of the game (“you can do anything you want”) are the biggest attractors to the game.
Clark Quinn, who explores computer and simulation-based learning in his book, Engaging Learning, describes acquiring knowledge as “hard fun,” noting the importance of feeling connected or engaged to that which one is learning. Other authors attribute intrinsic motivation, creativity, autonomy, and challenge accompanied by support as core components of an optimal learning experience. When learning has a “play” component, whether through gamification (applying game design and game mechanics to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging, such as reward points for using your credit card or getting “badges” for completing club activities) or for the simple joy or excitement of the activity, learning is likely to be enhanced. This is why educators and psychologists are so enamored with using video games as a tool for learning.
When kids are asked why they play video games, more than half of them give reasons such as “to relax, to learn new things, and to create their own world.” In a study conducted by Cheryl Olson, the top reasons children gave for playing is that games are “fun, exciting, and have the challenge to figure things out.” Olson also found that 45% of boys and 29% of girls said they play video games “to get my anger out.” Children in the same study reported that they played violent video games to “relieve stress, to be rebellious, and to test the limits of acceptable behavior in a safe environment.”
Other writers can further help us to understand why kids love to play video games. Jane McGonigal, in her book, Reality is Broken, writes that “games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves.” She goes on to say that we take on games that may be difficult and even stressful because “we enjoy the stimulation and activation as long as we feel capable of meeting the challenge.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of “flow” has also been used to explain why kids love to play video games. Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist trained at the University Chicago, describes flow as the experience of “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” The sense of flow is one in which an individual does not notice time and “every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.” This is not unlike what many gamers experience when they are immersed in gameplay.
At LearningWorks for Kids, we’ve come up with our own term for video game flow: “engamement.” A combination of engagement and games, engamement refers to the amplification of a child’s focus, interest, and learning. Engamement implies a cognitive and affective absorption that goes beyond mere attention and focus and encapsulates a love of what one is doing. Our challenge as parents, educators, and psychologists is to use this love to help kids succeed and be happy in their pursuits.
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Of course, much of life is not a game, nor is the process of learning what we need to learn always going to be fun. However, we are at the beginning of an age in which we can work to use video games and other digital technologies to help educate our children for the future, and we should be more actively involved in thinking about how to do so. We may need to wait on the generation of individuals who have grown up with video games as an integral part of their lives to see how we can best apply this love for gaming in an educational setting. You don’t need to wait, however, to start learning about how your children can benefit from the digital technologies they know and love. Learn how video games fit into the “science of play,” and find out how the popular games your children are already playing can help them build essential thinking skills in our games and apps sections. Then read about how to implement strategies for incorporating digital play as a learning tool for your child in my new book, Playing Smarter in the Digital World.