How Games Represent Learning: Repetition and Reward

What is learning? Last week in the first part of my discussion of how games represent learning, I framed this question by asserting that a simulation often has a rhetorical slant. Therefore, if I literally interpret systems and gameplay, I can infer game designers’ answers to this question. Here are some further answers to the question, loosely grouped by theme, with some possible implications.

1. Learning is repeating the same task over and over. Like many MMO games, Albion Online‘s gameplay is centered on grinding. If I want to improve in fire staff, I need to defeat many, many enemies using a fire staff. If I want to improve in crafting pickaxes, I need to craft lots and lots of pickaxes.

This fits closely with emerging research. Brain science is too preliminary for detailed prescriptions in education. However, it’s clear that repetition is one of the best ways to learn, and perhaps it is the only way to deeply learn. In his accessible book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle relates brain science to the teaching practices in certain academies around the world. Coyle selected academics that produce unusually large numbers of high achievers in music, sports, and other areas. He found similarities in the philosophies and methods of the coaches, including the belief that top success can only be achieved through relentless practice at the edge of learners’ Zones of Proximal Development.

2a. Learning is successfully copying a model. In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I learn how to play various songs on my ocarina by mimicking what my teacher Sheik does. Humans have a substantial capacity to learn by carefully watching other humans. We’re most successful if we find and focus on the right model. We focus on someone who already excels at a challenge yet can slow it down and/or break it down into accessible pieces, who will patiently repeat the example as many times as we need and who will attend to and correct our fumbling until we achieve mastery.

In Ocarina, Sheik breaks down the melody and repeats the example as many times as I need. When I finally succeed, Sheik and I jam together on our instruments. Ocarina is particularly beloved among fans of the Zelda series, and these scenes with Sheik are part of its charm. This is one area where a high fidelity to reality and joyful gameplay can fit together very smoothly.

2b. Learning is studying your own work. In Albion Online, I can earn XP for crafting skills by studying an already crafted item. The study process destroys the item, a design choice which is probably more about game balance than fidelity to reality. While I can study other players’ crafted items, it’s usually more cost-effective and time-efficient to create and study my own. The result is a memorable gameplay cycle when leveling up the crafting skill. Create several copies of an item, destroy the copies by studying them, create several more copies, etc.

In real life, there is also rich learning potential in studying my own work. For example, I’ve watched recordings of my lectures in order to improve as a lecturer. Crafting always works in Albion Online so I’m always studying successes. However, in real life, our mistakes can also useful for learning. I may even learn more from a failure than from a success — if I unpack what went wrong.

2c. Learning requires finding the right teacher. In Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, I learn each spell and special sword technique by finding a particular teacher. Finding some of these teachers is a challenge in itself, because many are in hidden or hard-to-reach locations.

I see positives and negatives in this idea. I agree that a good teacher can substantially impact how fast and how well learning happens. I’m skeptical of any formal education model that removes a professional teacher from the equation, whether they’re replaced by a computer or by someone with minimal or no special training.

On the other hand, learning need not and should not require finding the one right teacher. Learning can be hard work, so we need to be wary of using the absence of an excellent teacher as an excuse to give less than our best attitude and effort. For example, a student may decide that they don’t like a teacher or respect their expertise, and thus stop participating in class or even attending. This is a big mistake. It may be harder to learn from a lesser teacher, but it is still possible. It is the student who is harmed by opting out.

While I tout the importance of a professional teacher in formal education, informal education is another matter. We have unprecedented access to virtually limitless materials and opportunities for peer-to-peer teaching and self-teaching, from playing online tutorials (e.g., Code Combat), to watching documentaries on demand, to joining online and face-to-face groups, guilds, Reddit communities, etc. In Zelda II, the only way that Link can learn down-thrust is by finding the one right teacher in Mido. In real life, we’re not so restricted in our learning opportunities.

3a. Learning is catalyzed by privilege. Albion Online is currently in beta. It will launch as buy-to-play. This means that a prospective player will need to pay once to start playing, but they won’t need to pay a monthly subscription fee to keep playing. However, like many players, I will pay the monthly fee in order to confer Premium status on my character. There are many benefits to Premium, especially the drip of Learning Points (see Part 1, 1c of my previous essay). This drip significantly accelerates my character’s learning and only Premium players get it. Therefore, my real-life socioeconomic status — including what I can budget for recreation — affects my character’s learning.

Sadly, I must affirm this belief. There are many factors that influence a student’s learning in K12 and higher education. Their socioeconomic status can have a disproportionate impact, for good or for ill. For example, there are substantial benefits to a student having their own computer with broadband in their bedroom, going on family vacations to historic sites or other countries, or not feeling pressure to work while in school. There are no certainties, of course. Some rich kids fail out of college, and some poor kids graduate with honors. But on balance, real-life learning is catalyzed by privilege.

In Albion Online and similar games, it’s possible to pay for Premium mode by earning and spending a substantial amount of in-game currency. However, it’s more convenient to spend real money, so real-life privilege still applies.

3b. Learning is catalyzed by collaboration. As I’ve lamented elsewhere, MMOG design seems to be trending away from rewarding interdependence among characters. Happily, Albion Online bucks this trend. When characters join together in a group of three, four, or five or more, they all earn 17%, 33%, or a whopping 40% more XP. This pushes players to group up. In the process, the players themselves may teach and learn from each other, especially if they’re talking about how to play well via text and/or by voice chat. Since XP from battles is still divided among the characters and the bonus plateaus at five, players are pushed to form relatively small groups in which everyone plays an important role (e.g., tank, damage, healer, support, crowd control).

This belief has very positive implications. In formal education, students can learn better in groups. Learning is catalyzed when the groups are relatively small, everyone plays an important role, and students are coached on being good group members. Teamwork and collaboration are also high-value skills in the world of work. When asked, hiring managers frequently report that they want more job candidates with more of these skills.

4a. Learning is a big deal. In Zelda II, Albion Online, and many other games, leveling up is a momentous event. It’s often accompanied by a congratulatory message and a special sound effect, melody, or voiceover. For example, in Diablo 3, the Crusader says, “My faith is rewarded”. In many games, leveling up also triggers a burst of sparkles or a brief pillar of light around the character.

Learning can and should be a satisfying experience, and achieving a new tier of mastery is worthy of celebration. In formal education, we hold lavish ceremonies to mark key milestones (e.g., earning a high school diploma). We could better celebrate the many smaller achievements along the way (e.g., correctly solving a problem at the board).

4b. Learning is a reward in itself. Albion is unapologetically about the grind, working hard for days and weeks to level up skills. For many people, even some gamers, the appeal of grinding is incomprehensible. At least for me, the grind has to be viewed in the larger picture.

As a multiplayer sandbox game, Albion Online fosters a variety of different goals and rewards. My guild has certain goals, and I work hard to develop my character’s skills in order to contribute to our collective success. Yet regardless of whether my guild feeds all of our citizens or wins a territorial battle, I still have the grind and how I met it. It’s a clear measure of my hard work, and no one can take that sense of accomplishment away from me.

In Zelda II, I need to level up and learn new spells in order to explore new areas and complete the main quest. So I savor what I do with more XP. I also savor earning it. I enjoy seeing the meter climb and the congratulatory messages. Many gamers feel this way. Games like Progress Quest even satirizes our love of watching meters climb.

This belief has the most positive implications of all. For teachers, our greatest challenge isn’t the mechanics of lessons and assignments, but rather in kindling motivation in students. We can use a variety of incentives and threats to pull and push students to engage (e.g., “I’ll call your parents!”). But the students who are easiest to teach and who learn the most are those with what we call “motivation to learn”. Researchers and practitioners spend extraordinary time and effort trying to understand motivation to learn and how to kindle it. A well-designed game can foster it organically, as Albion Online and Zelda II demonstrate.

Final Thoughts

I’ll conclude with a few observations. The ways in which games simulate learning illustrate provocative beliefs about learning. We sometimes witness a “moral panic” about the possible negative influence of games. Yet, this analysis suggests that games may have a substantial positive influence if we internalize beliefs such as, “I earn learning by overcoming challenges”.

In simulating learning, many games rely heavily on precise numbers and meters. We should be cautious about quantifying and thus reducing real-world learning in the same way. Not everything that can be measured is worth learning, and not everything that’s worth learning can be measured.

Finally, this analysis has provoked my own thinking about why I play games. Escapism is certainly one reason. I leave my troubles behind at the start screen. Yet, afterwards, I also bring something back. The sense of accomplishment stays with me, plus a belief not only in my character’s capacity to grow but also my own.

In games and in real life, I may not be able to change the world, but I can always change myself.