In the Zone


Have you ever wondered why you can be driving and singing loudly to Bey’s new song but when someone pulls out of the side street ahead of you, your instinct is to turn down the music and slow down? What IS that? I’m so glad you asked. In today’s post I wanted to share with you the first reason why gaming is a natural conduit for learning. And yes, it is related to Bey’s new song. Hang in there with me and all will be revealed!

To really understand the potential benefit of game play you need to know a few basic principles of learning to see how gaming, more so than traditional classroom learning, has the potential to engage learners for longer periods of time in deeper levels of inquiry. 

To do this we’ll talk about two contrasting principles in the learning sciences: multi-tasking and flow. By understanding the distinction (and the real definition) behind the two, we will begin to see how game-based learning capitalizes on the very best aspects of learning to keep our kids playing, and learning, longer.

Raise your hand if you can write a text while also carrying on a conversation. Extra credit if you actually raised your hand while reading this. Now put your hand down because you could not be more wrong.

The common understanding of multi-tasking is that one person can simultaneously do multiple things, like texting while writing a paper for class or talking on the phone while checking Facebook (c’mon you know you do it!). In reality you are doing a series of single tasks and quickly switching between task one and task two. So the time it takes to switch between two cognitively demanding tasks as well as the time it takes to recall where you were in task two when you switch back from attending to task one is effectively creating a bottleneck in your ability to process. In short, our brains are not actually able to do more than one cognitively demanding task at a single time*. In fact, researchers have found that you make 20% more mistakes in your work when you engage in multi-tasking while completing projects. Not only will the task (e.g., writing your AP English paper) take significantly longer, you are likely to cause many more errors than if you simply stopped texting while completing your work (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013).

Moral of the story: no matter how well you know the words to Lemonade, when someone pulls out in front of you on your way to the grocery store, your first instinct (besides slamming on the brakes) is to turn down the dial and re-focus on the task ahead of you. Literally.

So why is multi-tasking important when talking about gaming, especially when many games require you to keep many pieces of information in your mind at one time such as how many iron ore’s you need to craft armor while simultaneously watching out for the Enderman? And how is this related to why games may be more engaging than in –class learning? To answer the first question simply: in gaming you are playing with a singular focus. Each move you make or item you craft is propelling you towards your goal (building armor, fighting off an Enderman). The second is a bit trickier. To fully answer this question we need to look to the next theory that you may have heard about: flow.

You’ve likely heard of the theory of flow, the state where you are so deeply engaged in a task that you lose track of time? First presented by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: Me-Hai Cheek-sent-me-hai), flow is simply the idea of a highly focused mental state, one in which you disregard external stimuli and focus deeply on the activity in front of you. In this day and age we see flow show up in a lot of places where our children spend time; I’ll let you guess which placees I’m thinking of specifically here.

Flow is the antidote to multi-tasking. Classroom teachers who are masters at engaging our children would likely cultivate more flow states if they were not held accountable to ringing bells, rotating classes, and external pressures. These pressures are what cause us to juggle many tasks at one time in an effort to complete more work in less time. But that’s for another post. 

So why even talk about multi-tasking at all when flow is clearly the winner of the cognitive race? Simple: because the nature of classroom learning is group-based and predicated on a series of steps completed by each learner, necessitating a multi-tasking room moving at different speeds as learners work to meet classroom learning goals. 

Game based learning harnesses the power of self-directed learning at the player's own pace opening the door to a true flow state. In this way, games for learning have the potential to capture a learner’s attention while meeting learners in a place where they are not under or over challenged and are instead challenged in the ‘just right’ way in order to continue exploration and inquiry. Herein lies the beauty of games for learning, and of course our little learning game called Killer Snails: Assassins of the Sea. Not only are students met with engaging and accurate content, they are learning in their own time and practicing their knowledge with every move they make and every decision they enact. While our game focuses on scientific inquiry in the pursuit of venomous peptides whose biomedical application may save a life, other games focus on equally compelling content and harness the power of flow to ensure deep learning and engagement of players. 

So next time someone compliments you on your multi-tasking remember to tell them, “Thanks! I’m actually serial single tasking, but if you want to be super impressed watch me easily win a game of Killer Snails: Assassins of the Sea when I’m really in the flow.”

Stay tuned for our next posts where we’ll continue to go through some theories of knowledge acquisition and talk about how they apply to game based learning. And if you have a question for the educational psychologist, please ask away at!

 *With the exception of tasks that are automated (e.g., walking and chewing gum).


Admiraal, W., Huizenga, J., Akkerman, S., & Ten Dam, G. (2011). The concept of flow in collaborative game-based learning. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(3), 1185-1194.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.

Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational psychologist, 48(3), 169-183.

Sullivan, B., & Thompson, H. (2013). Brain, Interrupted. New York Times