The neuroscience of game-based learning

Eveline van Zeeland Share on:

In this article, we will disclose the world of the brain being the main organ of learning. Let’s first go back to our childhood, in which we experienced stimuli as a baby, asked “why?” as a toddler and built solutions as a child between 6 and 10 years old. These three stages are reflected in the building blocks of the brain (sensory neurons, interneurons and motor neurons) and in how we learn: by sensing, thinking and doing. Or as David Kolb put it into in his learning cycle: we need a concrete experience to start reflective observation and abstract conceptualization that result in active experimentation.

The Integration of game-based learning in educational stimuli

As long as game-based learning (GBL) is integrated in the flow of educational stimuli, it ‘fits’ with the sensing-thinking-doing functioning of the nervous system. GBL also fits with the natural ‘needs’ of the brain. The first need of the brain is to survive and therefore to be in control. The second need of the brain is to feel good and therefore to have fun, to play and to be rewarded. The third need of the brain is to save energy and therefore to make things logic and congruent. Game based learning makes the brain feel in control, it offers fun, play and reward, and it fits with the need to save energy by having a congruent story.

The different perspectives of the brain

Besides the natural fit of game-based learning with the ‘needs’ of the brain, we can also look at what GBL actually does in the brain by taking different perspectives:

  • First, there is the perspective of the visual brain. The attentional benefits resulting from the use of video gaming seem to be the most evidence-supported aspect.
  • Second, the perspective of the motivated brain: winning a game, not only by ranking but also by receiving stars, points and badges stimulates the reward centre of the brain.
  • Another perspective is that of the creative brain. GBL is mostly learning based on simulation (a prototype of the real world) and this is the type of learning of creative godfathers like Gaudi and Leonardo da Vinci. Creativity is also stimulated because of games enable ‘act as if’, symbolic thinking, visualization and mentalizing and curiosity. In that way game-based learning allows for graceful failure.
  • Another important perspective is that of the social brain. Due to the mirror neuron system humans learn to a great deal by simply watching others. From a social perspective on game-based learning also the opponent matters: research shows the feeling of reward when winning is bigger when playing against a human being than against a computer. Moreover, it matters whether you are playing with others or against others. Cooperation and competition evoke a different reaction in the brains.
  • The fifth perspective is on the emotional brain. GBL might be particularly effective because of the emotionally engaging nature of games. Our emotions influence our thinking more than our thinking influences our emotion. We remember events better when they evoked an emotional response. The last perspective is that of the cognitive brain. Not only helps gamification to apply knowledge, there’s also a positive relationship between adrenaline and memory.

Is game-based learning better than other ways of learning?

From a neuroscientific perspective, is game based learning better than other ways of learning? Well, it depends. First of all, there has to be a balance between receiving and using knowledge: when playing games all day students would just be exhausted. Therefore, the factor ‘human’ – or more specific: the factor ‘teacher’ – must never be overlooked. It’s up to the teacher to enable game-based learning and to react to what happens in the student’s brain. The results of GBL also depend on the context in which a game is played. Not only the colour, but the whole design (e.g. the number of stimuli appearing simultaneously on the screen and the complexity of each stimulus) of a game influences the outcomes of game-based learning. And also important: system failures are killing the positive attitude of students towards a game and therefore have a negative impact on learning. Moreover, in GBL there’s no ‘one size fits all’. Not each challenge works for each student, also because of the variety in learning styles. The neural responses to educational stimuli show variability: people differ.


Game-based learning must be like a James Bond movie: dosing with tension and excitement, charmingly overcoming challenges, but also room for relaxation and social interaction. Or to end with a quote from Jan L. Plas (Professor Envisioning, Designing, and Studying the Future of Digital Learning at New York University): “Good games aim for the ‘sweet spot’, where players can succeed but only with some struggle.”

Watch here the full webinar of Eveline van Zeeland presentation during the Inchainge Connect Educator Conference about this topic.

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