Why Puzzles and not Games

Posted on June 14, 2012


Gamification is a common buzzword in education these days and for good reason. At it’s heart gamification is very powerful. It strives to make education more enjoyable, mimicking the dedication people see in young and old people toward video games.

I would much rather people think more about puzzles, though. There are a number of reasons why I would prefer we talk less about games and more about puzzles in education (not the least of which is how the term gamification has come to mean “slap a badge on something”), but one main reason stands out above all others. It’s the reason why I created The Puzzle School in the first place.

When you’re writing a novel it feels like a puzzle, not a game. It feels like you’re trying to figure out how all the pieces come together to create the whole. Sometimes the pieces sort of work, but they’re a little awkward so you try something else. You’re constantly iterating on hypothesis about what is going to make the story work the best and responding to the feedback you get from yourself and others when they read it. This process feels much more similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle or a Sudoku puzzle than playing Mario Brothers or Grand Theft Auto (although there are a lot of games that are based around puzzles).

When you’re building a product it feels like a puzzle, not a game. You have to understand the patterns of how people will use your product and figure out how to create something where the pieces all fit together seamlessly, creating an intuitive and useful experience. Again this experience is more similar to what solving a puzzle feels like versus a game.

I could apply the same description to a musician, an investor, a detective, a professional pitcher in baseball, a scientist, an artist, a salesperson, and really just about every profession I can think of where there are people who are passionate about what they do. When you’re very good at what you do and it involves some level of creativity it generally feels like you’re trying to solve a puzzle. You’re constantly trying to pattern match, hypothesize, test your hypothesis, and iterate toward a better understanding of your field. It feels like you’re trying to make the pieces fit together in a beautiful and seamless fashion.

It’s this experience that I want to encourage in students. I think we’ve evolved to truly enjoy the process that is captured in a good puzzle. One where you are challenged (you’re not doing something that is too easy or too hard), you are constantly hypothesizing, testing, looking for feedback, learning, and iterating toward a better understanding, and there is a clear goal that you have in mind.

There’s a reason why this is the description of “Flow“, “a mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity”.

Although some video games do capture these feelings as well (generally the best ones do), not all do, and the term gamification is too broad. It encompasses too many ideas that are not important or may even be detrimental to the educational process (I’m not a huge fan of extrinsic rewards like badges).

That’s why I want to focus on puzzles versus games. I want to create educational experiences that allow students to feel like the most passionate expert who sees their profession as an amazing field filled with challenge and learning and purpose. If we can communicate those feelings to students then I think you will have a much more effective and enjoyable educational environment.