Fun, Flow, and Fiero: Reflections on Week 1 of the Games Based Learning MOOC

photo credit: 2create via photopin cc
photo credit: 2create via photopin cc

As mentioned in my last post, I am planning to gamify next Fall’s first-semester FYC course, using Interactive Fiction (IF) and the multiplayer classroom model. The decision to do so came completely independently of a new MOOC that started this past week that focuses on Games Based Learning (GBL). I had not intended to take this MOOC, since I had already signed up for another MOOC that would overlap with it. However, when I saw that the GBL MOOC would be covering IF, I decided to give it a try. The great thing about MOOCs is that they are voluntary and, therefore, you can dip in and out of them as you wish. While many have classified this aspect of MOOCs as one of their weaknesses, I see it as one of their strengths. Not only does it encourage learners like me to give something a try that they might otherwise not have, but it also forces those designing and guiding the MOOC to stay innovative and relevant. With so many other MOOCs to choose from, if you want people to stick with yours, you’ve got to make it worth their time and effort. So far, the GBL MOOC has been extremely enjoyable and relevant, not just in terms of learning how to gamify a class, but learning about concepts that are, in actuality, universal to all classrooms.

Case in point: the three concepts we covered during the first week are fun, flow, and fiero. Obviously, the first two concepts are not unique to games and, while the last is, it is also easily applicable to all classes, gamified or not. What makes the discussion of all three concepts uniquely interesting within the GBL MOOC is that we can consider each as it is designed for and experienced within a specific context (i.e., games) and theorize about how we as teachers and instructors can adopt and adapt the design principles that encourage each.


Learning doesn’t have to be fun. In fact, sometimes the best and most powerful learning is decidedly not fun. But fun isn’t always, well, fun. Not in the most basic sense of the word. This instant gratification kind of fun is, in game design, termed easy fun. It is often triggered by novelty and a desire to explore the novel situation and/or environment. As we all know, novelty can quickly wear off. As a child, I was always super excited about the first day of classes at the beginning of each new school year (and still am so as a teacher at the beginning of each new semester). I loved the excitement and busyness, the new school supplies and clothes, the new people and subjects. I’d rush home every day and immediately do my homework. But by the third week of school, the novelty had become routine. The supplies and clothes were used, the people and subjects were the status quo, the homework was work. Easy fun can only hold our attention for so long. So, it’s a mistake to think that throwing some games or game-like experiences into a course will make it more fun. For fun to work as a long-term design principle, the easy fun has to be balanced with some hard fun.

Having some easy fun in Second Life with my FYC II students.
Having some easy fun in Second Life with my FYC II students.

Hard fun doesn’t always feel like fun, though sometimes it can. Hard fun is that bit of fussy code you just can’t get right. Or that level in Lego Harry Potter where you just can’t find that last piece of the house crest. Despite the frustration, you keep at it because the payoff is, in the end, worth all of the time, effort, and frustration it took. Hard fun works because it challenges us to meet a specific goal, either one we establish for ourselves or one established for us, and it rewards us once we reach that goal (with a sense of personal worth, strength, or intelligence and/or with an extrinsic reward of some kind). The best courses will allow and encourage students to experience hard fun. I’ve blogged before about how we learn best when we are experiencing cognitive disfluency. But, in integrating hard fun into our courses, we have to teach our students to embrace the frustration. After all, they’re perfectly capable of struggling through five straight hours of  trying to level up in Halo. Our quest must become to make the rewards of struggling through the challenges we create for them in class as equally gratifying.


Flow is, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the secret to happiness. So, there’s that million year-old mystery solved. Now to solve the mystery of how to design a course that will make students happy (I mean flow-happy, not superficially happy because the class is easy or they make A’s or they don’t have to show up because you don’t take roll). Because flow is a tricky, sneaky, elusive experience. It’s much akin to C.S. Lewis’s joy, in that as soon as we sense it, it disappears. It can’t be predicted and it can’t be willed. But we can be open to it. In game design, flow is inextricably linked to fun. As Zac Hill points out in “Sculpting Flow and Fiero:”

It turns out that you can design “play” along something called an engagement curve, which basically means that (as a game designer) you present challenges to people in roughly the order they’re equipped to handle them. In the moments where the challenges we face match up almost exactly with our ability to overcome them, we can be said to be in flow.

If you’re an educator, then this game-designer language probably sounds very familiar. Our psychological theories of learning tell us much the same thing in terms of the importance of matching learner with learning goal. But each and every day, millions of educators struggle to do so and watch as our students become more and more disengaged. While each and every day, millions of gamers are being matched to the perfect challenge and experiencing flow. What do game designers know that we don’t? Csikszentmihalyi offers some enlightenment:

Csikszentmihalyi found that central to the flow experience were three factors: clear goals, rigidly defined rules of engagement, and the potential for measured improvement in the context of those goals and rules. The more straightforward and clearly defined each of these are, the more conducive to flow the overall experience becomes. Moreover, due to the engagement curve we talked about earlier, each of these variables needs to be robust; that is, as your investment into the game deepens, the challenges put forth to you should rise correspondingly in proportion to your burgeoning understanding. (Hill, “Sculpting Flow and Fiero”)

Again, pretty familiar concepts. We in education know all about clearly defined goals (we call them objectives or learning outcomes), rigidly defined rules of engagement (we’re nothing if not rigid), and measured improvement (we just love measuring things and, in fact, if it’s not measurable, we’re suspicious of it). But, here’s what game designers have put their finger on that we just keep overlooking: it’s called fiero, and it’s Italian for pride.


In delineating the components that must be present for a player to experience fiero, the authors of “Achieving Fiero Moments in Collegial Gaming & Gaming Communities” list several player behaviors that are often missing when educators create their clearly-defined objectives with rigid rules of engagement and measurable outcomes:

The People/Players:

Are actively engaged/enthralled in complex, job-embedded or game-embedded/immersed learning or work.

Are engaged in work that serves a greater purpose or greater good.

Are provided with specific and immediate feedback about the results of their efforts and actions.

Are intrinsically captivated by the mission and the work they are doing.

Realize that what they are doing is making a difference in helping them to achieve their personal or collective goals.

Like flow, fiero is elusive and cannot be planned for or predicated. But when players are experiencing the above aspects of hard fun, they are much more likely to experience flow and, consequently, are primed to also experience fiero. I’ve made what I consider the key words in the above list bold because I think they are the key difference between game-based learning and classroom-based learning.

In games, players are actively doing complex work in an immersive environment (not reading instructions or listening to lectures or completing worksheets or taking standardized exams). The work that they are doing is serving a greater purpose or greater good within the game environment (whereas much of the work they do in the classroom serves no purpose beyond the classroom and that purpose itself is temporary). They receive specific, immediate feedback via experience points (XP), leveling-up, or unlocking resources, all rewards (rather than punishments) that help them to work smarter in later parts of the game; even failure is a learning experience and forces the player to work harder and/or smarter. Players’ motivation is intrinsic (no amount of XP or resources could induce a player to continue playing a boring game) because they have a mission that they have bought into because at some level it is relevant to them. And, lastly, gamers have to become meta-gamers; in other words, they have to constantly self-assess their game play and change strategies as needed; they must and can do this because the game has awarded them autonomy. While the rules of the game may be very rigidly defined, how the player chooses to interact with those rules is really what playing the game is all about. If games were standardized experiences for every player, no one would play them. Games allow each game player to develop their own set of goals. Even more complex multiplayer games require that players adopt and work towards collective goals, building what Jane McGonigal terms a social fabric. But, whether striving towards personal or collective goals, the nature of games requires that there’s a constant reassessment of those goals within the context of ever-changing circumstances (new levels, new quests, new enemies, new resources, new collectives, etc.).

Gamers are good at thinking on their feet and critically assessing their environment, their information, and their strategies. They are intrinsically invested in important missions with goals that aren’t easy to achieve; in fact, the more complex the struggle to reach the goal, the more invested gamers become. Gamers are constantly self-assessing themselves based on the feedback they are receiving. And, when called upon to do so, they are willing to collaborate with others to achieve a common goal. They can manage resources, look failure in the eyes without flinching, withstand hours of frustration, and often become so immersed in their work that they lose track of time and feel at one with the universe. Who wouldn’t want a class full of gamers? What educator doesn’t dream of students with these skills and dispositions?

Guess what? More than likely, you’re dream has already come true because the majority of students sitting in your classroom are gamers. You don’t have to make your class a game in order to try to convince them to play it. But, just like those who design and guide MOOCs, you do have to offer something that’s worth their time and effort. If it’s fun (both the easy and the hard kind) and affords them opportunities to experience both flow and fiero, then you may just find that they’re willing to take you up on the challenge.