The fire this time

The world didn’t come to an end today after all, thereby sparing most of us a whole lot of inconvenient fire and brimstone.

In celebration of not having to go to hell, it seems like a good day to revisit an earlier post, in which I had talked about a more hopeful sort of fire. In particular, Sharon recently wrote the following comment on my post about education entitled Lighting a Fire:

“As someone who studies games for learning, what would you say is the fire triangle for gaming? Does the concept of the fire triangle help relate gaming to learning? I got to thinking about this after reading this post because when I was a kid I used to love playing games (especially board games). I couldn’t get enough of them. As an adult I find that I don’t usually have a lot of patience for them. Now I get the kind of intellectual satisfaction that I used to get from playing games from constructing and debugging computer programs (for a similar amount of intellectual effort), and the payoff in relevance and meaning is a lot higher. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.”

It’s a very thoughtful comment. In my post I had related the three ingredients for lighting a fire to the three preconditions for learning as follows:


Intellectual curiosity


A sense that what is learned
is relevant or meaningful


The excitement that comes from true learning

It seems to me that this all translates directly into how games relate to learning, and why that relationship can change as one grows up. My experience with games is quite similar to Sharon’s. When I was a kid I played a lot of games, and now most of that energy has shifted to creating things on my computer. In fact, when I try to play computer games, I usually get an overwhelming urge to stop playing and write a computer program instead.

I suspect that this is because playing a game is active (as opposed to seeing a movie or a play, which is passive). If I’m going to be doing something that involves actively making choices, I generally prefer to be making choices that come from me — that really represent who I am — as opposed to just the illusion that they come from me (which is what a commercial computer game generally offers).

I would argue that the fire triangle of learning describes this situation perfectly. When we are children, we have a greater ability to learn from games — because children are veritable learning machines, and they are able to learn from any activity that involves making choices.

But as we get older, we generally lose much of this childlike ability to learn from such externally guided interactions. Yet many of us still want that excitement that comes from true learning. So we turn to a kind of game that is uniquely relevant to who we are. In the case of Sharon or myself, that game can be programming.

When we grownups feel that hunger to learn, we still require the same three ingredients for learning: (i) intellectual curiosity, (ii) a sense that what is learned is relevant or meaningful, and (iii) the excitement that comes from true learning. But since we can no longer get that spark from externally defined games, we create our own games.

Programming, like any of the creative arts — from sculpture to songwriting to keeping a daily blog — is at its core a kind of game for learning.

4 thoughts on “The fire this time”

  1. Nice lead-in from the Rapture non-event. Very topical.

    That’s an interesting theory about how learning differs between children and adults, in terms of ability to learn from externally guided interactions. Is that a personal observation, or does it come from the research literature? Just curious. It seems plausible.

    You seem to be differentiating games, which are active, from movies and plays, which are passive. Some games feel a lot like movies or plays (or novels, for that matter) in that they provide an escape and encourage fantasy. Other games feel more like programming or debugging in that they involve planning and strategy. So I don’t know if active vs. passive is quite the relevant distinction. Or maybe I’m not quite getting your point there.

    Its clear that some adults do continue to enjoy playing games: poker, chess, backgammon, bridge, other card games, computer games like World of Warcraft, Farmville, and many others. I enjoy them sometimes, just not like I did when I was a kid, and not with the same sort of commitment. But some adults seem pretty committed to their games. So I suspect that you are onto something, but there is more going on that what you’ve described so far. Its hard to sort this kind of thing out in blog posts and comments, isn’t it? Sounds like a great conversation topic the next time we run into each other at a conference 🙂

  2. I think of it as a two dimensional space — a systematic difference between children and adults, as well as an age-independent personality difference between different individuals.

    There are kids who are more satisfied making their own games and movies than they are playing commercial games. And of course the number of adults who enjoy playing commercial games greatly exceeds the number of adults who know how to program computers.

    I think your point is well taken that we can classify games by how much individual thought they demand of their player. I’m encouraged by the phenomena of “Spore” and “Little Big Planet”. It seems to me that such games, which encourage original content creation by their players, are encouraging kids to nurture their original-creator side as they grow up. Which from my perspective is definitely a good thing.

    Of course you are right. In blog posts we can only discuss this sort of thing in so much detail. This kind of forum is good for framing the issues, but not necessarily for delving very deeply into them. I look forward to our more in-depth conversation about this at a future conference. 🙂

  3. Are you sure even kids benefit from externally guided interactions? Many of my and my peers’ most enjoyable times in class (as children and now) were from times when we were given the chance to take the reins and create things. The perception that kids should be led and adults can create things is a little odd, considering that many of the kids I’ve met are more creative and more creation-oriented than some of the adults I know. In fact, during my time finding study tools for my Japanese credit, I found the learning tools for adults (such as textbooks and workbooks) to be mundane and repetitive compared to the tools geared towards teenagers and pre-teens.

    Anyway, the unfortunate thing is that the laziness that many kids exhibit now when it comes to original content may well have been taught to them by the externally-guided learning tools they were fed while they were younger. Maybe there’s a bit of dependency going on – using these external things means you become attached to learning in that passive way and therefore hooked on buying/using it more and more. I, personally, would air on the side of allowing a child under my care as much original thought and creation as possible. I would rather they have a mental dependency on creating their own things than on something someone else makes and feeds to them.

    Speaking of all this, I showed my math class Vi Hart the other day (for the record, about half of my math class is failing right now) and they absolutely loved it. I thought they’d think it was boring or too difficult or something – my peers don’t cease to surprise me…

  4. Kaelan, I agree with you. Kids are highly adaptable, which means the grown-up world can get away with offering them canned entertainment.

    Enlightened parents know better. When I was a kid, my mom and dad spent quality time with us on projects that involved making things and that required original thought. I still have very fond memories from when I was about 12 years old, of putting together a Bohr model atom with my dad from nested clear plastic spheres and colored beads.

    The problem, I think, is not that kids are better served by non-creative learning, but rather that it is easier to market and sell non-creative entertainment on a mass scale.

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