the game should be the task, not the reward.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s so wrong with poor old Math Blaster’s oft-maligned core mechanic (solve an arithmetic problem to progress the game).

Learning game researchers often critique this type of design, using arguments common from anti-gamification (my favorite is “chocolate covered broccoli”). But like gamification advocates, defenders ask: What’s wrong with that? It works, adding motivation to rote learning. While some question the value of extrinsic motivation, let alone rote learning (see wolfram’s TED talk), it does work.  No, there is something else. Something more frustrating.

Nintendo’s Help Cat (see Danc’s insanely detailed critique) runs away from the cursor, making it harder, not easier, to get hints . Since users assume winning yields valuable information, Help Cat winners are predisposed to value the factual knowledge delivered (hints about using the hardware).

After noting how Help Cat exposed hidden assumptions in UX and instructional design, Help Cat implies a question of learning games:

Is game play activity the reward, or the task?

Math Blaster’s design implies that game activity is simple, easy entertainment — a reward for real work of calculation. The “fun” in games is “simple, easy entertainment.”  But games are a form of play, and it may seem strange to say, but video game play is rarely simple or easy. In fact, it has a lot more in common with the frustrations and satisfactions of learning than “simple, easy entertainment”, as James Paul Gee convincinly explains in some detail.

Maybe playful design can help learning game designers disrupt the fallacious tension between fun and learning.  This line of thinking is leading back to one of my favorite design principles: “Find the Fun in the Learning.”  (“Moving Learning Games Forward”, MIT education arcade).