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Joy in Learning and Playing Games
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…
(William Shakespeare, As You Like It)
All the world’s a game,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And each person in their time plays many games.
(David Moursund, adapted from
Imagine that you are a parent with a grade school child. You have a
very strange dream. In this dream you hear your child saying:
“Can I go play now? I want to go do my
homework, practice on the guitar, and read the book I just checked out
from the school library.”
In this dream you hear yourself replying in a stern voice:
“No, you may not go play right now. You
haven’t finished responding to all of your Facebook messages, and you
didn’t post a selfie yesterday or today. Also, you need to post at
least six more Tweets and Instagrams today—remember our rule about a
daily dozen! And you need to spend at least 15 minutes more on
Minecraft. You are falling behind what the teacher and I are expecting
of you.” (Moursund, 2014a).
Did you wince or get a chuckle out of that dream scenario? It presents
a reversal of what we usually call schooling and recreational
activities. I like to think about whether our current schooling system
might be improved by a partial reversal.
People play games because they get pleasure and happiness out of doing
so. This pleasure and happiness serves as intrinsic motivation,
and it leads to wanting to continue playing. Game research and
development teams know a lot about developing games with the
characteristics that tap into intrinsic motivation.
Significant progress is being made in developing games that are
educationally sound and can make important contributions to the
education of children and adults of all ages. This IAE Newsletter provides a brief
introduction to the use of intrinsically motivating games in education.
Through informal or formal study and practice, a person can
become more skilled at playing a particular game. Moreover, there may
be considerable transfer of learning from one game to another of a
somewhat similar type. With appropriate instruction considerable
transfer of learning may occur to non-gaming topics such as learning to
learn, metacognition, problem solving, planning ahead, anticipating the
consequences of actions you are thinking about taking, and other topics
in the school curriculum.
Our world’s entertainment industry is spending large sums on research
and development to produce and distribute games that are increasingly
“gripping”—might we even say, “addictive”? Electronic games are
now a routine part of the lives of a significant portion of the
population of the world. In the U.S, and many other countries,
computerized games consume a significant amount of their players’ time.
Many students experience a time-competition among school and homework,
computer games, computerized social networking, other use of waking
hours, and sleep time. Over the course of a year, many students now
spend as many or more hours playing computer games and participating in
computer-based social networking and other “fun” telecommunication
activities as they spend in school and doing homework.
Our educational system is well aware of this competition for students’
time and attention. One proposed solution is to develop educational
computer games and social networking activities that are gripping and
pleasurable, but are suitable to be used as a routine component of
schooling. Considerable research and development efforts are being made
in this endeavor, and certainly with some successes.
What Is a Game?
The literature about games tends to agree that a game has:
one or more goals;
a feedback system useful in measuring and improving one’s level
of performance; and
We all talk about “playing a game,” and we may have trouble
distinguishing between just plain “playing” and “playing a game”. For
very young children, play is spontaneous and not done in a rules-based
environment. Young children develop their personal patterns of play.
One might think of such personal patterns being types of game playing
in which they invent their own rules and goals (Sylwester, November,
Here is a somewhat facetious but often-quoted statement about game
Playing a game is the voluntary attempt
to overcome unnecessary obstacles. (Bernard Suits; Canadian
If you are not a golfer, you might agree that this statement describes
golf. However, it misses the point of the social interactions and
exercise experienced by a group of friends playing golf together.
A key aspect of games is that players are intrinsically motivated to
learn and play the game. They play voluntarily and they gain pleasure
in doing so. Compare this with the way that many students experience
the “ordinary” school curriculum.
Broadening the Definition of Games
As I think about the definition of game
given above, it seems clear to me that social networking (Facebook,
Instagram, Snapchat, Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.) texting,
instant messaging, and other versions of computer-based communication
are often used as a game-like type of recreation.
Of course, it takes some stretching of the traditional definition of a
game to make them fit. For example, different “players” tend to make
their own goals and rules. However, with this broadened definition we
can understand why traditional schooling and homework are having so
much trouble competing with student engagement in games.
Next, what about computer-assisted instruction? Two relatively obvious
potential values of well-designed computer-assisted instruction are:
Computer simulations can create learning environments that are
quite game-like in nature, but that are specifically designed for
teaching and learning. Consider driver education, pilot training,
astronaut training, and many other computer simulations that are
sufficiently good to now be routinely used for educational purposes.
In many situations, the computer-as-tool is also a computer tutor
that teaches one to use the tool. This is a steadily increasing aspect
of computerized tools (Moursund, September, 2014).
Finally, consider the roles of computers in computer graphics,
animation, filmmaking, and 3-D printing. Such use of computer
technology empowers students by integrating learning and doing in a
game-like activity that students find intrinsically motivating. We
especially see this in graphics-oriented programming languages
(Intersimon, 11/23/2009). Children learning and using a programming
language such as MIT’s Squeak become immersed in a programming
environment that facilitates them joyfully learning to create products
(programs) that they feel proud of and enjoy sharing with others. Often
students use these learner-oriented programming languages to develop
games and animated stories.
My point is that there is no fine dividing line between what
constitutes intrinsically motivating and fun games designed strictly
for entertainment and joy, and those that have considerable educational
value. I include both in my definition of game.
In brief summary, games help to create environments in which the
participants are empowered and voluntarily participate in activities
that develop their mental, physical, and (often) social skills.
Some Goals for Educational Uses of Games
Here is a short list of possible goals for making educational uses of
games in a classroom setting (Moursund, in press).
To help students learn more about themselves in areas such as:
Learning to learn and understanding how concentrated,
reflective effort over time leads to an increasing level of expertise.
Learning about one’s cooperative versus independent versus
competitive inclinations both in learning and in demonstrating or using
Learning about oneself as a giver of feedback to others and as
a receiver of feedback from others. This includes learning to complete
and to make use of both self-assessment and peer assessment.
To help students better understand problem-solving strategies and
to increase their repertoire of and use of problem-solving strategies.
Learning about low-road (essentially, rote memory) and
high-road transfer of learning, especially as they apply to problem
solving. Low-road transfer of learning tends to be based on rote memory
applied to routinely occurring and nearly identical problem situations
such as tying one’s shoes. High road transfer involves: cognitive
understanding; purposeful and conscious analysis; mindfulness; and
application of strategies that cut across disciplines (Moursund, 2014b).
Learning how to recognize/identify a problem-solving strategy
and explore its possible use across many different problem domains.
Learning how to do high-road transfer of learning of
problem-solving strategies that cut across many domains.
Increasing fluency in making effective use of one’s repertoire
of domain-independent problem-solving strategies.
To help students learn some games and increase their
understanding of historical and current roles of games and game playing
in our society. This includes:
Learning games as an aid to social interaction in small and
Learning games as part of the culture and history of a family
Learning games as environments that facilitate communication,
collaboration, and peer instruction.
Learning games as an aid to understanding one’s personal
competitive, collaborative, and non-competitive natures.
Learning how to help other people learn a new game. (Think of
the idea that every student plays both learning and teaching roles in
Computer technology is now a routine and pervasive aspect of our
lives. For some reason, our educational system is having trouble
accepting this situation and fully accommodating it in terms of
curriculum content, teaching processes, and assessment. The very word game brings condemnation from many
who think that use of games degrades education.
In this newsletter I have used a definition of game that is far broader
than is conventionally used. You may not believe that “All the world’s
a stage” or that “All the world’s a game.” However, I am sure you
realize that computers, including computer games, have greatly changed
our world and have become routine parts of the lives of a great many
students of all ages.
Researchers in the theory and development of intrinsically motivating
games have provided our educational system both with a great challenge
and with great opportunities. I believe that our educational system can
become considerably more successful if all of us work together to
identify and address needed changes being brought on by computer
technology and computer games.
The next newsletter in this series discusses intrinsic and extrinsic
motivation and some of the joys in game playing.
References and Resources
David Moursund is an
Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and
co-editor of the IAE Newsletter.
His professional career includes founding the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive
officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books. In 2007,
Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free
online educational materials via its IAE-pedia,
IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
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