“Learning should be fun!” But what’s “fun?”

We hear it all the time: “Learning should be fun!” Here’s how it’s often interpreted:

  • “Let’s use a Jeopardy-style game for the quiz.”
  • “Let’s have them explore a haunted museum, clicking on silly things to learn about data privacy.”
  • “We should have a funny-looking wizard explain how the inventory control system works, and he could use his wand to make the data appear on the screen.”
  • “How about a talking frog to explain the supply chain?”

You want me to listen to a talking frog?All of the above are examples of smearing “fun” lipstick on the pig of an information presentation. We’re not challenging the learners in any meaningful way, and we’re probably not motivating them, either.

Then why do we do it? Many people will say that exploring the museum to reveal all the bullet points about data privacy is gamelike and therefore “fun.” However, according to this well-researched post by game researcher Ben Lewis-Evans, it’s not that simple.

The post looks at how games (and in my opinion elearning) might affect dopamine, often presented as the “I like it!” hormone.

The upshot of the research Lewis-Evans examined “is that it appears that dopamine is not directly about pleasure (or learning) but rather it is about motivation or, if you want to be more sinister, compulsion.”

What’s really motivating?

Motivation doesn’t come from clicking a spider web to reveal a couple of sentences and move the progress bar one millimeter. According to Lewis-Evans’ review of the research, many other elements are better at motivating us. Here are the ones that caught my eye:

  • “Rewards should be meaningful.”
  • “Learning to get and want a certain reward is enhanced by immediate feedback about what behavioral response produced that reward.”
  • “People tend to dislike rewards that are delivered in a way that is perceived to be controlling.”
  • “Feelings of mastery, self-achievement, and effortless high performance appear to be quite rewarding.”

Feelings of mastery should be our goal. Clicking a messy desk to reveal preachy warnings about filing forms builds zero mastery. Successfully making increasingly difficult choices in a realistic scenario is far more likely to build a sense of mastery.

If a stakeholder wants you to add alien spacecraft, treasure hunts, or talking animals, they mean well. However, you might respond that building mastery provides the real fun. So rather than spending time drawing the spacecraft, we should use that time to design challenging, realistic activities that give people a sense of accomplishment.

Have you had to talk someone out of a “fun” way to present information? Let us know how it went in the comments.

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More workshops have been confirmed for my November trip to Australia, and I’m creating an online scenario design course for this fall. Check it all out on my new workshops page.

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