Games are the most engaging learning systems ever made.
In high school, I used to play games for upwards of 3 hours even on school nights. Learning in games was way more fun than school. Terraria, Minecraft, Civilization 6, you name it--I played it.
Every. Single. Day.
Is there any other activity that can hold your attention this long (peanut butter might have a chance, but that's just me)? No. The next natural question is:
How can gamers 10x their learning effectiveness by applying the principles of what makes games so engaging to real life?
I've studied the science behind applying game principles to real-life, known as gamification, for three years, reading books such as Reality Is Broken, Actionable Gamification, SuperBetter, and more. In this article, I distill my insights into how you can 10x your learning effectiveness in anything. Learning how to supercharge your health, be more charistmatic in your relationships, how to create a business, how to take effective notes, etc. The principles of games can make us better at all of it.
Let's start by exploring 3 learning principles from games we can adopt towards our learning and then move on to how we can create learning plans, supercharge our practice sessions, and find allies to help us with the whole process.
And AwwwAAwaaYYYyyYY we go!
3 Learning Principles From Games To Supercharge Your Real-Life Learning
Perhaps the most important thing games tell us about learning is this:
We learn best when we both know WHY we are learning something and CARE about learning it.
You know this intuitively. Think about the most memorable moments of your life. A skill finally done successfully, a nasty breakup, that time you got up at 3:00 a.m. to go to the bathroom and encountered the rogue Lego brick.
Emotions are the glue of memory.
And games glisten with emotion.
They not only tell us why we are learning something but make us care as well. Some do this through narratives and characters, while others like chess or Mario Kart Party use social emotionality. This is a far cry from traditional education, which uses tests and deadlines to motivate us to learn, making us associate learning with anxiety.
We can take this into our own lives in three ways.
Firstly, always outline why you are learning something before learning it. Secondly, connect what you are learning to something you care about. Thirdly, find a way to make your learnings more emotional.
I'm following these three tips while embarking on my Spanish Language learning journey.
First, I want to learn Spanish because I can talk to native speakers when traveling to South America, I can perceive the world through the lens of a new language, and I can connect more with my Spanish-speaking friends. Second, I connected my Spanish learning to something I already cared about, meta-learning--learning about learning; learning Spanish will help me understand more about how we learn. Third, I'm making my learnings more emotional by calling weekly with natives in Spanish through Tandem, re-consuming old English media I loved but in Spanish, and debating with my Spanish-speaking friend Rushika in Spanish.
Doing these three before I started learning Spanish is giving me the emotional glue to make my learnings stick.
Games also promote learning by pushing us out of our comfort zones, so we fail, and failure is the best form of learning.
Lose the fear of losing, and you will gain the gains of failing.
Games help us do this by instilling a challenge mindset. A challenge mindset involves seeing obstacles as challenges to test and grow rather than annoyances in the way. I remember playing Terraria with my good friend Alejandro back in the summers of high school. We spent hours every day exploring, crafting, and making potions, to prepare for boss fights that would take hours to beat. We didn't have to fight the bosses.
We chose to because we saw the bosses as challenges to overcome, not obstacles in the way.
You can adopt a challenge mindset in real life. See obstacles you come across as challenges to test and grow. Your boss at work makes a mean comment--you're practicing patience. You miss your bus and have to walk--you're exercising. You sign up for The Adams Family Musical because your crush was in it, but in your first practice ever, you are forced to scream in pleasure as she, playing your sister, tortures you in the family basement... Didn't happen to me.
Games, also make the challenges fun by promoting a fun frame.
Fun framing involves framing an activity in a way that promotes intrinsic motivation.
This effect can be so powerful I once spent a week of my life placing sand in Minecraft to drain an ocean temple so my friends and I could use it as a base. In contrast, much of our learning in school and in the workplace relies on extrinsic motivation from grades or money to motivate us.
Extrinsic rewards aren't always bad, but you must be careful with how you reward yourself for learning.
In his book Drive, Daniel H. Pink eplains giving extrinsic rewards for something done intrinsically can destroy your intrinsic motivation. I'm experiencing this in content creation. When I started creating content three years ago, I created solely out of joy. However, as I have gotten more views and started making money on my content, It's become harder to motivate myself intrinsically.
We can learn from games by fun framing our real-life learning. There are a number of ways we can do this:
- Define a breakthrough moment
- Create a challenge
- Listen to music while doing it
- Do it with others
How To Craft A Game-Inspired Learning Plan
Trying to learn without defining a learning plan is like steering a ship without a map.
That's not to say you always need a plan before learning something. Sometimes, I love to follow where my curiosity takes me. But I think you should usually create a plan for more extended learning endeavors.
Games give us direction by breaking large goals into smaller ones and making them awesome. Beating The Soul Of Cinder in Dark Souls 3 is daunting. But once it's broken down into sub-goals of beating Iudex Gundyr, Vordt Of The Boreal Valley, and more, it seems more manageable.
We can do the same in real life. This is the five-step process I go through for every learning endeavor I embark on. I call it Q.U.E.S.T because it makes me feel like I'm playing a game. The longer I'm learning, the more time I spend planning. Before I explain, it's essential to note you must personalize this to you. This is just a guideline.
Q - Question Your Goal: Define what you want to learn concretely, why, and connect it to something you already care about, similar to choosing your quest in a game.
U - Uncover Gaps: Identify what you need to learn to achieve your goal. This includes new knowledge, skills, habits, or new environments—akin to understanding the terrain and challenges ahead in your quest (this step might not be possible until you know more about what you are learning).
E - Explore Resources: Gather the best tools and allies for your journey—articles, books, courses, podcasts, videos, and mentors—mirroring the collection of gear and formation of alliances in preparation for a quest.
S - Strategize Backwards: Plan your path to the end goal by starting at the final objective and working backward. Incorporate N.I.C.E goal setting here, reminiscent of strategizing your moves in a game to ensure victory. N.I.C.E goals are near-term, input-based (emphasize the process needed to get there), controllable, and energizing.
T - Tackle and Tweak: Embark on your quest, ready to face challenges and adapt your strategies as needed. This step represents the action phase where you apply what you've planned and adjust based on feedback and results, much like adapting to evolving scenarios within a game.
Using Q.U.E.S.T., you can make any learning endeavor feel like an epic adventure, without ever facing a single loading screen.
Principles From Games To Supercharge Our Learning Sessions
Once we have our learning plan, the question becomes how we can boost our individual learning sessions.
Let's go through three ways games promote learning, keeping this in mind.
Games promote learning by creating an environment for purposeful practice.
The biggest mistake many people make is they don't practice purposefully.
Purposeful practice is defined by Ander's Ericson in his book [[Peak]] as practice including intention and focus, which you can memorize with an acronym I made F.I.G.H.T.:
Focus: the learner intensely focuses on the present activity, opening them up to [[Flow]]
Iteration: the learner has a means of getting feedback, quickly, and can change their behavior
Goldilocks Zone: the learner stays inside of their [[Goldilocks Zone]], the zone in which an
activity isn't so hard it's frustrating but not so easy it's boring
Heart: the leaner has a plan for maintaining their motivation
Targets: the learner has intention for the goals of the practice session
If there is a secret to learning faster than Sonic runs, it's purposeful practice.
How you practice matters way more than how much you practice.
One person who understands this better than most others is Lee Sang-hyeok, better known as "Faker." This South Korean esports legend has dominated the realm of "League of Legends," a game that tests skill, strategy, mental fortitude, and teamwork. Faker, as a mid-laner for T1 (formerly SK Telecom T1), has become synonymous with excellence in esports, having won the World Championship an impressive four times — in 2013, 2015, and 2016, and 2023.
How has he won so many championships?
Drugs. I'm just joking. Of course, Faker has a bit of innate talent--anyone must have a little to reach that high of a level. However, the bigger reason is Faker spends countless hours purposefully practicing, playing different characters, learning lane mechanics, testing out team comps, and more. During practice sessions, he focuses intently, iterates with feedback, stays in his Goldilocks Zone, maintains motivation, and sets targets for improvement.
We can follow the principles of purposeful practice in real life. Before starting any learning session--studying, skill practice, or something else--ask yourself, am I following everything in the F.I.G.H.T. acronym?
Games also promote learning by getting us into the flow state
In flow, we lose consciousness of the self, soaring from the simple to the stellar, the mundane to the sublime, the human to the godly, and battling against the surge of everyday frustrations in a cocoon of focused attention.
How do games get us into flow?
They promote the seven [[Elements to entering flow|elements to entering flow]]--many of which are the same as the elements of purposeful practice above. I distill in the elements in the acronym ACTIONS. This is because if you fulfill all seven elements, you can take any action confident it can become a flow experience.
A - Attend to What Matters: Focus intensely on the task at hand by eliminating distractions.
C - Clarity of Goals and Rules: Set clear, achievable goals for your activities and understand the "rules" within which you're operating.
T - Tao (Goldilocks Zone): Engage in tasks that match your skill level but still challenge you—neither too easy to bore you nor too hard to frustrate you.
I - Iterate with Immediate Feedback: Create a means of getting feedback quickly and change behavior with that feedback.
O - Operate with a Sense of Control: Choose activities where you feel your input makes a difference, fostering a sense of agency and ownership over the results.
N - Nonattachment with Time: Immerse yourself fully in the present moment, letting go of preoccupations with the past or future.
S - Self-goal (Autotelic Experience): Cultivate an intrinsic motivation for your activities.
The best games fulfill these prerequisites, making them optimal for getting us into the flow.
I remember in the summer months, I could play Total War Warhammer 2 for seven hours a day it was so engaging. I was in flow all the time. I loved building a trade network as the High Elves, developing my magic as the Lizardmen, and reveled in enslaving others as the Dark Elves (I might have a problem).
Finally, games promote just-in-time learning rather than just-in-case
Games give information only when you need it.
That's called just-in-time learning. For example, you aren't told how to feed chickens or milk cows until you have a farm in Stardew Valley. This is different from just-in-case learning, information given far away from its application--the dominant form of learning in school.
Generally, just-in-time learning is better because application is one of the best ways to learn something.
We can use this in real-life by consuming information right before applying.
There are two main ways I do this.
Firstly, after learning something, I try to teach or talk about it to the next friend I see. Teaching tells me if I actually understand the learning because otherwise my friend will be confused out of their mind. And it's a valuable avenue for just-in-time-learning.
Secondly, I try and have a project associated for everything I'm learning. Why? Firstly, it shortens the period between consumption and action. And secondly, it changes what you attend to throughout your day. Your goals shape the information that sticks out as relevant in your environment. Having a learning project will make information relevant to your project stick out to you.
Some of my favorite projects, depending on the learning, are creating an essay, video, or podcast. The video is particulary good if you are learning something more skill-based.
Finally, games 10x our learning effectiveness by integrating the most powerful form of learning of all: other people.
Many games promote this type of learning through social play.
Some, like Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart Party, do it through competition. Others, like Gloomhaven or Pandemic Legacy, do it through cooperation.
We can integrate this by recruiting our team of Avengers for the game of life.
Find people who will help you accomplish your learning goals; people who can work alongside you, or be your accountability buddy to motivate you toward success.
For example, I recruited my friend John Mavrick to join my journey to learning notetaking a year ago. John Mavrick is another Obsidian YouTuber who loves PKM, self-actualization, video games, and more. Learning how to navigate the PKM space together made overcoming challenges and fighting baddies so much more fun. We added another layer of challenge to our journey by both taking notes on the fantastic 50-episode lecture series Awakening From The Meaning Crisis By John Vervaeke. This gave us a shared challenge to apply our PKM skills to.
The learning wouldn't have been nearly as fun without him by my side.
Using these learning principles from games, I have stopped my video game addiction; real life has become the most fun game imaginable.
Every day is an opportunity to learn something new and dive into my curiosities. We don't just have to stop at gamifying our learning. We can gamify our entire life.
Get my gamification resource list to turn your real life into the most fun game imaginable. Create your superhero alter-ego, define your quests and epic wins, cultivate your skills and abilities, and fight your bad guys.
Here's what I would like to share this week.
📸News From The Channel!
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In this podcast you will learn:
- How to extend your mind using connected notes
- The three simple principles for creating a knowledge garden
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💡My Best Insights:
P.S. Some of the links below are Amazon affiliate links.
📖Book - On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction: If you're interested in learning to write great non-fiction this is the book for you. I'm re-reading it for the second time to work on my goal of supercharging my writing in 2024. So many new insights!
📰Blog Post - The Microwave Economy: In this article, David Perell talks about how America has become a microwave economy. We are overwhelmingly using our wealth for cheap dopamine hits as if possessions were puffs off a cigarette. We prioritize material goods over experiences. Even our possessions lack soul; they speak little of our character.
[^1]: Carolina O.C. Werl", Brian Wansink, and Collin R. Payne, "Is It Fun or Exercise? The Framing of Physic" l Activity Biases Subsequent Snacking," Marketing Letters (2014): 1–12.
Got questions? Hit "reply"! I read every email (yeah people are surprised!) 🤗 Thanks for reading!
Thank you for being part of the journey!🎊 Whenever you're ready there are three ways I can help you:
The Art Of Linked Reading: This course helps people who struggle to understand, connect, remember, apply, and smartly share insights from non-fiction books learn to do so with linked notetaking apps like Obsidian, Tana, Logseq, and more.
Obsidian University: a pre-made Obsidian vault, templates, and video course helping you level up your notetaking and studying, fall in love with learning, and get good grades in less time so you have time for other parts of college.