Raising Interest in STEM With Gamification

Raising Interest in STEM With Gamification


The power of STEM and Intrinsic Gamification

Successful people in every domain seem to have an intrinsic love for their profession. This love creates a lifelong engagement in their careers, constantly learning and expanding their skills and expertise. As game designer Raph Koster said about fun, “Fun is another word for learning.” Yet can we deliberately create intrinsic love for subjects that are not usually perceived as “fun”? Can we increase the number of STEM majors?


I came across Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku through my interest in political science. They argue that the US economy will not be sustainable unless it gets more Americans interested in science and engineering. Michio Kaku argues that Silicon Valley has been supported so far by the “genius visa.” The US has made it very easy for highly-skilled foreigners to come to work in the country, but they are starting to leave for opportunities outside the US.

Unless we develop more home-grown talent, the US will be in STEM trouble. The nature of our service economy means that one of our key competitive advantages is our ability to innovate. Without talented people we cannot innovate, and the rate of development will decline. Neil and Michio have taken the task to spark a love for science and engineering into their own hands through a technique that I choose to call Intrinsic gamification.

There is a basic shift in philosophy here. The traditional argument for gamification goes something like this: “Reality is broken. Games make us happy, so if life was more like a game, we would all be happier and more engaged.” While there is some truth to this, it is not universal and can be deceptive.

Intrinsic gamification offers a different perspective: “Games are, at their core, about solving problems. The evolutionary purpose of play is for us to learn problem-solving skills that will be used to solve real-world problems. When this happens, reality can become a 2.0 version of the games we love to play.” It is “gamification without gamification.” A career becomes a game without involving a game designer. Reality is not broken, and seems stranger (and more fun) than fiction.

Intrinsic gamification has two basic components: narrative and problem-solving process.



Stories affect our identity and worldview. A good example of how this works in enterprise is the book Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki. In a video series narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson titled “We Stopped Dreaming,” he argues that the space race in the 60’s inspired an entire generation to dream about the future, which motivated them to become engineers and scientists to be a part of creating that future. After the Cold War, we cooled down the space narrative, and interest in science declined.

It would then seem logical that we need a new narrative to drive up public interest in science. So far the efforts of many people have succeeded in driving up interest. If you look at pop culture, there are many TV shows and internet memes around science. Science fiction is cool and a popular source of entertainment. But in order to knock Americans out of spectator mode and get them engaged by working in scientific fields, we need another component.


Problem-Solving Process:

The types of games we played as children have as much impact on who we are as our social circles and the stories we are exposed to. The evolutionary purpose of play is to rewire our brains to make us better problem solvers. It is not about making us happy, but to make us dangerous and survive the jungle. Different types of play will create different ways of thinking and this helps determine how we engage with the world and what we will find fun as adults.

If you ask people who really enjoy their careers how they figured out what they liked to do, they usually tell a story about their childhood. Biologists would explore nature and play with plants and animals. Engineers would play with LEGO or take apart electronics. Graphic designers enjoyed drawing, etc. Neil DeGrasse Tyson says that for him it was playing with a pair of binoculars and looking at the moon that sparked his interest in astrophysics. In a short Big Think video, Neil claims that the best way to get kids interested in science is to give them a pair of binoculars, as he himself was given one, and get out of their way to let them play.


There is a theory that explains why we like different activities and games genres through explaining people’s different problem-solving predispositions. Raph Koster explains that some people may like first person shooter games because they have better motor skills. Other people are deep thinkers, so they like strategy games. Our brains are thus individually hardwired to solve different types of problems, and the games that we find fun are present the types of problems we have been wired to solve.

How, then, can we bring back the enchantment with STEM that previous generations used to have? My conclusion is that learning tools matter a lot. Previous generations used the abacus and slide rule to learn Math while we now use electronic calculators. The founder of Cognitive Edge Dave Snowden and philosopher Daniel Dennett explain that learning Math with abacus and slide rule makes you better at Math, and these changes transfer to programming skills, making kids better problem solvers in real life.

By analogy, some adults love reading while others hate it. This tends to be due to reading habits built in children. In a similar way, Math is neither boring nor fun. Its enjoyment depends to a large extent on how the player’s brain is wired. We can therefore rewire the brain to make Math fun. Watch the video below and read an article by The Guardian on how Japan approaches its Math education:

Could it be that Asian countries have been outperforming the US in Math for years because they have had a gamified teaching method all along? Would adopting this gamified Japanese style of learning make Americans take up more science and engineering majors? Gamification techniques are not the key motivators; they are complementary to the education system. The techniques the Japanese kids use are different (mental visualization versus calculation by hand in the Western world), but games can be and are used to solve problems in more complex and realistic areas of life. Learning Math through the abacus in Japan is gamified. Just like in martial art training, children receive titles for reaching certain milestones. For example the popular video game Starcraft 2 has been used to teach Math in the University of California, Berkeley. Math professor Tim Vandenberg used Monopoly to teach Math to 4th-graders with astonishing results.

US students’ excuse for not learning Math is: “I’m never going to use this in the real world.” However, if you build appropriate neural patterns in students’ brains with the abacus and other tools, and then engage them in solving problems in video games and defeat opponents, they will want to learn and apply Math more. When they grow up and begin considering careers, they will be more likely to choose and enjoy STEM careers because they will be applying principles known to them through games to real-life situations.

Teach math with the abacus to change children’s brains for better mathematical performance. Teach them how to perform in popular games better, thus showing how math is applicable to their lives. The skills used to solve complex problems in games will then transfer naturally to solving real problems. If people have been learning by playing since childhood, reality becomes version 2.0 of the games they love, and they intrinsically enjoy careers even in complex areas like science and engineering. All the while we should keep the narrative that “science is cool” alive with great teacher and role models like Dr Tyson.


Hear Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at GSummit 2014!

For the past decades, Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson has been at the forefront of teaching science to the masses. His singular achievement has been to make the impossible, accessible – and the complex, understandable for millions. In the course of doing this, he’s learned a thing or two about how to teach the hard stuff: how smart fun changes everything and can drive unprecedented engagement. Come hear him speak at GSummit 2014, this June in San Francisco! Find out more and register today!


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