At dinner recently, I mentioned a friend who had given up playing computer solitaire for Lent. "Oh," said a woman at the table. "I had to stop that, too." She then proceeded to explain that not only she but her mother and great-grandfather had, at one point or another, been addicted to computer solitaire.
You could chalk it up to hereditary defects, but I suspect there are a lot more people out there with this same problem. One of the things that makes games compelling is their capacity to draw us in and swallow us up--spitting us out hours later dazed and squinting.
While profiling the lives of Dance Dance Revolution addicts might be entertaining, I'm more interested in considering how the ubiquity of addictive play impacts the extent to which gaming is an educational activity. I'm a strong advocate for the positive learning value of games, whether on the playground, on the computer, or at poker night at Uncle Dave's. These days, it's not just about improving your reflexes; experts have expanded the concept of "valuable" play to include MMOs like World of Warcraft (which teach teamwork, social leadership, and may help you get a job), and many corporations are turning to game companies to develop educational games for training and recruiting.
And yet. Does sitting in front of the computer slaying giant spiders for hours on end REALLY make you a better person? I'd argue that the longer you play a game--the more you become an addict--the more diminishing the returns. And this is something that is particularly true of addictive games, because they tend to be games that value repetitive gameplay over thinking. Tetris gets harder because the blocks fall faster, not because you suddenly have to compose a haiku in the middle of a level. Yes, you have to be mentally present to swing Tiger Wood's golf club, but you don't have to confront new and unusual challenges on a frequent basis.
A lot of game design discussion centers around learning curves, meaning how long it takes to learn how to play. I'm more interested in learning curves--how much learning happens when during play. Games may have high barrier to entry and require a long learning period, or they may be easy to pick up right away. Either way, once you're running on auto-pilot, the educational value goes way down.
This is a problem specific to games, which have a predefined, consistent set of rules. Open-ended play, reading, skateboarding--these are all activities that don't have rules, so you can continue to learn and grow by trying new things and fiddling around. There's the "learn something new" stage and then the "refine and get it perfect" stage, but after that, you're not learning; you're mostly just having fun. It's educational to try a new recipe, or even to try it a couple times. Once you're making the meal for the zillionth time, people start complaining.
There are a variety of social pressures that encourage us to keep moving, to read a new book, to try a new trick, to go to a new film, rather than doing the same old thing. Not so with addictive games. Addictive games allow us to wallow in skills we already have, to set our brains aside awhile and just do.
So how do you keep brains engaged and gamers learning? To create a truly educational game, you'd have to design the game's incremental increase in complexity to require substantively different actions. To get harder, the game would have to change.
This creates a two-sided challenge for educational game designers. FIRST, they have to take content which is, on the face of it, not very fun, and use it as the basis for gameplay that is lively and compelling. THEN, they can't bask in creating an addictive experience; instead, they have to keep changing it so that it continues to be a valuable rather than rote experience.
This isn't easy. It's so hard to do the first step--to come up with gameplay that is reasonably fun related to serious content--that once accomplished, designers rarely move to the second. Which makes a lot of these games predictable and boring. Sure, if you're teaching facts by repetition, like spelling or times tables, addictive play is a good thing. But if you're teaching "learning skills" or concepts, which many museums attempt, it's a barrier to real learning.
The good news is that there's one really simple design technique that almost always furthers learning: a social component. Playing hearts on the computer against AI opponents, I'd argue, is significantly less educational than playing in a room with other people. The relationships among players, the cues and signals, create challenges that are constantly evolving. Which is why corporations and researchers are so interested in social gaming--real and virtual--as bases for institutional growth. Jane McGonigal thinks games can save the world. IBM thinks games can save their company. The games these folks are thinking about are relational, multi-player, complex systems. They change all the time. If we want to create games that evoke the complicated, rich worlds of content (in museums or otherwise), we can't sit at home playing solitaire.