The human mind is wonderfully mysterious. The things that we think are least important are often the ones that we take most seriously. When I was a camp counselor, none of my kids cared about cleaning the room at the end of the day, despite my repeated attempts to emphasize the importance of maintaining an organized space. However, as soon as I called it a “game,” a competition in which whoever picked up the most trash “won,” those first graders cleaned that room as if their lives were at stake. There was no prize other than a handful of garbage, and I usually failed to acknowledge the winner, but it didn’t matter. The room remained spotless all summer.
Game designers have long exploited this fact to the tune of billions of dollars. The men and women who create the virtual worlds that suck up hours, days, weeks of the lives of children and adults alike deserve to be ranked among our greatest psychologists. You might be too busy to arrange a date with your girlfriend, but you will do whatever it takes to cram in a few hours of Warcraft. Men and women who can’t even be bothered to take a shower will spend vast quantities of time (and actual money) to buy their avatar a new house on Second Life.
Motivation is all about perception. Some sort of magic happens when we believe we’re doing something voluntarily, for “fun,” rather than out of compulsion. We become engaged, curious, confident.
Teachers can take a cue from the gaming world — by awarding points in the classroom, for instance — to help their students feel less pressured and, paradoxically, perform better. Some colleges have already embraced this idea by introducing a sort of Second Life for university. While students in “real life” may not be interested in geometry, for some strange reason they will sweat blood to ensure their online persona masters the subject and gains the virtual status of Geometry Wizard.
At Knewton, we’re always looking for ways to transform learning from something you have to do into something you want to do. In our college readiness program, we’ve integrated an elaborate system of points and achievement badges to motivate students to gain breadth and depth in their understanding. We also are creating an interactive online community to enhance the feeling of teamwork that is such an integral part of the best games. People who have achieved their version of success -– the best students, businessmen, lawyers, or scientists –- are often the ones who treat their work as play, whose only real reward at the end of the day is the basic pleasure of performing an activity at a high level.
The takeaway for our students is this: relax, enjoy yourself, and never forget that education is a form of recreation. The stakes may be high, but so is the potential for enjoyment. Your powers of creativity and retention peak when you’re doing something that you love, and you’ll be amazed at your ability once you start having a good time. Besides, compared to most games, education is relatively easy. The only way to lose is by giving up.