It has long been recognized that making learning fun and enjoyable is one of the most surefire ways of improving education. Yet although there are a great many games which promote themselves as educational, many of them are less enjoyable than they could otherwise be, largely because the educational aspects of them are too openly transparent, leaving people always aware that they are being taught, which makes the learning less obviously fun unless someone happens to enjoy the subject material being taught.
It is, of course, worth noting that different people may find very different activities fun. Young people are prone to enjoy repetitive tasks more than most adults do, and those who are encouraging habits in such activities as performing music, playing chess, athletics, learning foreign languages, and the like all know that if someone can be encouraged to do the repetitive tasks that improve one’s physical and cognitive abilities while they are young, that sort of discipline will typically result in increased skill and mastery in the given subject. Admittedly, it must be noticed that frequently those who develop such a narrow mastery often have serious limitations in other areas of life. Someone who is a budding chess grandmaster or polyglot or athletic superstar or mathlete may have serious lackings in other areas of life, like social development or emotional maturity. Yet even more ordinary or at least less honed abilities often come with similar gaps in one’s achievements. If one is dealing with someone who is motivated to learn a subject and finds the mundane and routine elements of that task enjoyable, it is easy to encourage the habits that lead to increased skill and knowledge.
The harder issue, of course, is dealing with those who are unmotivated to learn. This is the raw material that makes up much of any education system, and if such people are put off by that which is obviously educational in nature but at the same time not motivated themselves to do those tasks which may seem at first and for long afterwards to be dull and monotonous, it is hard for such people to gain skill and knowledge in a great many subjects that may be of use. It has always greatly amused me to hear people who have little interest and frequently open derision in mathematical subjects that simultaneously also desire to have practical classes that encourage knowledge of things like compound interest and other aspects of financial literacy that, especially in the contemporary world, depend greatly on skills in mathematics. Now, to be sure, a knowledge of algebraic equations may seem esoteric at first, but when one realizes that there are genuine practical benefits to being able to recognize power relationships and exponents and the like, one has reasons to pay greater attention to such matters. For some people, though, there is never a connection between the sorts of skills and knowledge that one wants to have for practical benefit and the academic subjects that would give such insight if people put forth the effort to master it, and that is a great shame.
It is here where genuine games may often serve the interests of education. It has long struck me that many children are drawn to games that unintentionally prepare them for adulthood. When children play pretend, they are engaging in thought experiments about what it means to do adult activities. They are acquiring in some essential way the practice that is necessary to behave appropriately as adults while doing so in a fun way that serves as entertainment but useful entertainment. Other games encourage a positive approach to physical fitness or a view of home base as a safe place from the concerns and problems of a dangerous external world. And so it goes. We are not always aware of what we are being educated by the games we play. We live in a world where adults are often trying to indoctrinate the innocent and unaware through corruption, but long before such corrupt means were used, we have long had a situation where that which seemed like play actually served a useful and beneficial process of education. Such a tradition can be ennobled once again.