It’s Only Fun When You Ain’t Learning

Fun with delinquency in Rockstar's Bully

Out of the UK comes a fantasy role playing game that cost twice what a typical high-end title (like Gears of War) does to develop. So, the selling point is top-notch production values and seriously epic story, right? Not so much. The big deal with this game is that it was designed to teach literacy and math skills to kids. Before you get into that “Games and learning? Blech!” look on your face, stick with me a minute.

At the recent Games for Change Salon at Parsons, I talked to many people who were psyched about serious games, but I also heard from a surprising number of folks who weren’t. The unimpressed said things like: “the more learning you put in a game, the less fun it is.” It’s really not an unreasonable position considering how many examples support the argument (and how few don’t). Raph Koster puts it like this:

Games work best at teaching when the challenges are organic to the experience, rather than out of left field. This is why so many educational games suck — just strapping an incentive structure on rote practice doesn’t work very well, compared to instead building a long-term goal structure, and then presenting challenges on the way. The “fill the hold” example works because the students have a goal that isn’t learning. I think this is the fundamental error many educators make — they think that everyone finds learning for learning’s sake to be engaging.
The path for educational games is to start with something that users care about, and just take care to select a goal that naturally offers up the sorts of challenges that we want to teach.

But isn’t that also the fundamental problem? Creating fun game challenges that naturally convey specific (and significant) educational content ain’t easy. That’s because, while some content is fairly easy to teach through in-game challenges (solving logic puzzles being a particularly popular example), others are much harder. How would we make learning the parts of speech fun, for instance? Surely it’s possible, but finding that perfect game element it fits naturally with might take some work.

And this brings out a central challenge for the serious games community: game design is an art. It’s really hard enough to design a game that’s “merely” fun without having to service particular learning goals as well. Doing both is a daunting task and likely explains why more serious games don’t come from the traditional game industry. Fortunately, that’s changing. Nintendo’s Brain Age has been huge, Square’s chief strategist is keynoting this year’s Serious Games Summit, and I’m sure there’s more just over the horizon.

It’s encouraging to see these heavy hitters interested in making learning a central aspect of new games. As the industry grows, diversification becomes an increasingly important survival strategy. And diversity keeps the games interesting, too. Imagine that. If diversity is essential, could it be that some significant part of the the future of games hinges on making them educational? How’d that be for turning the tables?

8 Responses to “It’s Only Fun When You Ain’t Learning”

  1. 1 Tony Forster

    You describe yourself as a student of Amy Bruckman’s who was a student of Mitch Resnick.

    This is a pedigree to be proud of. Mitch has been involved with Programmable Bricks, Scratch and Star Logo.

    Mitch’s work supports the idea that the learning opportunities in creating your own games equal or exceed that in playing games. It can be fun when you are learning, ask any student who has created their own game. Haileybury
    computer club etrain conference

    Tony Forster,
    ASISTM Computer Game Design, Programming, Multimedia and Mathematics Cluster.
    1405 Wellington Rd. Narre Warren East Vic 3804 Australia
    Phone +61 3 9796 8161
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  2. 2 Alan Au

    To put a slightly different spin on things, I like to assert that “It’s only work if you have to do it.” The key distinction lies not in the content but the motivation and underlying social factors that drive the user experience. One of the difficulties with traditional games is that, given the choice between education and entertainment, entertainment wins.

    The irony is that the entertainment aspect is the key to inspiring interest. Consider that you can make anything un-fun by mandating it and forcing it upon learners. Certainly content is a step in the right direction, but I would extend a word of caution to those who are looking for a purely technical solution.

    To this end, Brain Age is actually a very odd example; it’s proof that “skill and drill” doesn’t have to be a dry experience, and it supports the idea that there’s something beyond just “content” at work here. To steal some phraseology from Fred Brooks, it’s more about providing sharp tools than it is about finding silver bullets.

  3. 3 Richard Canfield

    Who’s to say someone can’t have fun while learning?

    Throughout schooling, education becomes forced upon us. But as we should all know, the real education is that which we find for ourselves.

    The whole point about a game being a great educational tool, is that it allows you to explore and experiment in a virtual environment. If you’re going to learn something, you find that on your own. And that’s where it becomes challenging for developers. They actually have to use their head and this thing we need more of: creativity.

    Then we can see the fusion between education and entertainment. An entertaining story can teach us morals and lessons. Call it non-fiction and it can teach us history. Put real world physics and it can teach us about science.

  4. 4 Michael Lockhart

    I think it might be most accurate to say, “People who design educational games aren’t as fun as people who design games for entertainment.” No, they’re generally fun, but they don’t always communicate fun in their creations. If the dominant mindset behind a game is, “How do we drill this person in skills someone has arbitrarily decided they need to learn” the game just isn’t going to be fun. If the mindset is, “How do we make it incredibly fun to kill the SAT” different things may be possible. It’s one thing to be forced to learn something that has no discernible connection to reality, a whole other thing to learn abstract patterns in a series of tests that lead to progressive rewards, patterns that happen to tie in with those skills you’re supposed to be learning to appease the gatekeepers of the dominant culture.

    The answer is to establish groups and networks with more variety in membership, a mixture of techies, teachers and entertainers. If it’s just gamers, they’ll design games that may be fun but not educational (or not recognized as such). If it’s just teachers, the games may be too “drill and kill” oriented. The question on my mind is, why do groups with that kind of diversity and chemistry not arise spontaneously more often?


  5. 5 Jackie Stevens

    As someone working on a collaborative project to build a game that provokes thought and is non-commercial–okay, we’re accused of being serious–I find these exchanges a little bit frustrating. Happily, Raph Koster is interesting enough to contradict himself. In his book he offers a pretty terrific, broad definition of a game. To paraphrase: games are the process of mastering skills at levels that are not too hard (frustrating) or too easy (boring). According to this definition, people who enjoy education by reading theory texts find this a sort of game–for example to connect grand ideas in one place of a book to hints about an apparently unrelated topic elsewhere, and to put these pieces together to discover new patterns and meanings.

    I also think that a lot of people who enjoy “reading games” would find it a form of torture to have to play Doom for a day instead of curling up with a copy of a book by Freud. So the important difference in whether users experience their narrative engagements as pleasurable is not specific to whether they are playing a game and it is not specific to the content. In other words, some people like some games and some people like other games. Seems easy enough, except…

    The games for fun/entertainment crowd struts around with a mass-culture swagger that seems to be based on little evidence. It indicates more about the hegemony of consumerism and capitalist values–i.e., a product with market appeal must be valuable–and tells me little about the actual value the public places on these games. Grand Auto Theft gives users great pleasure, to be sure, but many other serious virtual, immersive experiences do as well. The absolute numbers of people playing these games seems impressive, but the relative numbers raise questions about the so-called association between entertainment and engagement. For instance, what about all the time people spend blogging, or using Google/maps and search engines for questions that would be “fun” to answer online and work if one had to schlep to the library, or producing open source material, either as computer code, wiki-pages, or personal websites with information? I guess what I would like to see is more balance in the presentation of spokespersons of “the masses,” and more attention to the variation in our interests, as well as their flexibility.

  6. 6 Jason

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks. This is great!

    Tony: Thanks for the pointers and the kind words about my background. I’m familiar with Mitch’s work and I agree that the projects you mention are great examples of artifacts that afford deep learning. To my mind, the key thing is that each of those projects required a lot of work to develop. My point really is that building something that’s fun to play with is hard enough without having to serve particular curricular goals on top of it. To do both requires a diverse set of expertise and maybe a little luck. Are there ways to up your luck quotient? Now that’s something I’m interested in exploring.

    Alan: I was trying to figure out how to think about motivation in and outside the classroom so thanks for providing that. I’ve actually been thinking about it the opposite way of late: that the bar for games that will engage kids in the classroom is likely lower than that for kids in their free time. For instance, I imagine the UK game I mention at the beginning of the post might not be as much fun to play as many commercial offerings, but it might be considerably more interesting to kids than the “standard” instructional approaches. So, to some degree, the Hawthorne Effect may be at play. And I think that ties right in to your comment about sharp tools rather than silver bullets.

    Richard: Interesting points. As you might guess from my background, I’m a big fan of empowering the learner. The thing about many games that allow more open-ended “teach yourself” exploration in virtual environments is that it’s entirely possible for each player to come away learning something different, perhaps focused in their interests. That’s great for learning outside school but in-school, where students are expected to develop knowledge in their interest areas as well as areas they couldn’t care less about, it becomes more complex. Can games help us think about a middle-ground between open exploration and rote monotony? I wonder…

    Michael: I really like your idea about diversifying the teams that do game design. That’s something I tackled from the point of view of race recently, but I think it’s exciting to think about diversity in training as well — particularly including folks with more of an education background in game design.

    Jackie: Your discussion of the potential new domains for gaming is intriguing. I’ve heard a few industry notables (like Lorne Lanning) say recently that they worry about social software (myspace, blogging, im, etc.) stealing away their audience. Still, I do think that not all educational software nor social software nor games are fun. To my mind, the question is: how do we find experiences in those spaces that are fun for a reasonably large group of people and capitalize on them?

  7. 7 David Zuckerman

    I think that the satisfactions of life (beyond the fundamental hierarchy of needs) are not “entertainment” but making something (and making something happen); and below that, the deeper satisfaction of feeling the growing competence you’re gaining at whatever you’re making. If the resulting creations have no inherent value to others, the making is called “playing games;” if there is inherent value the making is called “work” or “learning;” but the underlying satisfactions are much the same.

    So “educational games” says it wrong. The problem becomes one of creating a context for chosen “making” (thus satisfying growth in competence) in which the making calls for greater academic learning. That’s what Eliott Wiggenton did with the Foxfire Magazine — and the kids learned.

    There the happy news ends and the problems begin.

  8. 8 Jason

    David, thanks for the thoughtful characterization of fun. Funny coincidence: my PhD work actually built on some of the ideas from Foxfire. I’ve read Eliott’s book, get their newsletter, and even went out to visit them once. Small world!

    I have to agree that one can derive satisfaction from many things and the fact that only a small subset of them seem to fall in the cherished “game” category can be a bit frustrating. Kids certainly did enjoy interviewing elders online when they participated in my thesis project but it would be hard to call that a game.

    When I think about it, my goals in creating serious games remain much the same now as they did for that project. I want to find ways to make people think, to change their attitudes and how they look at the world. And I do think the game form has something unique to offer to that, be it through engagement, immersion, or something else. Exactly what, I’m still trying to work out — through posts like this.

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