Have you ever done something where you looked up afterwards and thought “where has the time gone?”; an activity that you found incredibly challenging but fascinating at the same time, so much so that time and self stopped being important. If you have, then that activity could best be described as hard fun.
Of the many different types of fun, “hard fun” is the one that is most desperately sought after in education. It is sadly elusive, and does not have an easy recipe book to guarantee its production.
However, by looking at the features of hard fun, we can come to understand it and hopefully to promote it.
Hard fun shares many of the same features as the “Flow” state defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In fact it could be seen as an activity that is likely to introduce a flow state in those who undertake it.
The features of hard fun
1. It is neither too difficult nor too easy.
Hard fun occupies a space in which an activity is just at the edge of the ability of the person performing it. The person must feel that they have to stretch themselves, either mentally or physically, to engage with the task, and that they are performing to their best potential. The task, when it is on this edge, should be pleasantly frustrating. If the task is too simple then the person will be bored; too complex and it causes frustration and encourages people to logically eliminate themselves.
2. Time appears to have a different meaning while the person is engaged with it.
The expression “time flies when you are having fun” could have been specifically tailored to this style of fun. Time appears to go faster and yet also paradoxically slower. The person seems to be able to think faster and perform the tasks that need to be done without any fixed concept of time. The classic example of this is when you look up and are unsure where the past hour has gone.
3. Control over actions
The person feels that they are in complete control of their actions and that these actions have an impact on reaching their goals.
4. Concern for self disappears.
The person does not internalize the mistakes that they make, they simply try to correct them. They are also unconcerned with social worries or the perception they give to other people. The challenge is challenging enough that the brain doesn’t appear to have the resources to focus on anything else.
5. It has psychological benefits.
After coming out of a flow state or experiencing an activity that is “hard fun” a person is typically more relaxed and feeling very good. They maybe physically or mentally very tired but have a very positive view of the activity they have just engaged in.
How to promote hard fun
By its very nature it is difficult to design hard fun, but there are certain things that can help it emerge.
1. The activity must be scaleable, with more difficulty being introduced as skills are mastered.
Different players or students will acquire the skills at different rates. This means that some people will be in need of a steeper challenge curve, while others will need more time to get comfortable with the skill.
2. The student/player must have some freedom of choice to find their level.
The student/player has to feel that they have some control over the difficulty of the task that they are undertaking.
3. There should be some feedback system in place.
Without a feedback system the student/player cannot see how they are progressing and will be unsure of attempting to push themselves further.
4. Clear goals
If the activity is too open ended, it causes a paradox of choice situation. The goal provides some clear direction as to what the student should do. However, the goals must be balanced to prevent railroading the student through a system of algorithmic procedures that do not require engagement.
5. Clear rules
One of the wonderful contradictions of good rules is that they act as a freeing agent. The student/player understands what they are not able to do and so can focus on coming up with solutions that don’t violate the rules but are still creative.