It's hard, and that's why (and how) we succeed (which is a lot of fun)
for the National Conversation on Games
James Paul Gee, and others, have done a great job showing the relationship between games and learning. And Gee has codified thirty-six learning principles associated with games, which help illustrate how a well-designed game teaches us how to play it through rhythmic, repeating structures that enable a player to master the gameplay mechanics.
Even so, the thoughtful work in the field is frequently simplified into talk around games and learning focused on how games can help make learning more fun. Often, a well-designed learning game is described as having covert learning, where kids don't even realize they're learning because they're having so much fun.
I'd like to flip this idea. Instead of focusing on fun, let's look at how both games and learning can be hard. In fact, games can be challenging to the point of frustration (along with broken controllers even) and the fun we have with them has a half-life as we play them. Eventually a game isn't as fun anymore, as we reach a point where we've finally played it enough. Also, games aren't fun if they're too simple and we quit because we're bored, or too complex and we quit because we're frustrated. The trick is that a good game keeps us pleasantly frustrated.
Csikszentmihalyi's notion of flow, in which a person achieves an optimal experience with a high degree of focus and enjoyment, is an apt method for discussing this pleasantly frustrating experience. We're in a flow state as we enjoy the challenges and feel rewarded as the game's increasing difficulty matches our increasing mastery of the gameplay, and vice-versa.
I believe games help to enable an experience of flow not by being fun, but by being well-designed in how they challenge a player. Similarly, I think learning is comparably challenging. In both cases, I find it enlightening to consider three things in relation to creating motivating challenges; failure, doubt and curiosity.
In terms of failure, this is crucial to both games and learning. We all know that we learn some of our most valuable and important lessons from our failures, and develop the grit to bounce back and try again. But failure isn't necessarily encouraged in educational settings. Instead, we're mostly rewarded for getting things right. Granted, games also reward players for getting things right, but they do so by allowing players to make mistakes, to experiment and fail on our way to getting it right. Games reward players for trying different things, pushing at the system of the game, and succeeding as we figure things out.
This leads me to thinking about doubt. How we have to work to understand, and how it's an on-going process and journey, where the journey is as important (or even more important) than the destination. This is true in both games and learning, but again educational settings don't often encourage uncertainty and doubt, while a good game requires that we question our strategies and try something different. I'm reminded of the Chinese Proverb, "To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous." Games challenge us to look anew and try again.
As such, games reward our curiosity. As we tackle the challenges in the game, we're engaging in problem-based learning, pushing at the system of the game to figure it out. Now, I'm not saying that educational settings just squash curiosity (although some might), but games encourage it to a great degree. As players gain a mastery of playing games, we begin to push at the boundaries of games. Constance Steinkuehler has noted how players engage in the scientific method to test out their various ideas and see which ones work the best.
And we find bugs, loopholes and easter eggs, and we can share our discoveries through extensive walkthroughs, FAQs and even mods of games. From a certain perspective this could be considered a form of cheating, which isn't necessarily rewarded in educational settings, but from another perspective this is a form of literacy and mastery. Players not only rise to the challenge of playing games, we begin to design and develop our own games, which is a whole new level of challenge, difficulty and reward.
As the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, I've helped to develop a graduate program that challenges our students to create engaging experiences through entertainment technologies, and one important facet of this is to consider the design and development of learning games. We do this by giving our students clear constraints to help provide a context within which they can focus their creativity.
This is one of the many reasons why teachers are so important in the learning process. Teachers provide the context within which kids learn, shaping the challenges, and helping them make connections across topics to best transfer their mastery into a literacy of learning.
Randy Pausch used to say that the ETC was the world's best playground (with an electric fence). In other words, creativity needs constraints, the extraordinary needs boundaries. This way, our students can fail their way to the right idea. We encourage them to engage in iterative rapid-prototyping, where they come up with a lot of ideas that they test out through the design process, winnowing out the failures to find the successes. Like a game, we even reward the best failures, as they help us learn what works even better.
Similarly, I believe that a good learning game is explicit about its constraints and learning goals and uses its gameplay mechanics to help engage and motivate players to rise to the challenges of a game, trying again when they fail, and developing a mastery through a well-designed and scaffolded challenge and reward cycle. This occurs because a game is hard, and the fun is found through tackling the challenges and gaining a sense of accomplishment as we develop a literacy and mastery of the experience.
And this can't be done through gamification. We can't just gamify learning; adding badges, levels, achievements and rewards. That's focusing on making it "fun". Instead we should focus on the challenges of learning, and how to increase the difficulty to match our mastery and motivate us to succeed. And we will be rewarded through our accomplishments of meeting and exceeding the challenges and developing our literacy.
So, instead of focusing on the fun of games, we should look at how they're challenging. Learning is also a challenging experience, the trick in both cases is to help make it a pleasantly frustrating one like Alan Kay's notion of "hard fun" where we enjoy the challenge. Our sense of accomplishment is a hard fun that we earn as the increasing difficulty matches our increasing literacy and mastery. Games are hard, learning is hard, but players and learners will rise to the challenge and have fun as they succeed.