Wai Yen Tang, who runs the excellent VG Researcher Blog, introduces us to The Psychology of Video Games Blog, run by Jamie Madigan, an author, programmer, and government personnel psychologist with a PhD in Organizational Psychology.
Dr. Madigan devotes his blog to exploring the psychology involved in making and playing games. His post Phat Loot and Neurotransmitters in World of Warcraft focuses on the reward system in WoW. He notes an early experience while leveling up a hunter, when a blue (high level) item dropped while he was still at a low level. This greatly encouraged his game play and led him to play even more in hopes of further random drops. Madigan draws a parallel with slot machine players, who likewise continue gambling in hopes of hitting another jackpot.
All of this has a neurological explanation, Madigan asserts. Dopamine in the brain is released in expectation of a wondrous event, such as hitting it big at the slots or finding a rare item in a video game. I think also intermittent reinforcement plays a role in gambling and gaming when there is truly no pattern evident for the rewards other than putting in the time (and in the case of gambling, the money).
So, from an educational perspective, obviously, there would be strong interest in leveraging the dopamine rush experienced by players for pedagogical purposes. The question is, can we adequately insert worthy content, say SAT study materials or state exam questions, into a game that provides the same rush as World of Warcraft (or slot machines, for that matter)?