Games have their own language and vocabulary. Experience points, Nintendo, worlds, leveling up, MMORPGs – all terms that most serious gamers have at least heard. Gamification also has its own set of vocabulary. When I began this journey 4-5 years ago I remember constantly needing to learn new vocab and terminology in order to apply a new concepts. Terms like flow, feedback loops, overjustificatuon effect, and Magic Circle were strange and interesting and have had a big impact on my practice. Oddly though it were the basic terms that gave me the most trouble since the gamification meaning was different from everyday use. That’s not entirely accurate; the gamification meanings were similar but had a deeper meaning than common use. The most important vocab in needed to rethink were ‘game’, and ‘play’. (Fun was another… But that’s another post)

Play and game are tricky concepts when it comes to their application to education practice. Jane McGonigal (@avantgame), author of Reality is Broken, quoted Bernards Suits book The Grasshopper to describe ‘the playing of a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles“‘. I’ve seen other gamified educators use this quote but the focus is usually on ‘voluntary’ nature of games. Just as important though is the 2nd half – the unnecessary obstacles part. 

In a game there is a goal and the player is seeking to make progress toward that goal! Mario needs to get to the princess, candies need to be crushed, in crossword definitions and terms need to be matched, basketballs need to go in the hoop. BUT there are obstacles and this means rules and limitations. Mario has to avoid Goombas (mushroom guys), Candies can only move 1 space at a time, crossword players don’t Google, and Jordan had to dribble. Games are not spaces for unlimited freedom! In fact games can be devastatingly restrictive-that is the whole point! There are unnecessary obstacles to overcome! (Side note: it is the friction between the restrictions and the desire to succeed that breeds creativity… But again this is another post). A final note on ‘game’ is that the designer of the game has designed the game to set the goals. Even in the greatest sandbox games there are restrictions, rules, and endgames. 

Before discussing classroom implications the contradictions with the concept of ‘play’ should be mentioned. We refer to people engaged with a video game saying they are ‘playing a game’, but this is different than to be ‘at play’. To ‘play a game’ means to voluntarily engage with those unnecessary obstacles to acheive the goal. This is very different than to be ‘at play’ as in – the  young child is ‘playing’. In the latter case we are not referring to engaging with unnecessary obstacles. We think of the child as engaging with an unlimited realm of possibilities and imagination. In ‘play’ there are no rules! Play and Games are entirely different concepts!

Do children learn during play? From what I have read- yes. There are important social skills and even concept building associated with play. The difference between play and games though is the intentionality of the lessons learned. I read an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of Super Mario Bros, and he describes the opening moments of the original Mario Bros game; every action, from jumping on the initial Goomba to hitting the first “?” Block to jumping over the first pit was intentionally placed to teach the player a skill needed to play the game! 

Games teach skills that are useful in order to overcome the unnecessary obstacles they will encounter as they play the game. To do this, games need to collect data to measure how well the player has learned the necessary skills. Players are also tested on those skills; these assessments are just called boss fights and XP rather than tests and quizzes. 

Games and the classroom are closely related which is why I see game design as an inspiration to the classroom. Both are intentional efforts to teach skills in order to reach a preconceived set of goals. The rest of the the game design toolbox is all in service of this greater mission. Play is important but it isn’t an intentional act with preestablished goals. With a class based on state mandated curriculum with only 3 hours a week of class time- adding game design mechanics seems more appropriate than just letting students ‘play’.