Information Age Education
   Issue Number 176
December, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Joy in Learning and Playing Games

David Moursund
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 Shakespeare)

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.

Some Background Information

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:
  1. one or more goals;

  2. rules;

  3. a feedback system useful in measuring and improving one’s level of performance; and

  4. voluntary participation.
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, 2015).

Here is a somewhat facetious but often-quoted statement about game playing:

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. (Bernard Suits; Canadian philosopher; 1925-2007.)

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:
  1. 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.

  2. 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).
  1. To help students learn more about themselves in areas such as:

    1. Learning to learn and understanding how concentrated, reflective effort over time leads to an increasing level of expertise.

    2. Learning about one’s cooperative versus independent versus competitive inclinations both in learning and in demonstrating or using one’s learning.

    3. 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.
  1. To help students better understand problem-solving strategies and to increase their repertoire of and use of problem-solving strategies. This includes:

    1. 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).

    2. Learning how to recognize/identify a problem-solving strategy and explore its possible use across many different problem domains.

    3. Learning how to do high-road transfer of learning of problem-solving strategies that cut across many domains.

    4. Increasing fluency in making effective use of one’s repertoire of domain-independent problem-solving strategies.
  1. 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:

    1. Learning games as an aid to social interaction in small and large groups.

    2. Learning games as part of the culture and history of a family or community.

    3. Learning games as environments that facilitate communication, collaboration, and peer instruction.

    4. Learning games as an aid to understanding one’s personal competitive, collaborative, and non-competitive natures.

    5. Learning how to help other people learn a new game. (Think of the idea that every student plays both learning and teaching roles in life.)

Final Remarks

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

Intersimon, D. (11/23/2009). Scratch, Squeak, Alice, and Go—programming for kids, adults, and everyone else. Retrieved 12/17/2015 from

McGonigal, J. (February, 2010). Gaming can make a better world. (Video. 20:03.) TED Talks. Retrieved 12/15/2015 from

Moursund, D. (in press). Learning problem-solving strategies through the use of games: A guide for teachers and parents. Expected publication in January, 2016. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education.

Moursund, D. (2015). Goals of education in the United States. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 12/15/2015 from

Moursund, D. (2014a). Can I go play now? IAE Blog. Retrieved 12/15/2015 from

Moursund, D. (2014b). Transfer of learning. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 12/17/2015 from

Moursund, D. (September, 2014). The teaching machine is both tool and teacher. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 01/18/2015 from

Moursund, D., & Albrecht, R.(2011). Using math games and word problems to increase math maturity. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from Download the Microsoft Word file from

Sylwester, R. (November, 2015). Non-kin collaborations and complex projectiles. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 12/17/2015 from


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 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

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