Superfun sameness

In a New York Times op-ed, editor Pamela Paul points out a “farcical reversal” of our concepts of work and play: “schoolwork is meant to be superfun; play, like homework, is meant to teach.” Video games in particular have reversed (or mixed up) these roles; schools are making increasing use of video game technology in the classroom, while many recreational video games come packaged with a purported educational purpose. This ends up compromising both study and play:

Many of the games marketed as educational aren’t as much fun as video games children would play if left to their own devices. But the added bells and whistles still make it harder for them to focus on plain old boring work sheets and exams. Imagine how flat a work sheet would seem after a boisterous round of Zap the Math From Outer Space.

I agree with Paul but would call this “superfun sameness” instead. Study and play have become more and more alike–especially when “driven” by computer games. What’s more: they are alike in a disturbing way: hyped up, cloyingly interactive, and oh, so much fun. The result: students lose tolerance for things that seem slightly boring at first.

This happens on many fronts (not only with video games). Students get the message that their studies are supposed to be immediately gratifying and tailored to them. I often hear students (not at my school specifically, but in many places) complain that this or that book isn’t “relevant” to their lives and that they don’t enjoy it. What they’re really saying is that they haven’t learned to exercise patience and stretch the imagination.

I haven’t tried this experiment, nor do I plan to do so, but I’m willing to bet on the outcome: Give a high school class a unit on Hamlet. One group gets just the book (and a few video clips of performances); the other gets an interactive Hamlet video game, where they get to take photos of their friends and dress them up as the characters, follow the ghost around the castle, reenact the final swordfight, etc. Each group is aware of the other. One week into the project, students are given a survey on their interest levels and their desire to remain in their current group. The survey is repeated at the completion of the unit and then a year later. I imagine the first survey would show many students wishing to switch from the book group to the video group (but not vice versa); the second survey would have a less pronounced result, and the final survey would show a preference for the book group.

In other words, if you can persuade kids to stick with something that’s initially difficult or not palpably fun, you see their interest grow over time. But if you give up, you encourage the “relevance” crutch: you feed their demand for studies that feel good and seem to meet their needs and wants, right now. “Relevance” and “fun” are not exactly the same, but in their shallowest form they become close to synonymous. When omnipresent, they become that shallow.

It takes a lot of energy to get students to stick with something in their studies that doesn’t immediately grab them–but it’s worth the struggle. Then they become capable of a larger range, and they overthrow the tyranny of relevance.

In contrast with Paul (or seeming contrast), I see many instances where play could be educational (for instance, working with an electronics kit) and study could be fun (for instance, learning songs in Russian). The problem lies not in the overlap but in the homogeneity, the cutesiness, and the appeal to a lazy part of the mind and character.


  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    It’s a false distinction. What’s play to some is work to another and vice versa. And this is what institutionalized and bureaucratized education leads to.

  2. Thank you for the link to your piece on relevance! I missed it before. Relevance is one of my bugbears (to my mind, a young student complaining that something isn’t relevant to his life has got it backwards; he is not very relevant to the world yet, and education is supposed to help him become so).

  3. Dennise O'Grady says:

    I loved Paul’s piece; I felt the same way after reading it as I felt reading sections of Diana’s book. However, Paul said a lot in a small space and reached a broad audience and for that, I’m thankful and slept well that night. I, too, want students to be able to see that hard work brings valuable rewards and rail against the idea that the benefit of technology is easy-breezy and superfun learning, so fun, in fact, your students won’t even know they’re doing it! (Win-win! Reminds me of mothers pureeing spinach to bake into their children’s brownies and calling it a clever way to get them to eat vegetables without noticing! Forget learning to enjoy broccoli! Never again!)

    I also appreciated the fact that she spoke to some studies showing teachers concerned about the use of technology in the classroom, students’ lack of focus, the idea that it has not supported students being able to engage in deeper ideas, etc..but that this is largely ignored; on the ground, if you work in a district and you express any healthy skepticism or concern around this area, you are labeled a Luddite or unable to accept change. It really does feel like technological fundamentalism.

    And I loved that it was clear she saw the benefits of technology in the classroom in a way that seemed commonsensical and not like she was “acknowledging the other side.” Like Paul, I grew up playing Space Invaders and Pac-Man, and because it was playtime, my parents allowed me to do it, have fun, and not make it into something else. It also meant they had no problem saying, “Dennise, playtime is over, now come to the table and get your work done.” I watch parents struggle to pull their kids away from screens, and because they oftentimes can not, they resort to thinking, “Oh well, at least it’s educational.”

    I think Paul actually would agree that if learning happens to be fun, great. And if play is educational, that’s great too. And I think, like Diana, that what she is tired of is not only the tyranny of relevance (which is alive and healthy in most schools) but that relevance movement against superfun sameness.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Up until some age–maybe twenty-five (I kid, I think), the implication is that somebody is supposed to make everything fun or there’s no obligation to do it.