You’ve almost certainly heard about gamification and learning by now. Maybe you’ve participated in a Webinar or two. Maybe you’ve gone to a session on gamification or played one of the games being integrated into industry conferences over the past year or two. Maybe you follow one of the blogs that deal often with learning and gaming topics. Maybe you’ve already incorporated some of what you’ve learned about games into your eLearning – or maybe you’re still sitting on the sidelines, trying to figure out how to do it right.

Game designer wisdom

The learning world seems to be flourishing with gamification resources, some of which aim to help you distill what we like about games into something that you can inject into eLearning. You’re probably hearing a lot of discussion about the potential of games to add engagement, interactivity, fun. As an occasional gamer who usually runs screaming from “educational” games, I’ve become increasingly interested in hearing about these topics not just from the learning industry, but from the gaming industry. After all, they are the experts at making products that are not just compelling, but addictive. My hope has been to find methods in game design that are applicable when the purpose of a game is not only to entertain, but to teach.

Koster on games: the intersection of learning and fun

You may imagine my surprise, then, to find that Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design is extremely concerned with the intersection of learning and fun; in fact, his “theory of fun” even holds that fun and learning are inextricably intertwined. He builds his case by examining some of the peculiarities of the human brain, for example, the release of pleasurable chemicals in the brain at the “moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task.” For Koster, learning and fun aren’t at odds at all; fun is a natural result of learning in a no-pressure environment. Though he acknowledges that games can be fun in many ways, he writes that the most important way is the fun achieved through learning: "Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun."

That’s a perspective that casts a new light on many of the products and methods being sold or adopted to “gamify” learning. It’s absent in flashy animations, in leaderboards, and in badges. I think that Koster would say that those things may have their places and purposes too, but that they are not the essence of teaching through games.

What do games teach best?

Another insight that I found valuable in this book is Koster’s assessment of what games are best at teaching. While most of the buzz around building games for learning tends to center on making learning less painful, Koster makes a solid case for games being effective on a different level than typical learning experiences are. Games engage the “second level of the brain” – the part of our thought processes that associates, intuits, and builds approximations of reality – and they allow this part of the brain to practice, to chew on different permutations until it really groks what the game is communicating. (Grok is a term that Robert Heinlein coined in Stranger in a Strange Land; basically, it means to understand something on a deep level, buy into it, become one with it.)

It’s probably because Koster sees how games speak to that level of thinking that he suggests that games are very strong at communicating generalities, but not specifics. This view got me thinking about educational games and why they often seem forced and heavy-handed. Could the reason simply be that the game creators are trying to convey something that is just beyond the ability of the medium to convey? Or is it actually possible, but very difficult... and only infrequently done?

Thinking back to my favorite educational game in childhood, Oregon Trail (which I didn’t even realize was an “educational” game at the time), Koster’s assertions seem to hold up. Today, I don’t believe I could do a very good job of planning food and water for four people for a month-long trip by covered wagon. But I still know that life in a wagon train is difficult, that there are constant tradeoffs, and that whether you make it to your destination alive or die of dysentery on the trail may well depend on your game-hunting skill.

Why read this book?

Even if you’re not interested in creating games, I recommend this book simply for the applicable lessons in learning. For example: “Not requiring skill from a player should be considered a cardinal sin in game design.” Is it any less so with learning design? How many courses have you seen that waste time by teaching at too low a level or by simply not focusing on skill acquisition? At the same time, though, Koster warns against making challenges too great, or of no relevance to something the audience would actually have a reason to learn – again, common pitfalls in learning design.

All in all, if you’re interested in a book on learning design, you could do a lot worse than simply reading this book, replacing “player” with “learner” throughout, and evaluating how your own ideas and creations stack up against Koster’s theories. A Theory of Fun for Game Design is an excellent, even foundational, read for anyone interested in creating experiences that challenge and engage minds, experiences that inspire learning, experiences that are – in Koster’s definition – fun.

Bibliographic information

Koster, Ralph. (2004) A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Phoenix, AZ: Paraglyph Press. 256 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1932111972

Publisher’s List price: $24.99

Amazon: Paperback $15.65, Kindle $9.99

Barnes & Noble: Paperback $15.65