Game designers are wizards of engagement. They have mastered the art of pulling people of all ages into virtual environments, having them work toward meaningful goals, persevere in the face of multiple failures, and celebrate the rare moments of triumph after successfully completing challenging tasks. But do these skills transfer to the classroom and the workplace, or is it situational?
Decades of research in developmental and educational psychology suggest that motivational styles characterized by persistence and continuous effortful engagement are key contributors to success and achievement. According to Dweck and her colleagues (Dweck & Molden, 2005), children develop beliefs about their intelligence and abilities, beliefs that underlie specific motivational styles and directly affect achievement. Children who are praised for their traits rather than their efforts develop an entity theory of intelligence, which maintains that intelligence is an innate trait, something that is fixed and cannot be improved. In contrast, children who are praised for their effort develop an incremental theory of intelligence; they believe intelligence is malleable, something that can be cultivated through effort and time. Research has shown that the extent to which individuals endorse an incremental, versus entity theory of intelligence reliably predicts whether individuals in challenging circumstances will persist or give up. These implicit theories of intelligence also have implications for how failure is processed and dealt with. If one believes that intelligence or ability is fixed, failure induces feelings of worthlessness. But if intelligence or ability is presumed to be a mark of effortful engagement, failure signals the need to remain engaged and bolster one’s efforts. In turn, this positive attitude towards failure predicts better academic performance. Some believe that video games are an ideal training ground for acquiring an incremental theory of intelligence because they provide players with concrete, immediate feedback regarding specific efforts players have made.
In reality, almost no empirical studies have directly tested the relation between playing video games, persistence in the face of failure, and subsequent “real-world” success. However, one recent study indicates that these relations may indeed exist. Ventura and colleagues (2013) used an anagram-riddle task and demonstrated that the extent of video game use predicted how long participants would (outside of a gaming context) persistently attempt to solve difficult anagrams. A great deal more research is required to establish causal relations between regular gaming and persistence in the face of failure, however, it’s hard to ignore that playing video games is more than a frivolous pastime and may actually cultivate a persistent, optimistic motivational style, which in turn may generalize to school and work contexts.