When we need to grind experience points, we seek out enemies at the edge of our current abilities. We seek optimal challenge.
I have a love-hate relationship with learning new games. I self-identify as a gamer, so being good at playing games is closely entwined with my ego and sense of self. But in the first hour of a new video game I usually die many times. The first time that I play a new board game I usually lose. I feel disoriented, clumsy, and ineffectual. I might petulantly disparage a game or its design elements in my head or out loud. I might remind myself that I don't like a particular genre (e.g., stealth) or that my partner is better at certain challenges (e.g., puzzles).
Nevertheless, I love learning new games. I love encountering new design elements or familiar elements combined in new ways. With a new board game, I love the group cross-talk as we build our collective understanding and appreciation. And I love engaging with new challenges and ultimately developing new masteries.
There is a unique pleasure in getting better. When the difficulty of a task is slightly higher than my current ability, educators call it "optimal challenge." Speaking as a career educator, we're still studying and experimenting with how best to help people learn. We know relatively little in a definitive way (and anyone who says differently is probably selling something). However, we are certain that optimal challenge is ideal for learning, hence my Twitter handle, @reach2grow. Optimal challenge can also help with motivation because it can foster flow -- a pleasure in doing.
Unfortunately, things that are good for us don't always taste good. Optimal challenge frequently includes some failures because I'm at the edge of my current abilities, stretching. Intellectually, I should be able to accept the risk of failure. When I'm learning a new video game, I should tell myself that every mistake is a potential lesson and all my deaths will pave the road to victory.
But emotionally speaking the risk of failure can taste bad and make me hesitate. I may decide -- consciously or unconsciously -- that protecting my ego and sense of self is more important than personal growth. This self-protective prioritization often underlies reluctance to engage with new challenges. Students may be more comfortable with rudimentary assignments and "easy A" courses. Gamers may prefer to stick with familiar games, series, or genres. When you listen to a gamer disparage a new game or new design element, you may really be hearing a discomfort with new challenges or a fear of looking inept.
Nevertheless, I keep learning new games and I bet you do, too. Some elements of playing a game temper the emotional distaste of possible failure. One element is the artificial stakes: the consequences of failure rarely bleed outside the "magic circle" of a game to my real life.
Another, even more powerful element is a belief that many gamers share. We believe in our capacity to grow by reaching, so we engage with optimal challenge with greater courage and optimism (at least in games). Put simply, gamers believe we can get better, so we do.
Belief that we can get better at something is part of what Carol Dweck calls a "growth mindset”. Unfortunately, it’s not a mindset that everyone holds. Rather, for many challenges, many people hold a "fixed mindset". They believe that they are only capable of a particular level of performance and no better, forever.
If I have a fixed mindset then I might believe that intelligence is like scoops of ice cream. We get our scoops when we're born, or perhaps based on which schools we attend. Some people get one scoop of brains, I got two, my more-accomplished colleague got three, and Gabe Newell got five scoops -- how lucky for him. From the perspective of a fixed mindset, an optimal challenge isn't an opportunity to improve; it's only a threat to my self-worth. Regardless of my preparation, effort, or strategies, I've only got two scoops and that's all I'll ever have. If I get stuck on World 3 in Super Mario Bros., I might as well give up because that's evidently my level of ability, now and forever.
Forever is a long time. I want to stay in love forever, but I don't want to be a mediocre Mario player forever. So I adopt a growth mindset, I continue trying, and eventually I triumph over Bowser. This isn't a refusal to accept the reality of my current level of ability. Rather, it's an attitude shift using the word "yet". "Yet" is a tremendously powerful word. It changes "I can't do this" into "I can't do this yet". I'm not stuck with two scoops. I can get more by reaching.
Perhaps the perfect symbol for the power of "yet" is the classic Game Over screen with this choice: Continue or Quit. Every major mistake in life comes with the same choice, although sometimes it's not so clear. In a game or in life, rather than dwell on my failure I can recommit to reaching.
That Game Over screen is one of many design choices that promote a growth mindset. Games can urge us to try new challenges, such as how Hearthstone pushes me to try every class. Games can also urge us to believe that people are capable of growth, such as how characters level up through experience. When we need to grind experience points, we seek out enemies at the edge of our current abilities. We seek optimal challenge.
Listing and quantifying a character's abilities and then shaping their growth can provoke self-awareness. I started playing tabletop Dungeons & Dragons when I was 13. I remember trying to decide what my own ability scores were and how they could improve over time. (Just now, I see myself as a 14th level Educator with Strength 12, Constitution 13, Dexterity 8, Intelligence 15, Wisdom 14, and Charisma 15. How do you see yourself?).
A game can inspire us by giving a brief, early taste of advanced power before returning us to novice abilities. Metroid Prime and The Secret World both do this. I see this as one of the most exciting potentials in teaching using games. Any academic subject can become more interesting if you can experience its advanced power, like solving exciting, real-world problems, and the earlier the better. For example, getting a taste of launching rocket ships or stopping an epidemic might inspire students to grind (i.e. study) the relevant fundamental math and science.
More broadly, the culture of gaming can promote a growth mindset. Like many gamers, I believe that losing on hard is better than winning on easy. When I'm teaching someone how to play a new game, I counter their initial reluctance with encouragement. I reiterate my belief that they can succeed, eventually. Games with ladders and leaderboards urge us to believe that we can improve. We expect new games to be more challenging, and we often criticize sequels when they're easier. Finally, I stand with other gamers who believe that we can improve our culture to be more tolerant and inclusive. (That's a collective growth mindset, worthy of a separate column.).
I believe that all of that is packed into the pop-up message and celebratory sound effect when my character levels up. With every achievement, I demonstrate to the game and to myself that I can improve, continuously building confidence and momentum. Thus, just as games teach and reward capacities such as fast reflexes and pattern recognition, they can also nurture a growth mindset. If I carry that mindset into other areas of my life, then this becomes one of the most profound, positive effects of playing games.