Skill development in games is subservient to other intrinsically meaningful purposes

Games effectively develop players’ skills, but that’s not the point of the experience: the skills are incidental to intrinsically meaningful purposes—aesthetic, social, narrative, etc. The true purpose is aesthetic, not practical: Games are an aesthetic medium of action. And that aesthetic is generally guided by “Find the fun”.

Skill-building is a means for these ends: I want to learn how to fly because it is beautiful. Skill-building is also a natural by-product of those ends: I become better at flying because the environment contains tricky platforms I struggle to reach.

Educational game designers ignore this observation and make skill-building itself the primary purpose. Sometimes the player’s presented with some other ostensible purpose (“beat the high score!”), but that’s a thin veneer; it’s obviously not the primary consideration for the designers. These games subvert their own aims: Educational games are a doomed approach to creating enabling environments.


Email with Bret Victor, 2015/03/19. Re: Toys with weight-bearing educative properties

I think you’ve definitely got the right idea, thinking about activities with “weight-bearing” concepts. But I think that excessive focus on “are we teaching these concepts, are children learning these concepts” leads to condescending designs, which fail to be either interesting or educational. …

Maybe instead, design activities where the concepts bear the weight, but focus on making the activity inherently interesting and joyful for both designer and player. Ask yourself: “Do I love playing with this myself?” And trust that players, by spending hours with these concepts “in their hands”, will pick up a familiarity, then fluency, then understanding, that’s hard to design for explicitly.

Last updated 2023-07-13.