Fun vs. Engagement: The Case of the Great Zoombinis

Scott Osterweil came to work with the Comparative Media Studies program a little less than a year ago as the head designer for the work we are doing through the Education Arcade -- primarily focusing on a collaboration we are doing with Maryland Public Television called Learning Games to Go. The Learning Games to Go project will develop handheld and mobile games to help young children master basic math and literacy skills. We were very lucky to get Osterweil to work on this project, since he is an experienced games professional, best known for his work on Logical Journey of the Zoombinis and its sequels. The Zoombinis games came out some years back but still crops up regularly when we ask teachers to identify examples of great educational games.

Osterweil is interviewed for the first of a series of podcasts about the project, which just went up this week.

He addresses throughout the interview what has become one of the most vexing problems in terms of convincing teachers and parents that games can be learning activities -- the fact that games are often, on purpose, fun.

I often have teachers, generally of an "older generation," tell me that it is a bad idea to try to make learning fun because most of the rest of our lives is work and work isn't supposed to be fun. (Such comments make me wonder how these people feel about their jobs but that's another matter). I usually respond that they have little to worry about. If being able to deal with prolonged periods of boredom is a necessary job skill for the future, then our current educational system may be doing a better job preparing kids for their adult lives than most of us imagine.

Scott offers a somewhat more tactful answer here:

When children are deep at play they engage with the fierce, intense attention that we'd like to see them apply to their schoolwork. Interestingly enough, no matter how intent and focused a child is at that play, maybe even grimly determined they may be at that game play, if you asked them afterwards, they will say that they were having fun. So, the fun of game play is not non-stop mirth but rather the fun of engaging of attention that demands a lot of you and rewards that effort. I think most good teachers believe that in the best moments classroom learning can be the same kind of fun. But a game is a moment when the kid gets to have that in spades, when the kid gets to be focused and intent and hardworking and having fun at the same time.

You will note here a shift in emphasis from fun (which in our sometimes still puritanical culture gets defined as the opposite of seriousness) to engagement. We think this is an important distinction. When you play a game, a fair amount of what you end up doing isn't especially fun at the moment. It can be grindwork, not unlike homework, which allows you to master skills or collect materials or put things in their proper place in anticipation of a payoff down the line. The key is that this activity is deeply motivated. You are willing to go through the grindwork because it has a goal or purpose which matters to you. When that happens, you are engaged -- whether we are talking about the engagement many of us find in our professional lives or in the learning process or the engagement which some of us find through playing games. For the current generation, games may represent the best way of tapping that sense of engagement with learning.

As the podcast continues, Osterweil describes how this principle of engagement informed his own design work on the Zoobinis project:

What we did when we started designing Zoobinis was to try to think about our own experience with the mathematics of the game and try to access our own learning of it -- trying to remember what it was like to encounter the subject in school or thinking about how we'd use the subject in our daily lives and try to identify times when we had been playful with the concepts in the past. In fact, most of us when we are trying to master something we find ways to be playful to it and in accessing our own playful approach to the material what we were really doing was finding the game that was inherent in the mathamatics. Instead of putting math in the game, we tried to find the game in the math.

Note here that play re-emerges as part of the ways we noodle with new concepts -- a form of informal, experimental, experiential learning that can sometimes precede formal classroom instructions. I often imagine the teacher coming into class to review the previous night's game play: "Think about level 7. How did you beat it? What was hard about it? Why was it difficult? What tricks did you use to get over it? Here's what you were doing" and then scratching out the formulas on the blackboard. "Now go back and try that level again and see if it gets easier." We see educational games as closely integrated into a more elaborate instructional process. We certainly can learn things by playing games -- and we can learn things independently on our own. Many of us would say that the most important stuff we learned growing up took place outside the classroom. But, we think that learning through games is going to be most powerful when we encounter the content on multiple levels and where informal and formal learning intersect.

Osterweil has a great deal more to say about the thinking which went into making the Zoombinis game such a great success.