By Chris Thurber

Here’s an interesting new word to add to your youth-development lexicon: gamification. Gamification means to apply the principles of games—specifically video games—to real-life situations and problems. You may not have heard this word before because it sends shivers down most adults’ spines. Whenever we grown-ups start talking about using video games with children, two controversial questions immediately emerge. The first is:

1. Does video game violence make young people behave violently?

The evidence is inconclusive. Some studies suggest that exposure to violent video games doesn't result in more violence in the community. Countries like Korea and Japan—where there is extensive video-game play, including gratuitously violent first-person shooter games—have some of the lowest levels of community gun violence in the world. Go figure. Researchers have.

Other studies suggest that playing violent video games does result in a short-term increase in violent behavior. No, the real violence isn’t of the magnitude depicted in the games, but some studies do suggest that physical altercations increase after prolonged play of violent games. Some researchers believe that because the games depict fighting as the best way to resolve interpersonal conflict, this penchant translates to real life.

So, violent games proffer violent role models. Not much of a news flash, right? This direct effect is certainly plausible. Indeed, we base our camp leadership on the inverse: Setting a good example increases children’s kindness toward each other. Plus, when was the last time you played a video game that set two opponents in a room to talk things out peacefully? Never. It’s Grand Theft Auto III, not Peaceful Conflict Resolution III.

Of course, until there is a large-scale, multi-site, cross-cultural, longitudinal study with children randomly assigned to play violent or non-violent games, we won’t know whether violent youth choose to play violent games or whether the games transform non-violent kids into hooligans, all other factors being equal.

Ask Different Questions
It’s frustrating to read contradictory research, but even more frustrating is that researchers are asking the wrong question. It’s not whether violent video games are correlated with violence or whether they cause violence, but rather: In what kind of kid is it likely that exposure to violent video games will increase violent behavior? The old way of asking the violence question misses a variable: the type of child who is playing the game. (We also might want to ask: What kind of parent lets a child play exquisitely violent video games? Certainly, permissive parenting co-varies with child-behavior problems. That research is abundantly clear.)

The second question is:

2. Is recreational screen time bad for children?

Some people contend that the more recreational time children spend in front of a screen, the more their development is retarded. Others argue that it’s reasonable to limit the number of hours kids spend in front of a screen, but note the many educational benefits of learning programming languages, taking online courses, and playing creative games. With many young people in the U.S. spending an average of 8 or more hours in front of a screen each day (according to the American Academy of Pediatrics), it’s no wonder adults are wrestling with the question of how much is too much.

Obviously, the twin genies of computers and the Internet are out of the bottle. There's no going back to a time when recreational screen time was not a pastime and computers were not part of mainstream classrooms. But here, too, researchers must address a different question. Asking how much time in front of a screen is too much is misguided. The better question is: What kind of interactions between youngsters and computers promote positive development? Like the “what kind of kid” question, this one remains for future research to answer.

An Important Role For Video Games
With controversial questions #1 and #2 dismissed as outdated, and two new questions put on the table for future consideration, let’s revisit the concept of gamification in education. Could it be that the alluring nature of a well-designed computer game has an important role to play in a certain type of child’s development, given the right type of adult oversight?

Some insightful answers to this question were offered in a recent article by Alan Gershenfeld in Scientific American. Gershenfeld is the president and co-founder of E-Line Media (self-described as “an entertainment and educational publisher harnessing the power of games to help youth thrive in a globally connected and rapidly changing world”) and a Founding Industry Fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Games and Impact. (Interested readers can visit to learn more.)

Gershenfeld’s first point is that digital games captivate the imagination and draw kids in. (Adults, too.) Well-designed games provide what behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner called a “variable schedule of reinforcement.” As players make their way through the game, they are intermittently rewarded. Earning points and bonuses and moving up levels feels good and thereby encourages more play. Contemporary video games are also increasingly interactive and participatory, so players have a sense of agency, a sense of control over their virtual destinies.

All these approaches—being interactive, participatory, self-paced, and controllable—are also factors that make camp feel good to children. So while camps and video games stand in stark contrast to the traditional classroom setting, camps and video games turn out to be cousins. They share several factors that make them pleasant and reinforcing. Moreover, massive, multiplayer, online role-playing games also build a sense of community, encourage teamwork, and involve elements of healthy competition. And the better the graphics become, the more immersive they feel. Community. Teamwork. Immersion. Sounds like camp.

Gerschenfeld’s second point is that video games—and games in general—can also put joy and wonderment back into science and scientific inquiry. He cites a fascinating example of games being used to demonstrate concepts of observational dependency that are part of quantum mechanics. These games depict blocks that change color and shape depending on who is looking at them and from which direction. Other games show entangled blocks that are inextricably linked even though they are vast distances apart.

So it’s true—and fascinating—that games can be used for educational purposes. And, in some cases, such as explaining theoretical physics, games may actually be the best form of teaching. Indeed, fantasy video may be the only way we currently have to illustrate concepts that cannot be directly observed.

Creativity Abounds
Video games may also be goldmines of creativity. Most readers will be familiar with the hugely popular game Minecraft, which was created by the Swedish programmer Markus Persson. He recently sold the game to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. If you’ve never played Minecraft, the best way to describe it is virtual Legos. You can build worlds and collaborate on the construction of everything from mechanically correct hard drives to entire cities—all with different kinds of blocks and other low-resolution objects.

If you want to teach values like interdependence, collaboration, adaptation, and resilience, Minecraft can do that. The camp parallel to this game is going out to the woods and building a stick fort. Such an activity is also immersive and collaborative. And, just like in Minecraft, when the building falls down (or, in the case of the game, it’s stolen or blown up), people have to cope with disappointment, make a creative plan for reconstruction, and maybe even work together as a team.

Does it make you uncomfortable or encouraged to realize that the best education video games are similar to the best camps? However it makes you feel, you can now keep better tabs on the research on video games, violence, and recreational screen time. You can also pay closer attention to the ways in which during the off-season your clients and their children are using recreational screen time to teach the things that are rather dry and boring when presented in a traditional classroom setting. And you can continue to offer camp as a compelling complement to children’s education. Camp is what fills in the gaps.

In order to take an active part in the dialogue about positive youth development, we should not categorically write off video game as pernicious and evil, but rather recognize that the value really depends on the type of game, the goal, and the child. Thoughtfully designed, educational games draw on the same principles that make some camps great.

Understanding gamification offers a wise perspective that will cause other youth-development professionals to sit up and take notice. And understanding the gamification of education and implementing its principles will cause your campers to return year after year—all without a single video game.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit