Are Video Games Always Playful?

Video games as a medium have the power to attract and motivate children. However, pleasure only results if children have fun playing them. It’s a common misconception that the medium itself—because it’s attractive, fashionable, and relatively new—is enough to bring a playful experience. For example, disguising some mathematics exercises in the shape of a video game will not be very helpful to children who are not motivated by mathematics in general. If video games are used as an educational medium, they cannot keep the same traditional content that school provides; instead they have to offer a new experience (Squire, 2006). The basis for the misconception about educational video games probably stems from the fact that some video games with “serious” content have been widely successful, especially with adults on the Nintendo DS handheld platform. Games like Brain Age™ Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day (Nintendo, 2006), Professor Layton and the Curious Village (Level 5 & Nintendo, 2007), or the Ubisoft My Coach2 series were commercial successes. However, players who are thriving on these games are usually already motivated by exercising their logical, mathematical, or language skills. People who love doing crosswords or Sudoku can embrace these games, because they offer a more interactive and flexible interface than their paper counterparts. In this case, the video game’s main challenge is not really to attract but to sustain players’ engagement, usually by giving them immediate feedback and by recording their achievements and progression.

For example, in the Nintendo DS game Classic Word Games (Ubisoft, 2009), all the mini-games are designed to enhance the player’s vocabulary. The player has to link words that are synonyms or antonyms, complete quotes or phrases, or find a word by its definition. The promise of this video game is to refresh and develop the player’s vocabulary “while having fun.” It is designed in a way that the words with which the players are less familiar are reintroduced at spaced intervals to enhance their retention, based on the principle that the repetition of a stimulus improves its retention if the learning episodes are spaced apart in time (Paivio, 1974; Toppino, Kasserman, & Mracek, 1991; Greene, 2008). By tracking the time it takes the player to answer and by tracking his or her mistakes, the game can dynamically adjust the content displayed to enable the spacing effect in repetition. Also, with meaningful associative learning (for example, in the game where the player has to link two words with the same meaning) and sentence completion games, Classic Word Games are designed to enhance retention with deeper content processing. The game also provides charts showing the player’s progression and an individual profile to motivate regular gaming sessions. For people who are already having fun playing with words, Classic Word Games can help improve the retention of the newly learned words or less frequently used words. Similarly, video games can effectively enhance the learning-by-doing effects by using algorithms to adapt the learning content to the player. Video games are also usually more attractive than paper games because of the customization, flexibility, and adaptability they offer. However, those types of games (which bring classic word or mathematics games to an interactive medium) fail to motivate people who are not interested in mind games in the first place, and they fail to bring meaning to the content learned. Play is an autotelic activity in essence; games are pursued for their own sake. According to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (2004), “Although there are always some extrinsic reasons for play, there are always intrinsic motivations as well. In playing a game, part of the incentive is simply to play—and often, it is the prime motivator” (p. 332). We play because we find pleasure in doing the activity itself, not for an extrinsic incentive only. That is the reason why if the game itself is not fun and attractive to the population for which it is designed, it cannot be defined as an activity of play and therefore cannot reach the learning power of play. To achieve this goal with children who are not motivated by school activities in the first place, whole gameplay mechanics warrant rethinking.

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