How Games Represent Learning


by Kym Buchanan

1 September 2016

It's not only interesting how games simulate learning, but also how playing games may influence our beliefs about learning.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1987) 

What is learning? Many games try to answer this question, intentionally or tacitly. It’s also an essential question for educators like me. I spend considerable time and energy considering possible answers, with good reason. For example, if learning is just accurately recalling facts during a timed, multiple-choice test, then I should devote most class time to teaching facts.

I believe learning is more complex than simple recall, and the ways that I instruct and assess real people demonstrate that belief. Similarly, game designers demonstrate their beliefs by how they simulate fictional characters’ learning.
Any simulation has limited fidelity to reality, and that’s okay. The only perfect representation of a thing is the thing itself, the only perfect map, the terrain itself. Game designers compromise on fidelity to prioritize the joys of play, as they should. However, players can suspend disbelief only so far. The simulation of learning needs to be internally consistent, and ideally, it should fit with players’ own beliefs about learning.

Compromising on a fidelity to reality is also a response to various limitations. In a commercial recreational game, these limitations usually include serving a wide audience with varied backgrounds, players’ time, attention, and patience, current technology, the project’s budget and timeline, the designers’ abilities and commitment, and more. Making a compromise in design is a values-driven decision, and prioritization often illustrates designers’ values (or the values of the project). Thus, a simulation often has a rhetorical slant.

Suppose that I create a board game called Ballot Mania that simulates a US presidential election. My time, budget, and commitment are limited, so I grudgingly compromise by only including the Democratic and Republican parties. However, a rhetorical slant emerges that suggests that other political parties aren’t important (e.g., Green, Libertarian), for better or for worse.

In many cases, the rhetorical slant in a simulation isn’t grudging at all. For example, Will Wright is the designer of SimCity. Wright believes that investing in public transit is worthwhile. This belief is reflected in the game’s simulated cities where public transit delivers substantial benefits. If you play SimCity or Ballot Mania, your beliefs may shift towards the bias in the game.

With all of that in mind, I’m not only curious about how games simulate learning, but also how playing games may influence our beliefs about learning. To get at this, I’m going to do some artifact analysis. In this two-part series, I’m going to deconstruct learning in games by literally interpreting relevant systems and gameplay experiences to infer designers’ beliefs. I’m also going to comment on the possible implications if we were to apply these beliefs in real-life teaching and learning.

I’ll draw mostly on Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Albion Online. Zelda II is one of the first games that I played that included a substantial simulation of learning, and Albion is one of the more recent examples of such. However, there is ample evidence for each of the following beliefs in many, many other games. After all, character growth is one of the most common game mechanics in the medium.

What is learning? Here are some answers from game designers and their games, loosely grouped by theme.

1. Learning is a measurable, internal commodity. Learning is quantifiable, and I can easily, precisely monitor its accumulation—it’s a transparent system. Albion Online calls it Fame, tabletop Shadowrun calls it Karma, and I’ll use the most common label, “XP” (for Experience Points), as in Zelda II. Whatever it’s called, once I accumulate enough of it, I instantly “level up” to a new tier of ability.

As an educator, I see positives and negatives in presenting this belief. Learning is definitely something that we can accumulate. We’re not destined to remain at a pre-set level of ability. Learners should develop a sense of when learning is accumulating. This is part of metacognition: conscious self-monitoring of my mental processes. Whether I’m listening to a lecture or reading a book, I should have a sense of how well I’m learning or not.

Unfortunately, learning is seldom a transparent, easily-accessible system. In the midst of a semester-long course, a student may not have a precise, accurate sense of their progress. They can’t see an XP bar filling up. Rather, a key part of an educator’s job is assessing learning and providing feedback, ideally in ways that boost learners’ metacognition.

Furthermore, real-life improvement seldom happens as an instantaneous leveling up. Learners sometimes have sudden breakthroughs and educators savor these “lightbulb moments”. But most improvement is a chain of incremental successes and failures, and it may be two steps forward, one step back.

1a. I earn learning by overcoming challenges. The harder a challenge, the more I earn. As a result, I can tackle many easy challenges or a few hard challenges in order to advance. In many games, the common or only way to earn XP is by killing enemies. In Zelda II, I find bags of it lying on the ground and pick them up. In Zelda II and many other games, I also earn XP when I complete milestones in the main quest. In Albion, I also earn XP by gathering materials (hard-to-find ones give more) and crafting items (advanced ones require rarer materials).

I see this belief as one of the most positive impacts of playing games. I emphatically believe that we must embrace challenge in order to grow (hence my Twitter handle, @reach2grow). In Albion, once I’ve improved a skill to a particular level, I can no longer earn XP from lesser challenges. For example, once I can wield a level three sword, killing level two enemies earns me no XP. This pushes me to strike out for new territory and greater challenge. Such a disposition is invaluable in learning.

1b. The learning that I earn is connected to how I earn it. In Albion, during any given activity, I accumulate XP in two or more relevant categories. I always earn XP in my main “Adventurer” track, but XP earned through combat accumulates in one or more relevant tracks (e.g., weapons, armor), while XP earned by gathering or crafting accumulates in its own respective tracks.

I see this belief as mostly positive. It makes intuitive sense that I best improve at something by exclusively focusing on it, and education research supports this. However, there are at least two complications.

First, real-life learning experiences don’t need to be confined to discrete disciplines. For example, we can work on our composition skills while writing science lab reports, and we can work on our data visualization skills while giving a social studies presentation. Albion‘s Adventurer track partly simulates general improvement, but there’s no crossover effect from one skill track to another.

Second, real-life problems are rarely contained exclusively in specific disciplines. For example, a problem with a city’s local wetlands may demand a solution that draws on environmental science, economics, civics, communication, and more. Educators and learners should believe that learning can and should be interdisciplinary to best prepare for optimal future application.

1c. I automatically earn learning over time. Some learning is a passive drip of XP. In Albion, Premium members automatically earn “Learning Points” over time. There’s a similar drip in EVE Online, with a techno-babble, Matrix-like explanation. A key difference is that in EVE a player first queues up specific skills to capture the drip, while in Albion the Learning Points can be spent on any skills after the fact.

This parallels a belief in the allegedly-inevitable benefits of “seat time”. In both K-12 schools and in higher education, we often seem to believe that if a student spends sufficient time in a seat in a classroom, some learning will automatically happen. Educators like me energetically challenge this belief—because meaningful learning requires meaningful engagement—but it continues to guide many decisions about education programs and individual students.

2. Learning is choosing how to spend an internal commodity. In Zelda II, once I earn enough XP I can spend it on my Attack, Magic, or Life skills. In Albion, I can spend Learning Points as I see fit. This has no fidelity to reality. Real people can’t accumulate a generic internal commodity and then retroactively decide what to improve.

3. Learning is moving upward on a branching tree of abilities. One of Albion’s signature design elements is its Destiny Board. It’s a vast tree of every skill in the game, and it dynamically shows my character’s learning so far. I can’t earn XP for lesser challenges, and I can’t jump ahead. It might take real years to unlock all the abilities, so I’m pushed to specialize in a few branches (e.g., wielding a fire staff instead of all staffs, crafting pickaxes instead of all tools, etc.).

In education, there’s a powerful idea called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). A learning scientist named Lev Vygtosky asserted that there are three nested zones of challenge. The innermost zone is what a learner can already do independently, while the outermost zone is what they absolutely can’t do. The middle zone—the ZPD—is what they can do with guidance. The ZPD is outside their comfort zone but not in their panic zone. Many educators believe in the power of the ZPD, as demonstrated by teaching models. For example, under gradual release of responsibility a teacher progressively removes guidance as a learner improves. Albion‘s Destiny Board beautifully illustrates the ZPD because the nodes at the edge of my character’s current abilities are lit up in a visually distinct way. It focuses me on moving upward or outward.

In general, a skill tree is a high-fidelity simulation because many higher level skills do build on lower level skills. Over the course of a person’s education and career, they may periodically pick a next step based on their current learning. For example, they may choose from one of several advanced courses or choose to transfer from one corporate division to another. However, as I said under 1b, in real life some branches touch or even intertwine, and real-life problem-solving is often interdisciplinary.

Those are just some of the beliefs embedded in how games simulate learning. Next Tuesday in Part 2, I’ll analyze some additional beliefs in games about learning and offer some final observations.

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