“Altered States: Players treasure the enjoyment from their internal experiences in reaction to the visceral, behavior, cognitive, and social properties. These players play for internal sensations such as Excitement or Relief from their thoughts and feelings.” – Lazzaro, Why We Play Games

On the poster for the 4 Keys to Fun, Lazzaro’s 4th Key is Serious Fun. It took me a long time to understand this part. My first inclination was to think of the as simply players doing something important in the real world. For example, my school has a recycling club and it is the most popular club we offer. At one point or another I would estimate that about 2/3rds of our 400 students have been members. I assumed that a large reason for this was the ‘save the world’s messaging – it was serious and because it was so important it was fun. As I think more about this fourth key though I believe this is a misunderstanding.

In the white paper ‘Why We Play Games‘, Lazzaro refers to this key as “Altered States” and when I read this everything fell into place. In the recycling club understanding ibwas thinking of the external seriousness the students were imparting, but them is 4th key is about the internal response of the player had to the game! By playing the game the players mood or perspective is altered.

In Jane McGonigals Reality is Broken, she describes how an ancient culture (I am blanking on the details) played a board game during times of famine to distract themselves from the suffering. In a more modern example she relates how young out of work men take up games almost ad a self medication for the possible depression symptoms. This matches perfectly with Lazzaro’s description of Serious Fun (or Altered States) as “play as Therapy”. Playing games is a mood enhancer, or a Zen like state, or a distraction from other problems. Like any other self medication (drugs, alcohol) taken to extremes this can be problematic and even addicting but responsibly administered games can be a positive influence.

So what are the practice implications of Serious Fun in the classroom. Until this new realization I felt that serious fun lined up mostly with the Gamification concept of Purpose. From Marczewskji’s Internal Motivation post:

Purpose can be seen as our need for there to be meaning to our actions. We want to feel that when we do something, there was a reason and that it may have some greater meaning.  A very well known example of this can be seen in Wikipedia. Millions of articles, all given freely, for no other reason than to feel that they may add to better understanding of the topics.

While I still believe a sense of Purpose is a vital,part of lesson design, this is not Altered States. In a more practical sense our students are coming from all different places when they cross that school threshold. Students face a world of issues ranging from traumatic such as a death in the family, not having food, experiencing bullying, poverty, abuse to minor (to us) like a friend not talming to them, a breakup, or a zit on prom night. What altered states or serious fun tells,me is that a game in the classroom (or a classroom that is a game) might be enough to change their day, to alter their perspective. Even if it is just for a class period. Even if it is just for the moment when they go up a level and get a high five or they get a question right that helps the team win. In that moment everything is ok.

Serious Fun can be paired with other fun and with curricular standards. It can be used as a way to help prepare students for a test or a project. When I think,of this fun now though I will be thinking of the student I have coming this year who is living with his mom in a car. Or the student that I know only gets to have breakfast and lunch because they are served at my school. I will be thinking that every kid needs to feel like everything is going to be ok… Even if its just playing Mr Powley’s dumb game…