Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fun and Learning

We don’t have a good way to derive what will be fun for different people aside from attempting to replicate what we find fun. Fun as a concept is transient, temporal, experiential, slippery, subjective, and fickle.

If I were to pick a starting point for a discussion of fun, I would start with the importance of learning. I agree with Raph Koster’s assessment that fun is a matter of learning. But when some players hear this, they pull back from the idea with shock and dismay, curious as to what education has to do with gaming.

Schools have turned learning into dreary work, though we frequently learn and enjoy the process—games are one such case of self-directed learning.

Players resist thinking of games as learning experiences because when society institutionalizes a concept like learning, we associate the institution with the concept that birthed it and draw a confused distinction in our minds between the institutional workings and the actual concepts. Through their experience the American public education system, most Americans have been traumatized into thinking that they want to learn as little as possible. Combine that trauma with a general aura of anti-intellectualism in the United States, and you can easily see how  learning would be frowned upon by working people. Learning is a weapon wielded by the intellectual elites (who they consider to be liberal blow-hards who have never worked an honest, real job). In an idealistic meritocratic society, hard work means more than smarts. Smart people are crafty, manipulative, and cannot be trusted; hard-workers are honest, feel with their hearts, battle-worn, and sympathetic. We, of course, side with the hard-working factory worker instead the lazy banker (not that the banker is necessarily smart or the factory worker is necessarily dumb). Values among Americans are changing with regards to smarts because of the prevalence of computers and their usefulness in the modern world, but there is still this palpable dislike for anyone who wants to make you think—and that dislike extends doubly to people who would have you think for yourself.

The joy of games is that they allow you to think—they make you think without you being aware of it! They are distractions. Distractions make you think about something aside from your normal concerns. Fun games establish self-contained thought patterns that please us because they are outside of our everyday experience. Games let us engage in an exotic kind of thought unlike our everyday drab thinking.

This thinking is simply learning for a different cause.

When you learn, you internalize patterns so that you can recreate them or recognize them later. Pattern matching is the basic operation of the human mind. Everything we mentally do is pattern matching. Our senses provide us with data; our brain processes them and, through recognition, understands the world. From this understanding, we make decisions and change our environment or ourselves. This view is so abstract and big-picture that we do not think of it in our everyday lives. Pattern matching is the frame through which we see the world—it’s easy to see how we wouldn’t notice that frame when we’re so busy looking past it.

Games present us with new patterns, or new variations on old patterns that we like, and we find learning these patterns fun.


Logan said...

absolutely 100% correct.

and it's one of the single biggest problems in america.. solve this problem and all of a sudden the rest our problems become a whole lot easier to solve.. if people are intelligent enough, and desire to learn enough, then they can actually understand things like healthcare reform, and cap and trade... it's not the issues of healthcare, insurance, and cap and trade that are the real problem... it's that very few people are intelligent enough, or have the desire to understand them.... they'd rather spout party propaganda and 1-liners than actually think for themselves.

great post.

Unknown said...

You are mostly conflating the ideas of thought, smartness, learning, and education. When you then try to apply that compound concept to games, school, politics, etc, your argument falls apart because you are actually talking about 4 or 5 different things.

I know what you're getting at, but this is definitely the most poorly-constructed thing I've read here. Also, you sound like an asshole who's saying that people who don't live in New York are stupid.

evizaer said...

John: I'm using them throughout, but they are certainly separate. People associate education with thought and learning. I'm not talking about "smartness" alone, I'm talking about the institution of intellectualism and how people generally react. I'm talking about how four or five different things interrelate.

"Also, you sound like an asshole who's saying that people who don't live in New York are stupid."

You are definitely reading that into what I've written. I'm saying that good games make people learn, and learning is far more than the institution of education.

You should read the post again.

Unknown said...

I read the post several times before I commented, and I continue to think that your fourth paragraph is unclear.

You use the word "smarts" twice. The first is to say, "hard work means more than smarts". If you're trying to say that when you work on the factory belt, you need a strong back more than a PhD, then fine, but you follow that sentence up by saying, "smart people ... cannot be trusted." Explain what you mean by "smart people," because that is a leap. You said a couple of sentences previous that "Learning is a weapon wielded by the intellectual elite," (which is the worst kind of political invective, by the way) so I assume you're talking about some kind of liberal bugbear. You then go on to say that "we ... side with the hard-working factory worker instead of the lazy banker," so you have moved on to a third category of people: anti-intellectual factory workers, liberal blow-hards, and lazy bankers.

Look, I'll say again that I know what you're trying to say, so you have not failed in that regard, but this paragraph is messy and I think would benefit from being unpacked a little bit. I also think that if you want to talk about intellectuals and the over-educated and so forth, that you should use terminology with precision and not fall back on saying "smarts" because you're trying to speak from the perspective of a factory worker.

Unknown said...

I also want to say that I think I'm coming off more negative than I intend to. I've been reading your blog for most of the time that youj've been posting, and I am usually impressed with the lucidity of your commentary on subjects that are abstract, complex, and rarely addressed. This particular post stood out to me as less clearly-expressed than what I'm used to seeing. And when I said you sounded like an asshole, I meant "you sound like one of those assholes who..." not "you sound like you are one of those assholes who..." For what it's worth.

evizaer said...

There's a perspective shift in that paragraph that is confusing you. In that paragraph, I at one point begin talking from the point of view of an average working-class person (many of whom I've talked to throughout my life). My apologies that that was unclear. I usually edit that kind of thing out of my writing--I was having a bit of trouble coming up with a topic for a post when I made this post. I wrote it while working through a writers' block, so it isn't as good or well-considered as I usually try to make my posts.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I think John was overreacting a bit there. If you've been paying attention to politics in America, the observations are clear. Ever since the success of the Republican party's "southern strategy", there has been a concerted effort to divide and conquer the progressive base. This was very evident in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections; GOP marketing positioned Bush as "a chum you'd like to have a beer with" and Gore/Kerry as "an aloof smartypants who doesn't really relate to the common people." You even saw shades of this with with the most recent election, where there were many attempts to peg Obama as an elitist out of touch with common people. (Wonder why they didn't try to paint him as an aloof intellectual, though.... ;) Sadly, the overarching strategy seems to be working as the Democrats become less and less progressive while the Republicans seem to become more reactionary every election.

This ties in well with a topic I know a lot about, introversion. Introverts tend to be thinkers more than doers, and make up about 25% of the population. Extroverts tend to be doers instead of thinkers, and make up the other 75%. In American society, we prize doing more than thinking; think of how much disdain we pile on "meetings" that take up the time we could spend doing stuff! This is why it's so important for government to be seen as "doing" something instead of considering options and making a considered decision. It's why the president flying out to a disaster area makes such a great photo opportunity. "Thinking" about the problem simply isn't good enough, you have to be doing something.

Bringing this back to games, I think this is where we get the PC vs. console divide. Consoles are game machines for the doers, it's something where you put in a game and get into the action in a short amount of time. The damned thing just works, and you can play this year's Madden for a bit. For most people, there's no need to read the instructions for a football (or other sports game) because they already know most of the rules of the game already.

Contrast this with the PC, where it takes some effort to know how to run one even on a basic level. The time from powering on to enjoying a game is a lot longer. Genres like RPGs flourished on PCs because the audience on these machines loved learning and storing trivia. Knowing when to use a fire ball vs. a fire blast was part of the fun for people, but it wasn't immediately apparent to someone who didn't spend whole weekends playing marathon sessions of D&D or other RPGs.

I honestly think this is also one of the problems we'll face with games going forward. The conventional wisdom for many years (as long as I've been developing games) has been that people won't put up with reading instructions. Make the controls "intuitive" or keep the controls simple and point them out in the game. But, this really limits the types of games we can make. It also severely limits what "new" types of games we can introduce to the audience.

I'll stop now. I've probably typed enough to damn myself as a socialist sympathizer once the gun nuts take to the streets to liberate America from fascist health care proposals.

Kenny said...

Brian: I really wonder where you get these numbers for Introverts/Extroverts. The only source I could find was on Wikipedia and that's 50.8% for Introverts.

Also I think it would be really interesting to see a study on how the desire to learn correlates with setting intrinsic goals - my hunch tells me that these are really strongly tied.