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Children at a middle school in Oakland, CA, engage in some “hard fun” with the BraidQuake Gears puzzle in math class.

At BrainQuake we develop “hard fun” math-learning activities.

But what exactly does that term “hard fun” mean? It’s certainly not our term. I first came across it in early in the New Millennium, when I was starting out on my investigation of the potential of video games to provide good mathematics education.

The term was introduced by object-oriented programming pioneer Alan Kay to describe an activity that is both challenging and enjoyable. The educational benefits of hard fun activities include learning how to manage frustration, develop and test new strategies, and gain confidence.

In a video game, hard fun activities provide safe learning environments where students can comfortably experiment, being free of the expectation to be “successful” at the activity the first time they try it. Good strategy-based and role-playing games are developed with this principle in mind.

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Alan Kay (L) and his teacher Seymour Papert (R)

In 1998, Kay’s teacher Seymour Papert, a famous education researcher at MIT, published an article in Game Developer magazine, where he observed that game designers had a better grasp on the nature of learning than curriculum designers, because they had to — their financial success was dependent on gamers being willing to invest the necessary time to reach a level of proficiency with the game.

The young players Papert interviewed explained they stayed engaged because they were involved in “hard fun.”

“They don’t mean it’s fun in spite of being hard,” Papert wrote. “They mean it’s fun because it’s hard. Listening to this and watching kids work at mastering games confirms what I know from my own experience: learning is essentially hard; it happens best when one is deeply engaged in hard and challenging activities.”

I came across the term “hard fun” again in 2013, when I had dinner in Washington, D.C, with Greg Toppo, at the time USA Today’s national K-12 education writer, who interviewed me for his book. The Game Believes in You: How digital play can make our kids smarter, published in 2015 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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Education writer Greg Toppo and his acclaimed 2015 book on game-based learning

One of Toppo’s favorite observations was that video games are such effective learning tools because they provide “hard fun.” His book was the result of an in-depth study over several years of the potential video games offered to mathematics learning.

In an article published in Education Next, shortly after publication of his book, Toppo talked about our launch app Wuzzit Trouble and the (in some regards similiar) Norwegian math game DragonBox that came out a few months earlier.

Though Toppo’s article has been publicly available online since early 2015, I had not seen it until a few days ago, when it came up in a Google search I conducted on the term “hard fun.”

Though Toppo’s description in that article of the process whereby BrainQuake and Wuzzit Trouble came into being has a number of inaccuracies, particularly with regard to the time scale (his description was, after all, the result of a very enjoyable dinner conversation in a crowded restaurant), it actually does a very good job of summarizing the sources and the thinking that went into my individual contribution to BrainQuake, and how I felt about it just a few months after Wuzzit Trouble was released.

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Toppo’s article, published June 16, 2015.

What Toppo’s article does not cover are the many other contributions of the rest of our highly creative team. Good video games require input from a number of creative people with different expertise. In our case, we have a dynamite team, including, as our Lead Engineer, Michael Romero, the son of the legendary game developer John Romero, who Toppo mentions in his article (and talks about in his book).

Still, that aside, if you enjoyed playing Wuzzit Trouble (or watching your kids play it), or if you are currently engaged in the more extensive hard fun of the new BrainQuake app, you might find it illuminating to read Toppo’s article and see a bit of the history behind it (and games like ours). I also highly recommend his book as an excellent account of why games provide such good learning environments and how some of the leading titles came to be.

– Keith

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Developing children’s true math proficiency

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