PLAY: The Four Letter Word in Learning Games?

As I have made my transition from the game industry into learning, one of the things that has been most interesting, and bemusing, to me is the hand-wavy song-and-dance that goes on around discussion of games in this business.  Watching webinars and reading what the best and brightest have to say about games and learning, I keep encountering the same elephant sitting in every living room: fun.  PLAY.  Play is a concept at the heart of what makes a game a game, and folks seem willing to go to pretty extraordinary lengths to avoid mentioning it, let alone devoting time to a serious discussion of it. Play as a term in learning game discussions is permissible, but only if it’s heavily diluted.

Now, of course, you’re saying to yourself, “he’s biased.  He’s used to working on games with super heroes swinging around.  That’s not we do.  This is Serious Business.”  And you’re right.  To a point.  I am biased.  And clearly in this industry we have to keep an eye on whether the games we make are achieving their intended function of teaching.  But my bias toward fun isn’t at odds with that.  Every game teaches.  And fun enhances rather than detracting from that learning.  Humans’ brains are hungry to learn, and (as Raph Koster so eloquently argues in “A Theory of Fun for Game Design”) they reward us for feeding them.  That reward is the pleasurable feeling we call “fun.”

The fact is that, while every game teaches, most of the lessons they teach have very little application to our day-to-day lives.  Most of us have pretty limited need for high-accuracy hand-eye coordination (although surgeons do).  And most of us don’t need to do moment-to-moment tactical decision making (although soldiers do).  And, let’s be honest, the need to carefully measure spatial relationships to jump over things just doesn’t seem to come up much.  So, the games we play for entertainment currently have ended up (mostly) not being that relevant to the activities we engage in during other parts of our lives.  Hence the notion that games are frivolous.

And that brings us to learning games.  We recognize that games are useful for teaching and we want to harness that utility, but there’s a resistance on the part of some people — a sense that if their learners are having too much fun, they aren’t actually learning.  That games are a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down at best and candy at worst. So we talk about the games we make being “serious.”  “Oh, they’re not like THOSE games.  Our games actually teach something.”  But regardless of whether the games we play are for entertainment or work, and regardless of whether they are teaching us useful things, they are teaching us things.  They ARE the medicine.  So this is the crux of the issue: if every game teaches, and a fun game is actually teaching more effectively, what we’re left with is to design fun games that teach things with real world application.  I readily acknowledge that no matter how good I may be at rescuing princesses, chances are it isn’t going to help me fill out TPS reports, but the game I make to teach vital TPS-filling-out skills shouldn’t be a serious game.  It should be a GOOD game.

So that’s our challenge.  While we are making good games that are fun and correspond to the learning objectives we’ve laid out, those of us at the pointy tip of the spear that is games in the learning space have a second (but not secondary) purpose: educating both educators and learners that fun is not the same as frivolous.  And that starts by agreeing that fun is a desirable, in fact NECESSARY part of the equation that makes games work as learning tools.  We need to talk about fun when we’re talking about new projects.  We need to stop couching our language in euphemisms like “engagement” or even “entertainment.”  What do you do with a game?  You don’t just “interact” with it.  You play it.  You have fun with it.  And that’s OK.  So let’s make a deal: let’s never talk about “serious” games again.  Let’s just make great games and design them to do what they’re supposed to do: teach.