why playing is learning, Autotel


why playing is learning

Xiangqi-Chinese-chess” by Endrjuch
Suddenly these twelve guys got all equally dressed in a curious way, met in a grass field, and started running toward a spherical object while making the most impressive yet exotic tricks with the sphere, as I understood, hoping to pass it through one of the rectangular shaped arcs.

The traditional learning approach, as most of us have experienced; ends up giving too much importance to the test. For the pupil, school is a place where he tries to memorize information as it is told by his teacher, in order to answer right in a formulary called test. School ends up being meaningless for him, and also very ineffective for actual learning. There are reasons to think that playing is a great way to teach, that can be explained rationally over what we intuit.

Autotelic & flow

Autotelic is how Csikszentmihalyi named the activities that are made for the sake of doing. In the very words of him, “It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit but simply because the doing itself is the reward”. He also describes a very enjoyable state of perfect concentration that he calls flow: “Flow is a state of intrinsic motivation in which a person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing for the sake of the activity itself” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975/2000, 1990). This author also shows us that this autotelic engagement, flow, has certain conditions in order to happen:

If you think of all the games that you have enjoyed, you could see how it accomplishes all of these conditions. But this also explains why not every game is for everyone. For example, it wouldn’t seem very exciting to play a kid’s game; as it is too easy, and doesn’t challenge you. But in this challenge condition, there is also another consequence: you probably noticed that most computer games will start being easy to play, and start becoming harder the more one plays; to keep one being challenged. This means that one is getting trained on this game, and it’s required abilities. Playing, inherently implies learning or training. And not only this: by this very same factor of engagement, one gets long attention periods of this training almost unnoticeably as opposed to scholar learning instances, in which one struggles to keep the focus on the subject.


This chart shows what combination of skills and challenges would create a flow experience. This flow channel is a learning channel as we keep the activity along time.

Play at the safety circle

In the Salen and Zimmerman’s book Rules of play is noted that what we call games, is something that happens inside a “magic circle” which delimits the “real life” from our lives inside a game. In fact, you could easily die many times in a computer game, without being personally injured. Inside this magic circle, there are some rules that define how this game is played. It even happens in the play interaction between humans and animals,where a domesticated pet who is engaged in play with his owner, will never injure him severely, even if they are pretending to fight; and in the same way between two animals. This magic circle is what us, as players engage to, when we play.

Animals know that they can train their survival skills by playing, but without actually risking their lives as it would happen in real situations of chase or fight.This is because we all intuitively distinguish what happens inside the magic circle from what happens abroad. The magic circle can become a “real life experience” when it gets outside consequences and reasons of being; such as with professional sports, which in some cases will deprive the game from being autotelic. In a learning context, as opposed to a professional or scholar context, a learner would know that mistakes are welcome if it’s learning experience was not part of his “real life”. In practical terms, the school pupil would feel free to try if he was not to be scored depending on how he answers, or if this score was only relevant for the purposes inside this game circle, and therefore he would try different approaches until he discovers the best. Instead, we try to show as much as possible, how the school performance will affect the pupil’s future, and this puts a fear factor inside the learning experience, thus eliminating the liberty to try.

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