Video Games and the Learning Sciences

In Learning and Games, Gee lays out the pathway through which games ‘teach’ players the content of the game (i.e. how to excel at the game). Games (well designed games at least) don’t come right out and explain to you to how to win, or excel. In well designed games, tutorials are minimal, subtle, and in many cases indiscernible from the rest of the game. Rather than explicitly lecturing players about how everything works in the game, a more indirect route is taken, which Gee summarizes as:

Identity<->Goals and Norms<->Tools and Technologies<->Context<->Content

Games create engagement through  first developing the player’s identity and a set of goals and norms. This is the backbone of good game design and is what makes games engaging. Without this aspect, you have nothing more exciting or substantial than a book of puzzles. Once a player has a clear idea of their identity and goals in a game, they are given successively more complex tools and technologies (in the form of literal tools and technologies, as well as skills and knowledge about the game, helpful non-player-characters, etc). They learn to use these tools in more and more complex contexts, which Gee would define as “problem solving spaces that are one of a set of similar but varied problems”. Through this entire process, players learn the ‘content’ of the game: how to succeed in the game, the story of the game, the message the designers might be trying to deliver.

Our education system is currently reasonably well set up to provide students with tools and technologies to solve problems. We are able to present them varied, yet similar problems through which they can learn content. It isn’t always structured this way, but the system allows it. What has been difficult to transfer from game design to learning design is arguably the most important aspect of this process, the creation and sustainment of the player’s/student’s identity, goals, and values within the game/learning experience.

Games are intentionally designed to create and define for the player an identity and/or a set of goals and values. This can be explicitly done through characterization using cinematic cut scenes setting the stage for the story of the game, dialogue between characters, and can even be player driven and defined, such as in the Mass Effect series, where the story, goals, and relationships with other characters are defined by the choices the player makes. Games don’t have to be so explicit in setting up these goals. Consider this following image from within the first minute of Jonathan Blow’s latest opus The Witness:

As you walk up some stairs out into the world for the first time, the doorway perfectly frames a distant mountain with some kind of structure at its peak. Feel that urge? That desire to see what’s up there? That’s The Witness telling you very clearly, yet very subtly, what your goal is, with zero dialogue, zero characterization, zero cutscenes, and zero explanation. In addition, this framing points you straight at a bright yellow panel contrasted against a darker backdrop, guiding you towards your first tasks. In a single image, The Witness has told the player both their grand end goal and their humble first steps. I wish my high school course outlines could be this elegant.

The environment of The Witness creates intrigue and engagement in many other ways, with interesting landscapes and artifacts scattered around it’s island setting, but it maintains the player’s focus on the goal by not only keeping the mountain in sight most of the time, but literally pointing straight to it with lasers as you complete various zones around the island.

In case you were unsure of what you were working toward

In case you missed the part about how important the mountain is

This is what, in my opinion, the gamification movement is missing. Achievements, digital badges, levels, and progress bars are fine, but without these emotional hooks to drag you in, to motivate you and keep you moving forward, to hold your attention on an end goal, and to give you a reason (beyond marks, grades, handshakes, degrees, etc), a real, visceral, deeply felt reason to move forward, gamified classrooms are no more than a gimmick, a misappropriation of what makes games great, meaningful, fun, and engaging.




Witness Image 1:

Witness Image 2: