Vygotsky, Cognitive Flow and Gameplay

Joe Norden Education

Considered one of the most innovative of the great educational theorists, Lev Vygotsky’s insight into the learning process has contributed to numerous breakthroughs in educational theory and practice. Even now, nearly 100 years later, his work still shapes how we use cognitive flow to convey lessons in video games.

In the 1920’s Vigotsky developed the theoretical concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). According to the theory, a student is ready to take the next step in mastering a task, but does so with the assistance of a more skilled helper.

Like a child learning to ride a bicycle, the ZPD is similar to the assistance of training wheels being slowly removed in favor of a increased difficulty which helps the student master the skill. Without the training wheels, the student may fall numerous times and perhaps give-up on learning to ride a bicycle.

Today, we refer to this concept as “Scaffolding Difficulty” – a term coined by Jerome Bruner in a 1970’s study which built on Vygotsky’s concept of the ZPD – or “Cognitive Flow.” It represents a real-time, ongoing equivalent of the scaffolding journey through the ZPD; that is, an ideal state of mind for gaining the next level of mastery.

flow-infographic-01Cognitive flow in a game requires players to be focused, in control, and in a “groove” of sorts. For effective gameplay, certain prerequisites need to be met in order to maintain a high level of engagement:

  1. Concrete Goals
  2. Manageable Rules
  3. Tasks Tailored to Players’ Capabilities
  4. Clear and Timely Feedback
  5. Freedom from Distraction

Utilizing these five criteria, Puzzlets offers unique game experiences that constantly reproduce cognitive flow opportunities for its players. As a result, children who learn with Puzzlets are highly engaged in the game and are in the desired zone of learning. The game’s consistent goals, rules, manageable tasks, and timely feedback (such as hints for those who fail repeatedly to pass a level), create the conditions in which cognitive flow can occur – not to mention an engaging and fun play experience for children.

One important thing that Lev Vygotsky understood well, but which most of us adults often lose sight of, is that children’s “work” is play.  It’s the natural process through which they learn new things. With Puzzlets, children can truly learn through play – which is ideally how they would learn and master any skill. For kids, Puzzlets represents the best of two worlds: learning valuable skills and having fun!