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Educational gaming

Does reward-based educational gaming help my child?

All educational gaming apps are not equal. This section refers to reward-based gaming apps that use visual and auditory graphics to reward the student for the correct answer, and may include earning 'money' or tokens for work done to buy gaming time or on-line virtual shopping.


While those explicit rewards may be obvious, even digital bursts of sparkles and cheering can create a dopamine hit that encourages children to seek out the response again and again. Literature does exist that specifically suggests using the physiology of video-game addiction to benefit learning via gamification.


In some schools, this has become a  significant part of their digital curriculum. 


Used in innovative ways, with the right teacher training and infrastructure support, technology can open up new ways of learning to bolster core skills, notes Andrew Manches, Chancellor’s Fellow at Edinburgh University’s School of Education. However, applied in the wrong way, such as using tablets to play rote learning maths games, technology can have a detrimental impact. "Learning apps are often like 'chocolate coated broccoli,' based on dull and unhelpful learning approaches disguised with whizzy sound and colour effects," says Manches.


A reward or near reward triggers our brains to release dopamine, which motivates or compels us to continue to seek the experience. Repeatedly activating these complex neural reward circuits modifies neural connections, and MRI studies show a correlation with altered brain structure. Long-term implications are unknown, but researchers hypothesise that - "excessive usage could be changing children's brain reward systems in the long term, making them more susceptable to other addictions later in life." Studies do seem to support this association. 


Excessive usage sounds dramatic, but MRI studies have shown structural brain changes associated with gaming in as little as half an hour a day over 2 months - see 'What risks are associated with screen time' for more information.


While some reward-based apps may show short-term gains in knowledge, not only parents but paediatricians are voicing concerns about gamification in schools. There is research currently underway looking at whether reward-based educational gaming affects the intrinsic motivation of students who would have been prepared to do the same task without a reward. This is known as the overjustification effect, where studies have shown that giving kids rewards reduced their desire to do the same task without reward.


There have been some groups that seem to benefit more from digital learning programs - such as reluctant learners, who would have been unprepared to otherwise do the task. But this is not the majority of students, and it begs the question - can certain groups be targeted without negatively affecting others, for example, as a homework option? Should parents be able to opt out of these gamified learning options if they think it is unnecessary or possibly unhelpful for their child? Are children at higher risk of addiction being compromised by these systems?


Experts have recommended that parents do not reward their children with game time, in order to reduce the chance of problematic internet use later in life. Perhaps this suggests that schools should also follow suit. Reward-based educational gaming with not only immediate, but also cumulative gaming rewards must be carefully considered by schools.


"Enthusiasm for gaming and games-based approaches in learning may be misplaced, as there is a lack of evidence of impact in terms of attainment," (Vogel et al, 2006). 


What can I do?


If you are concerned about your child's use of reward-based gaming in school, talk to your classroom teacher about what types of programmes your child accesses during the school day and what steps they take to mitigate factors raised by this evidence.


You can also go to 'What can I do?' for an easy letter template that can help you write to your school. This contains a request for parents to OPT OUT or require PERMISSION to use reward-based applications in class and for homework. You can email this to your school principal, your board of trustees and the Ministry of Education. The MOE's email address is


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