Playful Learning: Innovating Beyond the Technology

By Nicola Whitten, Director of the Durham Center for Academic Development, Durham University

Nicola Whitten, Director of the Durham Center for Academic Development, Durham University

In recent years there has been a growth in the use of both serious games and gamification in adult education, in colleges, universities, and workplaces. While the use of both approaches have their benefits, they are not without their problems, and in this article I shall explore their limitations and present playful approaches as an alternative way to engage learners and support innovation and learning throughout adulthood.

Serious games are typically digital games that have a primary purpose other than for pure entertainment, for example to market a product, influence behaviour, or to support learning. They can be deeply engaging and create rich problem-based learning environments, but good educational video games can be very expensive to develop and getting the right mix of playability and learning content is something of a dark art of which many serious games fall short. A more insidious concern is the use of the term ‘serious’ as a way of legitimising games in an educational sphere; I argue that it is the very lack of seriousness – the nature of play itself as abstracted from the solemnity of the real-world – that is key to its potential for learning.

In contrast, gamification makes no such claims to gravity; it is the application of game mechanics, such as points, badges, competition, or achievements, to non-gaming activities as a way of adding an external motivational layer to achieve desired behaviours in the user. While this is potentially a benefit of gamified learning systems, it is also their main drawback–extrinsic motivators will not engage everyone or even many people for very long, and may well distract from the core intended activities.

Playful learning in the context of adult education is an evolution of both serious games and gamification, which has been growing in popularity over that past five years. It emerged as a way of explicitly countering the seriousness of other game-based approaches, and highlighting the importance of intrinsically-motivated play. Recent theoretical work in framing the field of playful learning has given it a wide conceptual base, highlighting its implementation as tools, techniques, and tactics. Tools, in this case, are the artefacts of play such as games, toys, or puzzles; techniques are described as pedagogic approaches with the potential for play such as quest-based learning, role-play, or digital making; and tactics are the aspects of games that can be used to support learning, including game mechanics and also elements such as mystery, humour, and surprise.

"Ideas of openness, collegiality, integrity, and democracy are at the heart of the playful approach to teaching and learning in adulthood"

However, playful learning is more than a collection of approaches and methods; it is explicitly underpinned by a philosophical and political position that embodies play. Ideas of openness, collegiality, integrity, and democracy are at the heart of the playful approach to teaching and learning in adulthood. Using play, we can subtly re-frame learning experiences to make them more inclusive, emotionally-resonant, and personally-meaningful; we can change the ways in which learners and teachers interact, embodying a philosophy of co-learning; we can create spaces that are ethically sound and socially just; and we can shift perspectives simply by applying the lens of play.

To give an example, I previously ran an academic book club; despite having the best of intentions attendance was dwindling because members simply didn’t always have time to read the book. So we set up one rule: you read the book, or you pretend you’ve read the book. This simple playful re-framing of the rules of the game saw attendance dramatically increase; and the key thing is that it didn’t actually matter whether people had read the book or not–it was the conversations around the book that were more important.

At the core of playful learning is the theoretical construct of the ‘magic circle’, which originally emerged from play theory and game studies. The magic circle describes a safe play space, which is mutually-constructed and designated by the players, who agree to abide by the artificial rules of play within the circle. It is the safety of the magic circle and its separateness from the real-world that makes it so powerful for learning (of course, the theoretical ‘magic circle’ is an idealised space and we recognise that neither safety nor separation can be absolute in the real world). What is key to the power of the magic circle is that it facilitates three aspects that underpin learning: first, a lusory attitude, or willingness to entre freely into the spirit of play; second, intrinsic motivation to engage in a play activity for its own sake; and third, the freedom to explore possibilities and make mistakes.

It is this ability to embrace and learn from failure that is at the heart of playful learning. By removing a fear of failure we support learners to develop resilience, and be less afraid of taking risks that might end in their making mistakes. It is only by taking measured risks that we can genuinely innovate, explore novel and exciting possibilities, and discover new solutions to problems of the future; beyond serious games and gamification, this is the real power of play in adult learning.  

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