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Once more we’re back to the question, “What makes learning fun?” There are deep links between play and learning. Consider, for instance, the way we learn the rules of a game through playing it. The first times we play a card game, or a physical sport, or a computer simulation we test out rule boundaries as well as our understanding. Actors and role-players learn their roles through the dynamic process of performance. The resulting learning isn’t absorbed all at once, but accretes over time through an emergent process, one unfolding further through iterations. In other words, the more we play a game, the more we learn it.

In addition to the rules of play, we learn about the subject which play represents, be it a strategy game (chess, for example) or simulation of economic conflict. Good games echo good teaching practice, too, in that they structure a single player’s experience to fit their regime of competence (cf. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal learning, a la Gee [1]). That is to say a game challenges players at a level suited to their skill and knowledge: comfortable enough that play is possible, but so challenging as to avoid boredom, eliciting player growth. Role-playing in theater lets performers explore and test out concepts; see Boal [2]. Further, adopting a playful attitude helps individuals meet new challenges with curiousity, along with a readiness to mobilize ideas and practical knowledge. Indeed, the energy activated by play can take a person beyond an event’s formal limitations, as players can assume that play can go on and on [3].

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown: “All systems of play are, at base, learning systems.” [4]

Games have always had a major social component, and learning plays a key role in that interpersonal function. Using games to build group cohesion is an old practice, actually a triusm in team sports.

It is important to locate our peeragogical moment in a world where gaming is undergoing a renaissance. Not only has digital gaming become a large industry, but gaming has begun to infiltrate non-gaming aspects of the world, sometimes referred to as “gamification.” Putting all three of these levels together, we see that we can possibly improve co-learning by adopting a playful mindset. Such a playful attitude can then mobilize any or all of the above advantages. For example,

Of course, “game-based learning” can be part of standard pedagogy too. When peers create the game themselves, this presumably involves both game-based learning and peer learning. Classic strategy games like Go and Chess also provide clear examples of peer learning practices: the question is partly, what skills and mindsets do our game-related practices really teach?

Socrates: “No compulsory learning can remain in the soul …In teaching children, train them by a kind of game, and you will be able to see more clearly the natural bent of each.”

Exercises that can help you cultivate a playful attitude


  1. Gee, J. P. (1992). The social mind: Language, ideology, and social practice. Series in language and ideology. New York: Bergin & Garvey.

  2. Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the oppressed. 3rd ed. London: Pluto Press.

  3. Bereiter, C. and Scadamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves, an inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Peru, Illinois: Open Court.

  4. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011), A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace.

  5. Malone, T.W. (1981), Toward a Theory of Intrinsically Motivating Instruction, Cognitive Science, 4, pp. 333-369