The Natural Fun of Learning

Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design examines games and what makes them fun. He’d better know; Raph is the Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment. He designs massively multiplayer games. If you haven’t played one, these are the online virtual worlds that can have tens or hundreds of thousands of players, and they are very expensive to build. It’s the kind of undertaking that rarely allows second chances.

A Theory of Fun for Game Design is a cleverly illustrated, easy-to-read book with lots of good ideas about what makes games fun. It’s well worth a quick read and provides many ideas for exploration. But let’s jump to what is probably the most important statement in the book, on page 40:

Fun is all about our brains feeling good — the release of endorphins into our system. The various cocktails of chemicals released in different ways are basically all the same. Science has shown that the pleasurable chills that we get down the spine after exceptionally powerful music or a really great book are caused by the same sorts of chemicals we get when we have cocaine, an orgasm, or chocolate. Basically, our brains are on drugs pretty much all the time.

One of the subtlest releases of chemicals is at that moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task. This almost always causes us to break out into a smile. After all, it is important to the survival of the species that we learn — therefore our bodies reward us for it with moments of pleasure. There are many ways we find fun in games, and I will talk about the others. But this is the most important.

Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.

In other words, with games, learning is the drug.

The italics are ours, and that last sentence should be seriously considered by anyone who ever worried that videogames keep kids from their homework. If Raph is right, that’s because there’s more learning going on in videogames than an evening of homework!

To go further, if learning is the essence of fun in videogames, why do so many people dislike their own learning experiences? Perhaps it’s because they are doing it (or having it done to them) the wrong way. Here are a few of our thoughts about learning and fun:

This is not just about using computers for learning: when educational software mimics the above techniques, kids avoid that too — because it’s not fun!

Skepticism about games comes from a fundamental belief held by many teachers and parents. The belief is that our human nature is to want things that are bad for us. It’s been the conventional wisdom in the western world for thousands of years. But science suggests that the opposite is sometimes true: competition and natural selection have developed and strengthened our tendencies to naturally want the thing that brought success to our ancestors — learning.

The proof is in the practice of the successful, and millions of successful students and teachers have found it. The way to succeed at learning is to make a game of it!

There’s another statement in Raph’s book that’s worth noting:

Since they [games] are about teaching underlying patterns, they train their players to ignore the fiction that wraps the patterns. (A Theory of Fun for Game Design, p. 80)

Raph claims that game players see past the context of their games to find the underlying system that they are playing. This is a basic skill of critical thinking: to see past superficial outward statements to recognize underlying realities. It’s why “do as I say, not as I do” instruction doesn’t work. But it’s dangerous to let this skill out of the bag: when students start asking “why do I need to learn this?”, we must be ready with a better answer than “because I say so”. On one hand, games can motivate learning by presenting students with challenges that call them to learn, but on another, students who play games have a lot of experience learning which buttons to push and which signals deserve their attention. And some of those buttons and signals belong to their teachers and parents!

Successful learners approach learning as a game, and games can provide skills and experiences that teach. When fun is taken seriously in learning, learning can be seriously fun.

This is math-mom.com, the website built on our belief that learning is naturally fun. With the right expectation and approach, anyone can enjoy learning. But since each of us is unique, we each must find our own best way to learn. We know that we have found our way when learning is fun.

Here you will find books, products, and ideas that our family has used to make learning fun for each one of us. We hope that it encourages you to find your own way to have the fun of learning.