I set myself the goal of writing this blog about a week ago. I had booked annual leave, so work wasn’t an issue, and like most of us I’m in COVID lockdown, housebound and trying to make the most of it.
I am usually a pretty motivated person, I don’t mind getting my hands dirty or getting stuck into ambitious tasks. If all that is true, why didn’t I start writing the blog last week? To quote Mickey Kojak ‘Yeah I’ve been staying up late playing Video Games’.
On Saturday, I started playing a new game with some friends. According to Steam (the video game distribution platform), I have logged 68 hours play time in 7 days. I had 2 nights staying up past one am and while I did accomplish a few things that I set out for my week off, I didn’t do nearly as much as I initially planned. For anyone that isn’t a gamer, or doesn’t play much, this may seem unfathomable, so let me try to explain what’s going on.
Video games are engaging, they provide immediate feedback for the actions of the player, they have encouraging sounds and worlds filled with a variety of tasks, achievements, and colour pallets. The positive feedback for the real-world tasks that I set myself were weeks or months away, but in my recent addiction, the positive feedback comes in minutes and hours.
The game is officially called Factorio, but Cracktorio by the fan community for its highly addictive properties. It’s very satisfying to play and does a fantastic job of making you exited to do the next thing once you’ve just finished a task. The gist of the game is that you’ve crash landed on an alien planet and need to engineer your way off the planet, building up resources, researching new technology and fighting off the insect like natives of the planet. It is a game of automation. You start out mining coal and copper by hand, running scared from the native insect creatures, and end up with automatic construction robots, laser defence turrets and more resources than god. Kick-ass. This is a perfect tool for procrastination.
As with this last week, most procrastinating that I have done in my life has been video-game assisted procrastination, which is hardly surprising. From adolescence through to university years, I mostly procrastinated away from my educational reading and assignments. While I did complete high-school and my engineering degree, I would often think that there must be a better way to learn this material than to study from a textbook.
To come back to the title of this blog post, ‘How can we combine learning with enjoyment?’ The simple answer is that we can try to make the learning process more like a game. Gamification of education (achieving learning outcomes by presenting information as a video game) is not a new idea, it has been around since before I was born, but I believe that it is not often done well.
Most gamification is done with a simple graphical interface feeding questions to the player with the goal being to solve as many questions as you can in the shortest time. You can find this yourself if you search for ‘math games’ and check out the available options. Other variants involve solving x questions to pass the game to demonstrate understanding of simple calculus, linear equations, etc.
These all suffer from the same problems: they do not teach the user how to play the game or understand the basic principles that are the aim of the learning tool, and they do not give the user a reason to want to come back to play again once they have stopped. This is something that good games do very well, and the secret lies in having multiple gameplay loops. A gameplay loop is something that the player does and then starts over again.
In Tetris, the primary gameplay loop is ‘Choose where to place this block’, a secondary gameplay loop is ‘Clear lines’ and a tertiary gameplay loop is ‘Beat the high score’. The learning games I described before only have one or two loops, where modern games have dozens. A modern first person shooter has a primary gameplay loop of ‘Shoot the things’, secondary loop of ‘Win the round’ and a tertiary loop of ‘Win the match’, but there are many other loops such as ‘Unlock weapon skins’, ‘Unlock new weapons’, ‘Unlock player models’, ‘Complete achievements’, etc.
What this means is that after the player stops for the day, they might be 90% of the way to a new weapon unlock, or halfway to a level up, there is something that they are close to achieving that they will come back to complete and start the cycle over again.
Part of the reason that I found it so hard to stop playing Factorio is because the game is built around constant feelings of progress. The primary gameplay loop, automating production of successively more complex items, is extremely satisfying, but on its own would only hold attention for a couple of hours. The broader context of the game means that every action makes a previously difficult task easier, opens up options to produce new and exciting items, and gives you a strong sense of progress.
You may have just finished the oil refinery last night, but that means when you get up tomorrow you can start making plastics, batteries, and on and on until it’s Sunday afternoon and you really need to get onto writing that blog. In an educational game, if the same feelings of progression and development can be captured, we can give the player a more engaging experience that they will want to come back to.
There is another aspect of video games which makes them unlike other media, which is gatekeeping content. Video games can put up walls that lock off the rest of the game until the player has demonstrated a solid grasp of some core idea. In this way the complexity builds over time until all the gameplay elements are introduced.
Imagine if while trying to read ‘A Game of Thrones’ the fifth and subsequent chapters were unavailable until you could demonstrate that you knew all the heraldry of the great houses introduced so far?
You: ‘Umm, I think the Baratheons have a bear as their sigil?’
Book: ‘GAME OVER. Retry from last chapter?’
A lot of education would run more smoothly if it was securely established that the student understood concept A before moving onto concept B. This helps stop students feeling left behind and compounding their difficulties until they eventually label themselves ‘bad at’ whatever they are learning and lose interest.
So far in this blog we have discussed that video games are engaging and enjoyable, that a lot of current educational games can be improved and that we can keep people playing educational games by applying some techniques enjoyable games use. In the next part of this blog, I’ll explain how I’ll be applying the ideas and techniques discussed here to attempt to gamify the learning of university level statics. We will discuss how to make the primary gameplay loop engaging and fun, what secondary loops are suitable for a statics game, and the importance of themes for video games in general.
I hope you’ll tune in to see how this project progresses and maybe pick up some new knowledge along the way.