What I’ve been reading


It’s cold out, so I’ve been curling up with some books. (I’ve left off the novels.)

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better by Clive Thompson

Are we losing some of our humanity? What happens if the Internet goes down: Do our brains collapse, too? Or is the question naive and irrelevant—as quaint as worrying about whether we’re “dumb” because we can’t compute long division without a piece of paper and a pencil. (18)

I was expecting this to be mostly a response to the Chicken Little “The Internet Is Making Us Dumber!” genre, but it’s actually more interesting than that. (And Thompson doesn’t set himself up as an armchair neuroscientist like many of those books’ authors do.) This is a thoughtful examination of the gains we make when we partner with technology, when we all play to our strengths.

The chapter on learning is fairly insightful. Again, the discussion focuses on using technology to free up humans’ time and energy for parts of the process that really benefit from human involvement: guidance, feedback, and so on.

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

McGonigal is a part of the TED crowd, I think. Her ideas are optimistic, intriguing, “worldchanging.” At about halfway through, her book certainly convinces me that lots of people play videos games, that many gamers are productive and happy, and that games can be used for positive gains, but I don’t think there’s much of a case for the inherent positives of the medium itself.

It’s entirely possible that I have insurmountable bias, though; I’ve never been a gamer. (Unless solitaire and the online NYT crossword puzzle count as video games.)

A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster

A really playful book, as might be expected from the title. The book isn’t about gamification or ¬†specific game mechanics; it’s about what, broadly, makes games fun. Koster believes that games are all about engaging ourselves with patterns. We learn a game’s pattern and then derive fun from practicing that pattern in different iterations and partially mastering it. Games whose formal mechanisms are too baroque won’t seem fun; similarly, a game whose pattern we can master effortlessly (e.g., tic tac toe) isn’t fun either.

Many of Koster’s observations mirror theories about learning, especially when it comes to that sweet spot of finding graspable-but-challenging tasks. There are good lessons in the book for instructional designers about understanding that spectrum from busywork to fun/motivating to intimidating.

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