Dying Is a Learning Opportunity

by Kym Buchanan

10 November 2016

A game's cues and feedback shouldn't quell the impulse to take a risk, shouldn't smother learning before it can happen. If XP measures learning, then losing XP for dying is wrong.

Losing XP for dying is wrong. Game design is often a matter of style and taste. However, this is one area where I see a categorical error, as a gamer and as a psychologist. To share my thinking, I’ll unpack dying in games, describe a human capacity called resilience, and describe the problem with losing experience points (XP).

Dying in games is weird. On the one hand, in many games the death of non-player characters (NPCs) is a near-constant event, including both enemies and computer-controlled allies. This is especially true in hack-n-slash and shooter games that feature the wholesale slaughter of NPCs, such as Diablo 3, Castle Crashers, or Serious Sam. On the other hand, in many games the player-character rarely or never dies. Player-characters are often distinguished in a game world by their extraordinary abilities, including their ability to take damage and rebound from it. Even when my player character does die, I can usually resurrect on the spot or nearby, resurrect back at a recent checkpoint, or reload a recent save. Resurrection or reloading may happen so seamlessly that we could be forgiven for thinking of dying in games as something different than dying in real life.
Indeed, dying in games is special. It’s a form of feedback to the player. The message is almost always that I’ve made a mistake. If I had made different choices, then I wouldn’t have died.  After I resurrect, if I make different, better choices, then I won’t die again (or at least not in the same way). Feedback is useful for learning, so for an essentially immortal PC, dying is a learning opportunity.

To amplify the feedback, most games impose a penalty for dying. In some games I’m able to accumulate dozens of extra lives relatively easily, as in recent New Super Mario Bros. games. Losing just one of those lives isn’t a big deal. However, the penalty in a game may be greater, such as losing some or all my gold, having my equipment damaged, or dropping my equipment where I fall. Instead or in addition, I may take a persistent penalty to my abilities. In Dragon Age: Origins each time that I die I gain an injury (e.g., “Broken Bone, -3 Dexterity”), while in 7 Days to Die my maximum health and stamina are reduced. In the classic tabletop RPG Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition (1989), each time that I’m resurrected I permanently lose one point of Constitution. Ouch! A game usually offers a way to remove a persistent penalty, but until then, it’s a reminder of my mistake.

For any game in which I resurrect a significant distance away, the penalty includes needing to “catch up” by retracing my steps. I may even need to rush to collect my dropped equipment before it automatically disappears.

Multiplayer games sometimes include some of the above penalties. They also often include a different penalty: downtime. When I die in Heroes of the Storm, I’m out of the match for many seconds. As the match progresses and my team levels up, the downtime after dying gets longer—up to a minute. This death mechanic is comparable to the penalty box in hockey. I have to watch the match continue without me, powerless to help.

As I said, dying is a learning opportunity. While I’m waiting out a resurrection timer, waiting for my saved game to load, or retracing my steps, I have the chance to think about my mistake, how it makes me feel, and what I’ll do differently moving forward. In principle, I should be honest with myself about my choices. I should also emotionally re-center myself in order to re-engage with the challenge rationally and intentionally.

In practice, I may rush through that thinking or skip it altogether, and re-engage while still in an agitated state. In fast-paced, multiplayer games such as Heroes of the Storm, I’ve observed other players (and sometimes myself) dying many times in quick succession. Their emotions get the better of them, and they keep recklessly charging back into battle only to fall again. Some gamers describe this as “playing on tilt”, describing how emotions can unbalance thinking and performance.

I’ve previously praised guilds, including their collaboration potential. This can include collaborating on individual and collective learning. A sterling example of this is After Action Reports. Some guilds encourage or require members to complete AARs after dying in player-vs-player combat, to scaffold thinking about their mistakes and how they’ll make different choices in the future. After I died in EVE Online, my guild would provide a free replacement ship if and only if I wrote a satisfactory AAR on our private online forum. For many AARs, my fellow guildies responded, turning the forum thread into a teachable moment and fostering collective learning.

I was initially uncomfortable with the AAR process. I misperceived it as public shaming or even hazing. However, I soon realized that I was wrong. Rather than humiliation, the process upheld two admirable values. First, my guild affiliation was public information, so my triumphs and errors reflected on the whole guild. As a guild, we were committed to maintaining and improving our reputation, and learning from mistakes was essential to that happening. Second, everyone in my guild made mistakes from time to time. What often distinguishes great players from average—in any guild or game—is owning a mistake (“that was my fault”), learning from it, and applying that learning to future choices. With AARs and other elements of our intentional community, my guild made an authentic commitment to continuous improvement.

We were also nurturing a human capacity called resilience. Resilience is a hot idea in psychology and education. Many researchers are studying various real-life character traits, searching for correlations with learning, academic success, and career success. Resilience is one such trait. When I rebound from failure with renewed commitment and effort, when I get up after falling down, I demonstrate high resilience. Perhaps I have a growth mindset and see mistakes as a necessary hardship on the path of self-improvement, or perhaps I’m so committed that I push on regardless of setbacks. In any case, resilience is highly correlated with learning and success. So we should try to kindle and sustain resilience in our students, children, colleagues, friends, guildies, and especially ourselves.

Resilience matters to gaming because in most games dying is not supposed to be the end of the experience. Rather, a designer wants the player to get up and try again. Resilience is more likely when the consequences of a mistake seem manageable. As I think about my mistake and re-center, I’m more likely to demonstrate resilience if I’m confident that I can catch up. I’ve paid for my mistake and learned from it, and now I can apply that learning.

All of which brings me to losing XP for dying. I’ve previously unpacked how games represent learning. Many games measure learning as an accumulation of XP. I earn XP by overcoming challenges, and when I’ve earned enough, I advance to a new level. However, in many games I lose XP when I die. In Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, when I lose all my lives and have to use the “Continue” option, I lose all the XP that I’ve earned since the last time that I leveled up. In other games, I may only lose part of my recent XP, while in others I may lose an entire level—a substantial step backwards.

Losing XP for dying is one of the oldest mechanics in video games and other games, and some designers may include it without robust reflection on their gameplay goals. Instead, I encourage designers to reconsider how feedback influences behavior.

Cues and feedback matter to teaching and learning, in games and beyond. Games have largely embraced a teaching paradigm of learning-by-doing. For example, few contemporary video games offer separate manuals. Rather, players are accustomed to learning through in-game trial and error, and that means taking risks. Using my PC’s abilities is the best way to learn my strengths and limitations, such as trying to kill an NPC or trying to jump over a pit. Sometimes I’m going to learn by dying, learn that I’m not yet powerful enough to defeat an NPC or that a pit is too wide.

In a learning-by-doing paradigm, the learning opportunity of dying is even more important, so it’s counter-intuitive to lose XP for making a mistake. It implies that I’ve done something wrong, when I may have done exactly the right thing: engaged with a challenge and taken the risk of a possible solution. My first choice may be wrong or even my first ten. But if I feel resilient, then eventually I will prevail. A game’s cues and feedback shouldn’t quell the impulse to take a risk, shouldn’t smother learning before it can happen. If XP measures learning, then losing XP for dying is wrong.

While I strongly believe that, I do see a one exception and one caveat. The exception is a “hardcore” mode in a game. A player chooses hardcore mode when they want higher stakes, including a greater penalty for dying. In some games, playing on hardcore means no resurrecting or reloading, but it could instead mean losing XP.

For some gamers, regular versus hardcore mode is the difference between playing poker with plastic chips and gambling with real money. Some gamers want the excitement and rush of substantial stakes. However, most gamers would agree that it would be a bad idea to learn the basics of poker by playing at a casino’s high-stakes table. That table is where I go once I’ve already learned how to play and I’m searching for an ultimate challenge. The very awareness of the search neutralizes my concerns about quelling the impulse to take a risk.

The caveat that I see is that resilience isn’t the same as die-hard stubbornness. Sometimes dying should be the end of the experience. In Heroes of the Storm, when one team pulls far ahead of the other, one or more losing players sometimes yield the field. After dying, they voluntarily remain in the “penalty box” for the remainder of the match. This speeds up the end-game and allows all the players to move on to a new match faster. (There is no “surrender” button in Heroes of the Storm and prematurely disconnecting can impose a persistent penalty on a player.).

In almost all cases, in games and in real life, taking risks and owning mistakes speeds up the learning process. When games simulate learning with mechanics like XP, they should honor that catalytic effect. In life, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, if I learn from falling down. In games, even dying can be educational and inspire me to move forward. So the XP meter shouldn’t go backwards.

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