Posted by: holdenlee | April 11, 2013

Learning should be fun

Today Scot Osterweil gave a talk in our educational games class (11.127).

What is play?

We can argue over definitions, but the salient point is that a player’s motivations are entirely intrinsic and personal. When you are forced to play, it is no longer play: you have to want to do it. Scot lists the four freedoms of play:

  1. Freedom to experiment
  2. Freedom to fail
  3. Freedom to try on identities
  4. Freedom of effort (to invest as much effort as one wants)

Given that play is something people do naturally, the key question is the following:

How do we channel play into learning activities while still allowing for play’s fundamentally free nature?

Play and learning

Often people think learning is inherently boring, and has to be “made fun” through games. They think learning and play are seem as opposites on a spectrum.


But learning and play aren’t mutually exclusive. Instead, they should be seen as two independent axes. (One student suggested we should replace course evaluations with a simple question: where does this class fit on the graph?)


His advice for us in designing educational games is, don’t find a topic you want to teach, and then ask how can I make it fun? Instead, find a topic you find inherently intriguing and ask, how can I bring out that beauty out in a game?

Often educational games are used as drills–practice after students have learned a concept. But educational games can be so much more.

When he was a kid, Scot said, he played with blocks. There were square 1×1 blocks and 1×2 rectangular blocks; when one put two rectangular blocks together they make a bigger square. Thus he learned the idea of 2+2=4 even before he formally learned arithmetic. If you’d given me a test after I played with blocks you wouldn’t see that I “knew” arithmetic, he said, but the play provided the basic conceptual building blocks for learning arithmetic.

My boss Mathew also made the same point: he suspects that the reason why some kids grasp concepts more quickly than others is not because they are innately more intelligent, but that they have had an opportunity to play with the idea before. For example, playing with blocks where several smaller blocks add up to larger blocks would give students an idea of fractions so that when they actually learn fractions, it seems like a formalization of what they already know!

Scot showed us Labyrinth, a math game he helped create for middle-schoolers that takes around 20 hours to complete. It gives a series of puzzles to students, where every time they have to figure out what’s going on. He put the puzzle on the projector without instructions and asked what to do? We all gave various ideas, telling him what to click and drop where. A bat dropped from the top of the screen when he clicked and dashed away when it hid the bottom; however, when he dragged and dropped some blocks, the bat went over a space when it hit the block.

See how chaotic that was? he asked, referring to our excitement to figure out how the game worked. You’re probing the game, forming hypotheses, and testing them out. That’s what the process of doing science, history, math is all about! And kids are naturally good at it: give them this game, and they’ll do it all without provocation.

The particular puzzle he showed was about vectors and negative numbers, even those the mathematical symbols never appeared anywhere in the game.

After the game a teacher could bring the class together and ask, “How did you solve the problem?” A teacher could then leverage the discussion to talk about vectors, because the teacher is drawing on ideas the students already has a relationship with.

Scot gave another example, of the game Vanished! which ran in April-May 2011. Students aged 10-14 were given a MIT Mystery Hunt-esque video where the gamemasters said, We had the game all planned but it crashed! Go to this site and help us figure it out. And embedded in the video were 10 random letters (and everyone got different letters, a different piece of the puzzle). Eventually, after an hour, some people had the idea that the letters formed a code, and searching online for codes, guessed it to use a rotation cipher. We were worried at first, Scot said, because we didn’t provide them with the tools–we thought of giving them a hint that the letters were a code–but it worked better having them figure it out themselves. Then they were “contacted” from the future and told there was some disaster between now and then that erased all historical documents, and they had to figure out what happened through a series of scientific investigations.

It’s fascinating, Scot said, that even though the students knew this was a fiction, they didn’t feel like they could make up answers. They did serious science exploration in the service of fiction! Give students something to fire up their imagination, and they’ll think hard about serious stuff.

Learning SHOULD BE play

Consider a spelling bee versus a game of Scrabble, Scot said. In a spelling bee, most people go in thinking they’re going to fail. When they sit down, they’re relieved, because they can be resigned to the fact that they can’t spell. There’s no conversation like “hey, that’s an interesting way to spell so-and-so” or “that has a Greek not a Latin root so it should be so-and-so.”

That’s not the way it is in Scrabble at all. Even if you may not be winning, you have your own local goals, can I get that 3x tile? Can I use all my tiles in one turn? Can I beat my own record? Is that a real word? And there might be discussions.

Scot gives the startling statistic:

7% of students graduate high school thinking they’re good at math.

So we’re teaching 93% of students: you’re fail at math. Sit down. Don’t do math again.

A lot of students get the impression that school is an unpleasant thing that one has to go through until you’re free, and you never have to do it again. But school should teach people to love life-long learning; school should be a launchpad for learning outside of school.

The four freedoms of play are the same as the four freedoms of learning.

  1. Freedom to experiment
  2. Freedom to fail
  3. Freedom to try on identities
  4. Freedom of effort (to invest as much effort as one wants)

These are not the four freedoms of school in a traditional environment. For instance, people are taught to fear failure, even real problem-solving is about patient failure. Scot gave us all some advice too (listen up prefrosh!): a lot of you have gotten here by learning how to play the game of school. And some people will get through MIT that way. But MIT can be so much more than that, if you see it as a learning=play experience. A student said: instead of work hard play hard, it should just be play hard. Why should work \neq play?

One student brought up the point: A sincere teacher just wants to get out of the way. Student should be driving their own explorations, and that the teacher should be a guide (a very important guide!).

Take-away points

  1. Learning and play are not mutually exclusive. Games shouldn’t make learning fun, they should bring out the fun in learning.
  2. Play sets up a foundation for learning. Games can be used to have students explore a new topic (rather than simply as rote practice), because it gives students a “safe space” to experiment and fail, and students *naturally* experiment and fail in a game.
  3. Team play teaches students to work together and enables them to learn from each other.
  4. A game that comes with a narrative sparks a player’s imagination and adds fuel to the fire.
  5. As you learn, are using your four freedoms of learning?

College Math Education

Coming from the angle of a future math professor, I think even college courses can be taught this way. Back in high school, I loved power rounds in math competitions: whole math team has to solve a long problem proving several big results in about 10 parts. It’s quite chaotic, and we had to organize ourselves to make the most use of our time. The problem is challenging and not something we’ve seen before but we dive into it and learn so much from that hour or half-hour. Call this a more grown-up version of a game, if you will.

Somehow, after math competitions, I never had another experience of a “power round.”

But what if one were to start a class, not by giving a lecture on the material to be learned, but having students dive in and experiment, like a power round? This is in fact similar to Moore’s method. I would love to try such an idea together with a flipped classroom.



  1. Here’s a cool TED talk on science as play:

  2. […] Remember to play. If you forget to play, you forget part of the reason for why you live. In the future you want to find a profession you enjoy–that seems like meaningful play to you. With a sufficiently broad definition of meaning. (Also see my post Learning should be fun.) […]

  3. […] Do what’s fun (cf. […]

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