Learning is ... Fun?

Kathleen Tuite joined us on Embedded #253: We’ll Pay Them in Fun. She works in AR, computer vision, and games with a purpose. While we talked about many interesting things it was the games part that has stuck with me, possibly made a change to my life.

For her, games with a purpose (GWAP) are things like Fold-It, a protein synthesis folding game that lets humans help computers find solutions to real-world problems. Kathleen took issue with technological chores that are lightly gamified to make them seem fun and/or competitive. She mentioned the book Theory of Fun and then said that fun games involve an element of learning.

What? I mean, what? Learning is work. Learning is school. Learning is hard. How can games only be fun when you are learning things? And yet, I thought about the games I play. Many are fun until I learn the rules, then they become tedious. I get frustrated with games that have a lot of repetition and amused by games that contain internally consistent mechanics that I have to puzzle out. So, yeah, I can believe that games are fun only if I’m learning.

One game she mentioned during the show was Duolingo, a online or app game that was intended to get humans to translate between languages to help train computers to do translation (before that was a thing). The makers of the game found that people learned languages with the game so now it lives on, teaching humans what computers can do easily (now).

I am constantly learning Spanish. I live in California, it is a skill I should have, that I have (barely) had off-and-on throughout my life. The last time I commuted, I listened to Radio Lingua’s Coffee Break Spanish podcast (it was great, the Scottish teachers are sometimes harder to understand than the Spanish). But I don’t commute and my podcast backlog is large. Could Duolingo help me stop losing words?

Yes, yes it can. And I don’t know why it is fun but it is addictive. I feel like I’m making progress, even though it has been less than a week. I also downloaded a partner app called Tiny Cards which is just flashcards… and that is fun too. I mean, they are just flash cards, all kinds of flash cards, and not just language. I guess I’ve always wanted to know the countries of Africa and be able to identify leaves of North American trees.

I have to learn a lot to keep working, it is a huge part of my job but as I learn and recall chip minutia, current FDA guidelines, math I’ve forgotten again, and the needs of this client, well, I feel like I’m cramming for a test all the time. It isn’t fun learning like this, though it is sometimes fun knowing this stuff.

I guess I’m pleased with the insight that an element of fun is learning because it gives me a license to seek out things to learn and to give up on games when I’ve figured them out. I don’t know why I needed the permission to be more analytical in my judgement of fun in games, but I did. If you do, well, here you go: fun games contain learning, games that teach things are more fun, learning is fun.