Monday, December 24, 2007

What Teachers Need to Know about Game Design (Part 1 of 2)

This is a summary of my talk at Origins this year. (Okay, I'm a bit late.) This information is targeted at teachers, although students may find it interesting as well because it explains why you'd rather play World of Warcraft than do your homework.

Games are fun. Most classes are not. You may notice students sitting at the back of your lecture hall playing with their DS rather than paying attention. It's worth asking the question: what does that silly little video game have that the lecturer doesn't? After all, it's just a game, but this class is important. Why shouldn't the lecture be getting students' undivided attention? And more importantly -- is there anything we can do as educators to change that?

To answer these questions, we first start by asking what makes games fun (and what makes classes less fun).

What makes games fun?
  • Well, if we knew that, we wouldn't be a "hit-driven" industry (a nice way of saying that 90% of commercial games lose money). Still, the game development community has a better understanding of this than the teaching community, and there are a few useful theories that most game designers are familiar with. What follows is a small sample of a much greater body of work.
  • Csikszentmihalyi's theory of "flow": you get deeply engaged in a task (any task, including "work") when it provides a challenge in line with your skills. Too hard and it's frustrating, too easy and it's boring... but if it's just right, it's magic.
  • Corollary: as you perform a task more, your skills improve. If the task stays the same, you will eventually become bored. The tasks that keep you in the flow longer are those that increase in difficulty.
  • Raph Koster's Theory of Fun: Games are fun because they're really good at keeping the player in the flow. Also, flow is fun because you're learning. (You may or may not be learning useful things from playing games, but you are learning something, and the brain finds that pleasurable.)
  • Noah Falstein's Natural Funativity: Learning is probably fun because it's evolutionarily beneficial. The things that helped our ancestors when they lived in caves and trees are the same kinds of things that we find "fun" today.
  • LeBlanc et al's MDA Framework: The word "fun" is not terribly useful because it isn't descriptive, and doesn't suggest how you create it. There are actually many kinds of fun: exploration, physical sensation, social experience, competition, advancement, collection, puzzle solving, and many others. These are all present to greater or lesser degrees in games; we're talking about a continuum, not a binary either/or composition of fun.
  • Note that all of these kinds of fun can be traced back to hunter/gatherer survival skills. Social skills are important because we can work together to hunt animals that are too large or powerful for a single one of us. Exploration is important so that we can have larger areas of territory to find food in. Collection is simply the "gatherer" half of hunter/gatherer.

If learning is the source of fun, then, it actually seems strange that classroom lectures aren't inherently engaging. I believe the reason for the disconnect is that lectures are so far removed from the kinds of "learning" that ancient humans had to do for survival, that it does not trigger our play-instinct. Our pedagogy has outpaced our biological evolution.

Now you know the basics of what fun is and where it comes from. Next time I'll talk about how to apply this knowledge directly to the classroom. In the mean time, think about it yourself...

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