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Learning can be fun: a concept of education based on game theory and the reward system

Updated on September 7, 2016

There's no denying that digital games are an integral part of modern culture. And unlike cinema and other forms of media, games possess an interactive element : players are actively engaged in discovering and learning new rules, gaining new experiences and using tools to reach higher levels. Additionally, an effective reward system - in the form of experience points or EXPs - is designed to keep players engaged. Games also use psychological and artistic elements to capture the interest of the players. Based on these ideas, researchers, in a paper published in The Journal Of Educational Technology, studied the possibility of applying these techniques to education : they came up with a model of computer-assisted learning based on the reward system of digital games. But first, let's take a brief overview of some previous education models.

Education theory overview

The question of how to ensure and optimize the learning process have always haunted philosophers, linguists and teachers. Ever since Socrates - and arguably way before that - we tried to delimit the factors that influence education. However, it was not until 1963 that John Carroll published a paper that will form the nucleus of all modern education models. Carroll came up with a mathematical function of learning that takes into account different factors, both internal and external. He expressed learning as a function of perseverance of student, time given by the teacher, aptitude of the student (IQ), quality to understand prerequisite knowledge and quality of instructions received by the student. Education models have evolved since then to take into account other environmental variables, including family, culture and current time events. Most notably, in 1985 Johnson and Aldridge came up with the theory of exponential learning ; learning expressed as an exponential function of motivation, skills and time as well as other environmental factors. Some models have gone even further. For example, in 2004, Hwang was inspired by Newtonian mechanics and came up with a model that takes into account dynamics, energy, acceleration, speed and force. More recent education theories focus on involvement and interactivity and place the interest of the learner in the center of the education process. It is worth noting that involvement, enthusiasm and other dynamic factors aforementioned, come naturally with digital games. So the researchers began by studying the source of that enthusiasm - the digital games reward system- to see how to implement it in a learning model.

The digital game reward system

The reward system of digital games is arguably the most important factor in keeping the players motivated. For most games, such system is based on an algorithm that takes into account different factors, including time, motivation and skills of the player, sometimes adding extra bonuses and features that ensure sustained play. The first step is, therefore, to analyze how such system works and how it can be used in a learning environment. That's what the researchers did. They collected data provided by game production companies and extracted the mathematical function of the reward system. For this, they used games played by more than 10 million student-age players. And for comparative analysis, the researchers used games both from the USA and South Korea. What they found is that the reward system can be expressed as an exponential function of time, motivation and skill. This function, extracted from the reward system of digital games, is similar to the one already proposed by education models, notably the aforementioned Johnson and Aldridge model of exponential learning.

In other words, the reward system of digital games and this model of education have a similar functional formula. Moreover, we are already learning, using skills and motivational elements in games. Modern games also use chatting, writing, speaking and team play. All skills that are stressed by conventional education models. This similarity means that it is possible to use this function in a computer-assisted learning environment and adjust variables according to the level and skills of the student, the same way digital games use EXPs. Learning this way will be based on a computer-assistance and use the reward system as a basis. Using a reward system in education have proven to have major benefits for learning. More research is needed, however, to find the best way to implement such model, notably using artificial intelligence. This will ensure a fun, voluntary and engaging learning experience. But may lead to machines having even more agency in our world and raise many concerns. But there's still a long way to go, before robots take over our teaching jobs.


  • Journal Of Educational technology : A computer-assited learning model based on the digital game exponential reward system.
  • Carroll, J.B : A model of school learning.
  • Johnson and Aldridge : Examining a mathematical model of mastery learning in the classroom
  • www.edpsycinteractive : The Teaching-Learning Process: A Discussion of Models.


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