A shift is underway in how we think about and approach learning. Our current system of education imagines learning to occur mostly in schools and other institutions under the careful watch of professionals. Its focus is on content knowledge—static formulas, facts, stories. What matters most is that students are able to retain and recall this information, a skill on which opportunity hinges. However, the last thirty years of learning research show that what happens in school is only one sliver of the landscape of learning that unfolds for each and every individual over the course of a lifetime. We know that the whole community—not just professionals—have an important part to play in this landscape. And we know that success as an active citizen in today’s connected world depends not on the recall and retention of facts, which have limited shelf lives, but rather on higher-order skills, like creative problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, perseverance, and systems thinking. One of the biggest early indicators of success is whether a person can become genuinely, passionately interested in something and find the inner wherewithal and external support to translate that interest into achievement or some other form of social value.
These new insights have profound implications for how we design and support learning and value the environments that give rise to it. Whereas before student engagement could be seen as a happy add-on to the project of drilling into young people this or that piece of information, now, engagement is the very lynch pin that holds together the project of creating critical, agile thinkers, people who—five, ten, fifty years down the line—are able to identify what they need to know, quickly acquire that knowledge and skillfully apply it in response to a world whose contours are in flux. Engagement is perhaps the key to creating purposeful lifelong learners. To design for engagement is to design for effective learning.
In play we find fertile ground to address this design challenge. Play is a state of being that cannot arise without engagement. A person must choose to play, and that choice naturally begets full participation and more. There is something in play that gives people permission to take risks considered outlandish in “real life,” to try again and again and again to reach a goal. There is something in play that inspires us to share, to show off how a challenge was overcome, to reach out to and learn from others. At its best, play can even trigger flow, the rare conglomeration of laser focus, balanced with awareness of self and surroundings, that leads to peak performance and life-changing learning in a single inimitable experience. Lucky for us then that so much effort has already been invested in the craft of creating systems that reliably give rise to play in a wide array of users, systems otherwise known as games.
In this set of video investigations, we introduce you to a number of people practicing the crafts of game making and teaching with games. They are teachers who happened on the power of play through trial and error in the classroom. They are commercial game designers who set out to make a single great game and ended up empowering millions of users to make their own. They are technologists, scientists, mathematicians, architects, business people, and students, all of them working in very different contexts, toward very different goals, yet all joined by the passion with which they pursue one question—how do we design for and sustain interest and engagement? In their pursuit lies something vital for the design of learning in the twenty-first century.
Given the drop out rates in schools across the country, it is clear that engagement is a particular weakness in the design of our current system of public education. But what might be possible, if we stopped treating school as the only channel for learning, and instead starting imagining systems that can support people of all ages—wherever they are, wherever they are headed—in their experience of the world as a single irresistible opportunity to learn?
We invite you to explore the resources offered here with this question in mind, with the hope that what you find will inspire you to keep learning and start designing.