games and fun

by Bernie DeKoven on October 8, 2012

The fifth chapter in Marc Prensky’s Digital Game-Based Learning, is called Fun, Play and Games: What Makes Games Engaging (PDF). I wanted to share the introductory part with you:

The venerable OED (Oxford English Dictionary) defines fun as:

1. A cheat or trick; a hoax, a practical joke
2. a. Diversion amusement, sport; also boisterous jocularity or gaity, drollery. Also, a source or cause of amusement or pleasure.
b. to make fun of, poke fun at (a person, etc): to ridicule. For or in fun: as a joke, sportativly, not seriously. (he, it is) good, great fun: a source of much amusement. Like fun: energetically, very quickly, vigorously. What fun!: how very amusing 1 for the fun of the thing: for amusement; to have fun with: to enjoy (a process); spec. to have sexual intercourse.
c. Exciting goings on. Also fun and games, freq. Used ironically; spec. amatory play. Colloq.

He continues:

Right away there is a major duality: On the one hand fun is amusement, but on the other hand it is ridicule, or a cheat or trick, or even sexual. Of course no executive wants his or her training to be “ridiculous” “sexual” or even just “amusing.”

But there is yet a further division, one that is far more relevant and important. Note carefully that the above definitions tend to lump “enjoyment” and “amusement” into the same category. This, I am sure, is wrong, at least in terms of the modern use of the word “fun”, and is what leads us to confusion and conflict.

For while amusement may, in fact, be frivolous, enjoyment and pleasure are certainly not. We enjoy and take pleasure from many of the most serious things in life – our families, our passions, our work. The enjoyment, pleasure or “fun”, we derive from these activities is the principle source of what makes us return to do them again and again — and there is increased “fun” from the fact that the more we do them the better we get, the easier they become, and the more goals we can achieve.

Fun in this positive sense is not passive, and can include real exertion, as in sports or other competitions. In fact the learning crowd at the MIT Media Lab are fond of calling their type of learning “hard fun.”

So the real issue is that the same simple word “fun” can connote both enjoyment and pleasure (good), and amusement and/or ridicule (bad). This dichotomy, which we will see over and over again, lies at the root of resistance by business people and educators to new learning approaches based on any connection to fun (and, by extension, to play and games). In some respects it’s only a matter of semantics, but with important consequences. Proponents of “fun learning” relate fun to enjoyment and pleasure. Opponents relate fun to amusement and ridicule. They use the same word but don’t speak the same language. (Italics mine)

What Dr. Prensky cites, as the “real issue,” at least in terms of the term “fun” gaining acceptance as something one can associate with learning, succinctly and accurately describes why I, quite happily, don’t call myself an educator.

Given that “fun” describes both enjoyment and pleasure and amusement and ridicule we have, in one word, not so much a dichotomy as a profound synthesis. These are all aspects of fun – good fun, bad fun, healing fun, angry fun, kind fun, cruel fun – all fun. Games in which we devote our skills and cunning to destroying the enemy can be at least as much fun as games in which we build new worlds. Because the English word for fun seems to embrace all those aspects, it becomes key to understanding our selves, our games, our society, our history.  Fun is not a moral or ethical choice. That choice becomes manifest in the kinds of fun, the flavors of fun we seek out for ourselves, our children, our communities. Choosing fun is choosing life, is embracing the human reality, all of it. Denying fun, denying the fun of any aspect of fun, you deny yourself.


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