When it comes to learning computers, play is seriously important


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„A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."
…said W.O.R.P. in WarGames.

Oh, man yes!

I used to love just playing around with my computer, and learned a hell of a lot.

Then I got a full time job in computing and learning new stuff about them is an unwanted chore. Exception: fiddling around with my home entertainment 'puter.


Whenever I’ve been asked to help a computer newbie get more comfortable with the machine, I look for the kind of games they might enjoy. Now if only I could find a computer game that would help me with my GIMP/Photoshop skills!

This is not only true of computers, but of any deadly weapon. Never underestimate the value of play.

Now people a learning to code JavaScript by playing a game.

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Gaming doesn’t have to be involved.

You can learn GIMP as part of a cultural jamming project, like creating photos of politicians caught doing reprehensible things at a petting zoo.

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In my experience anybody that doesn’t enjoy doodling around on a computer on their own is never going to learn to be truly comfortable on one, no matter how much they say they want to learn, beg their friends to teach 'em, or how many “How to…” books they buy. There needs to be a basic interest beyond what they have to do for work or social applications. If that core interest is not there, at best, they’ll be able to follow the rules to jump from one application to another, completely lost if anything goes wrong or is different. Amazing how so many smart people I know lose all rationality and critical thinking in the face of minor computer issues and concepts.

Also…in that same vein, the best thing you can do for your kids if you want them to be comfortable on computers is not to instill fear in them that if they click somewhere wrong it will break something. I always told my kids not to worry much–anything they messed up, we could fix.

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The important part about play is that it helps people get past the fear of failing or making a mistake…

Solitaire was added to the Windows O/S in order to teach mouse skills.

And now the question becomes, what game can save the mouse’s soul, when every touch-screen marketer would dash it’s fragile Murinae bones upon the rocky cliffs of the sea of obsolescence? / Oh sweet mouse, how your pixel-perfect precision and subtle avatar so finely dance across my screen. / neither obscuring your quarry from view with a hammy fist / or butter-like, lighting upon undesired icon / time and time again. / I sing a song for you, sweet HID of my childhood…

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I actually do get a little existential about the mouse, but I feel like its part of a larger trend that frustrates me about the bifurcation of computers into a category designed for producers and those designed for consumers, and the false and damaging dichotomy that this creates. At the same time that Rasperry Pi, Arduino, open-source coding languages, linux and other maker-oriented systems are enjoying a surge, mainstream, hermetically sealed, controlled-environment devices dominate and pass as “computers.”

As long as the former exists, the latter shouldn’t be knocked, to some degree, but, along the same philosophical lines that make people bristle at the idea that tailored search results will keep them from accidentally exploring things they didn’t know they didn’t know, computers that hide all the guts keep people from discovering the guts, even if they started out just wanting convenience.

Full disclosure, I wrote my Master’s thesis in TESOL on how creating, organizing and playing with directories and file hierarchies can be an excellent opportunity for language and logical thinking practice, as kids make decisions about how to organize image, text, notes, favorite links and other assets on their local computer. It was a strange moment when I realized I needed an app to view the location of files and folders on my smart phone (Android no less), and that Windows 7 introduced and prioritizes “libraries” as a file interface that pre-organize files and obscure their location on a drive. Sure, the easy answer is, “why are you using Windows, Android, iOS, etc… in the first place?” but I’m not really talking about me, I’ll be fine.

This also connects, for me, to @codinghorror 's post the other day about tiring of apps, and the daily clanging of the web’s doth knoll. Sure, apps are still software anyone can write, but I never would have written a piece of software had the web not made it fast, easy and exciting to dip a toe into writing a structured piece of text and having it appear as something more on the screen. When Sid Meyer said something akin to: “Stop sending me game ideas. If you have a great idea, learn some C++ and get cracking,” my response was “yeah, right,” but when my step-dad bought me a domain name, and said “learn some HTML” I saw it as less of a hurdle for whatever reason. App environments are also created and curated to boost a specific platform, and to get the app count competitive with other platforms so the the device is legitimized and survives. A totally different philosophy from the Web, where everyone should play because information is amazing, and wouldn’t it be great if everything was connected.

In the end, I hope that the wall between consumer- and producer-oriented environments and devices doesn’t become so thick and high that kids who never though of themselves as “computer” people can still accidentally discover themselves as just that.


I lived with my grandparents for the first couple years of my life, and I used to hang out in my grandpa’s office while he worked on his computer. I had no idea what was going on, but I liked all of the words on the screen (as opposed to pictures, I was an odd duck). Some of the first things I remember are Internet surfing on that old dinosaur with a browser that wasn’t IE, and writing stories in a word processor that was definitely not MS Word – and this complete feeling of freedom and power that’s really infectious, even at three years old.

I experienced a very similar feeling during my freshman year of high school, when I started running Linux – and with nobody but the forums to help me, and a 2GB/month Internet connection, I was pretty much learning by poking Ubuntu with a stick. It felt fun, natural, and amazing.

The best part? A couple of years ago, I was thumbing through the mountains of junk in my grandpa’s computer nook, looking for a blank disk, when I found a Debian install CD, version 2.0. When I asked my grandpa about it (because of course, I was curious!) I found out that he spent some time developing Debian with his buddies in the late 90’s – and that I’d grown up playing around on a Debian system without knowing it. :slight_smile:

That was also how I found out that I inherited my pack-rat tendencies from my dad’s side of the family. When you keep an install CD for twelve years…

Your post makes me feel immensely old.

I am boggled by the fact that someone’s grandfather not only had a computer, but that it was a Linux system capable of running a browser.

I mean, crap, my grandfather barely had a chance to enjoy his new-fangled color television before he kicked the bucket.


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