Engagement and Motivation Part II: Hard Fun

This is the second part of the Engagement and Motivation section of my dissertation lit review:

Hard Fun

There is little doubt that modern video games are deeply motivating and engaging to many of the same students that struggle to pay attention in school – despite the fact that games continuously and consistently challenge students, often to the brink of frustration. It has been clear for some time that these games are fun not in spite of being hard, but precisely because they are hard. Video games provide “the kind of fun that Seymour Papert characterized as hard fun: the kind of fun you have when you work on something difficult, something that you care about, and finally master it” (Shaffer, 2006, p. 21). Papert’s (n.d.) concept of hard fun suggests “that everyone likes hard challenging things to do.” Papert (1993) himself felt that video games are not only fun, but they “are hard, with complex information – as well as techniques – to be mastered” (p. 4). Johnson (2005), too, pointed out that “the experience of playing today’s video games… [is] fiendishly, sometimes maddeningly, hard” (p. 25). But, as Jenkins (2005a) shared, the worst thing students can say about homework is that it’s too hard, while the worst thing they can say about a video game is that it’s too easy. Ideally, to be fun (and thus commercially successful), a video game has to remain squarely in Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development, challenging but not frustrating players – even players of significantly varied skill levels.

This property of video games to deliver hard fun can be an educational asset. Caperton (2005), a student of Papert, believed that hard fun was the essence of good video games, and concluded that good games can help students to learn concepts and ways of thinking that might otherwise be beyond them. Schaffer (2006) also believed that “games based on the training of professionals – high standards, hard work, and all” can be fun for students (p. 131), in part because they “are fascinated by efficacy: the things they can do in the world and the sense of their own power that comes from being able to make things happen” (p. 131) He suggests that good video games “thus fulfill young people’s basic need to make things happen in a positive and constructive way” (p. 132). Jenkins and Wright (2005) imagined the educational games of the future, but concluded that students are already living the education of the future when they get home from school and play video games.

Massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), in particular, often require players to perform repetitive tasks that seem suspiciously like work, and yet these games are among the most compellingly immersive experiences available. Shaffer (2006) notes that many things that players do in an MMORPG “don’t, on their own, seem like fun” (p. 22). He quotes one player as saying, “I’m just running some boring errands in the game” (p. 22). However, there are at least four types of players with different motivations and reasons for playing an MMORPG: those who enjoy “achievement within the game context,” those who enjoy “exploration of the game,” those who enjoy “socializing with others,” and those who enjoy “imposition upon others” (Bartle, 1996). According to Steinkuehler (2006a), MMORPGs have a “capacity for sustained engagement” (p. 7) and are becoming “a compelling means of enculturation into the globally networked community” (p. 7).

I’m seeking feedback on this writing, so please let me know what you think in the comments.