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Focus – it’s like a learning super power
by Andrzej Marczewski on 05/30/14 06:16:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This is a picture of my daughter playing Toca Pet Doctor. What can you see?

A child. A tablet. A game. A table. And a dress in the background?

What else?

Focus. Pure and laser like focus. My daughter is about 2 years old. I got Toca Pet Doctor for her today as a treat. My 7 year old laughed at me and said “she will not be able to play that, she doesn’t know how”.

I smiled.

After loading, the screen showed a pet. She tapped it. The screen switched to a picture of the pets fur, an open jar and 2 fleas crawling in the fur. She tapped the fur. Nothing happened. She tapped a flea, it moved. She tapped and held a flea, it stuck to her finger. She moved it to the jar, it fell in. She did the same with the second flea and waited. Both fleas jumped out of the jar. She tried again, dragging the fleas to the jar – only this time she closed the lid after she had put them in. Curtains draw and she is congratulated.

In 5 iterations and about 2 minutes she had learned how the game works. You have a simple task and a simple win condition. No instructions, no prompts or tutorials.

This photo was taken later in the day. She had had friends around, so was tired and a bit grumpy. I gave her the tablet. She immediately loaded the Toca Pet Doctor and started a new level. It turned out whilst I had been at work she had played a little and had opened some more levels.

She approached each one the same. Tap around, see what happens and then repeat. Over and over again, failing and restarting until she had finished.

She never got upset or angry. She stayed focused and happy. Concentrating, but enjoying the challenge of the game. She was in Flow. The challenge was matching her skill levels at all times, it was perfectly balanced.

Games are unique in this aspect. They can teach and entertain at the same time, whilst actively engaging the player. The player has to be involved or nothing happens. They encourage you to fail and to try again. In many cases they don’t even need to explain what they want you to do, they just let you find out.

In this case my daughter was learning lots of vital skills.

There were motor skills, logical reasoning skills, problem solving, shape recognition, spatial awareness and more. The joy is, she had no idea that this was happening. She was just enjoying playing a game.

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Ed Bryan
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Great article! I see the same all the time with my kids. There's some frustration sometimes when trying to do something very precise, but most of the time the children get so involved with the game and the discovering of how the game works is part of that.

Ian Richard
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The sad part is that as we get older, we're taught that mistakes are something to be ashamed of. So many adults will shut down a game as "Too hard" or more likely "It's crap" after one or two iterations.

It's funny, I spent a long time trying to live up to the worlds "rules" and never getting anywhere. It wasn't until I learned to accept failures that good things started to happen.

Andrzej Marczewski
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This is something that is getting more and more evident - mainstream games are way too easy and you can't lose!

John Celestri
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Excellent article! As we get older, we tend to focus on results and not enjoy the process of discovery. Discovery is a game all by itself.

Jacob Pederson
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The tablet and the under five age-set are a match made in heaven. My nieces are all over em, but my 13-year-old couldn't care less :)

Andrzej Marczewski
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When my eldest was about 4 (7 now) I let her play on my laptop. She could not understand why the mouse existed - why could you not just press the screen lol

Kuldeep Sharma
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That's were our gaming futher is in coming time there will be more fans of game characters than actors in movies.

John Celestri
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As a classical, old school 2D animator (with 35+ years experience in feature films and TV series) I agree totally. However, the game characters must have personalities that the players can relate to. I'm developing a series of games for preschoolers starring my own animation characters and know that there must also be total satisfaction with the game play experience.

Bryan Fisher
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Great Article! Thanks for sharing.

Eric Finlay
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"Games are unique in this aspect. They can teach and entertain at the same time, whilst actively engaging the player."

Well that's just not true.

Andrzej Marczewski
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Happy for you to give me examples of other mediums that provide the same or similar? The wording may be bad in reality, but i am yet to see my kids as engaged whilst learning as I do when they are playing games on the iPad. The game gives them the chance to be at the centre of the experience - something you rarely get elsewhere - even with the best teachers.