Video games. The bane of all parents and a plague that saps away children’s energy and time for studying. They have been so villainized in society that in recent years, China has implemented a strict limit on gaming time for minors — 1 hour from 8-9 pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays [3]. Restricting the access and availability of video games is one solution to this problem of addiction. But, instead of implementing measures that act on the negatives of this problem, perhaps a better solution could be found by praising the positives of video games. Perhaps we can explore how their compelling nature can be used to cultivate curiosity.

Think about the last time you played a video game and felt the urge for just one more level or one more game. That craving to keep playing is intentional. Video games are masterful at keeping players engaged for long periods of time, as the ability to keep their user base hooked equates to greater revenue for the company. This type of addictive design is created by exploiting the reward center of our brain, specifically a hormone called dopamine [5]. Dopamine is released when the body experiences pleasure. This motivates our body to repeatedly seek it out. More dopamine is released each time we act to obtain that pleasure, reinforcing the behavior and creating a feedback loop. In addition, dopamine has the power to control our interest and attention, making it even more compelling for you to click the “next stage” button.

Video games are able to utilize this inherent biological system by being just challenging enough such that real effort is required in order to succeed while also feeding the player nuggets of dopamine in the form of small wins to keep them trying [4]. A prime example of this is the high score, which challenges the player to continually beat their best performance for the rush of pleasure that comes with it. Additionally, video games can engross the player through riveting storylines or new discoveries, adding another element of temptation to the mix.

With how adeptly video games manipulate players into playing for long hours without losing interest, it is no surprise that their usage in education has been speculated to help children enjoy learning. There are five main criteria used to evaluate the effectiveness of learning: Context, authenticity, motivation, room for mistakes, and learner autonomy [1]. Context acts as a way for the learner to relate new information to the knowledge they already have, thereby helping it stick better. Video games achieve this by creating a captivating narrative to which everything else is tied, thereby engaging the player emotionally and creating a memorable experience. Authenticity refers to the importance of the information to the learner and having it be used in a purposeful manner. In video games, this can look like learning about the world and interacting with characters in order to achieve a goal. Motivation is a critical component in effective learning and, as previously mentioned, is a category in which video games excel. Having the freedom to fail provides opportunities for learners to grow, and video games are arguably one of the safest environments to make mistakes, as all it takes is one push of the restart button to start anew. Finally, autonomy, or allowing the learner to explore for themselves, is shown to yield better results in learning. And what more autonomy can you ask for than a video game where you are the protagonist of the story, free to choose whatever you do?

Companies have already begun developing games meant for educational purposes that uphold all five learning pillars. As early as 1 November 2016, game developer Mojang Studios released Minecraft Education Edition, a version of the hit 2D sandbox game Minecraft tailored towards students in a learning environment. Studies have shown that students who used Minecraft Education Edition had an increased overall motivation for school, better communication and information technology skills, a more positive learning environment, and numerous other benefits [6].

Even video games that aren’t created with education in mind can provide advantages to the children playing them. During times when it may be difficult to meet up in person, such as the pandemic, video games offer a crucial source of socialization and a way to connect with friends online [2]. Additionally, the challenge of video games can build perseverance in children, helping them learn how to persist through the frustration of failure.

While restricting game time is certainly a powerful and effective aid against video game addiction, the power of video games and their application for educational purposes should not be underestimated.