Vs. Mode: Mastery in Video Games & Mastery in Research

It's another week and while Library Voice and I are a little late to the table (finals week and all) we are back with another Vs. Mode. Chad starts off with a post on video games, mastery, and education. He raises questions about if games teach by repetition (die & try) or through practice (replay)? I'll first touch upon how games teach through each strategy and then move the discussion to what we can and should do about it.

“Try and Die”

As Chad talks about the try and die gameplay mechanic, “Typically, if you get beaten by a level boss, you have to fight him again and again until you defeat him. Once you get enough practice by getting beaten over and over again, you eventually (hopefully) develop enough skills or learn more about the boss to defeat him.” This is video games version of teaching to the test. Granted this is a gameplay mechanic originally applied due to the quarter eating economics of arcades, then to AI limitations, and eventually it simply became a video game tradition. There is most certainly skill here is the successful completion of a mission or a boss fight. But it is the same type of skill developed in schools to pass and perform well on skill and drill tests.

Gameplay teaches to the test be allowing players to practice a specific skill in the level that will be used against a boss battle. Anyone who’s played a Zelda game will understand the logic of, “If I just got bombs in this boss dungeon, then I must use bombs against the boss.” Now granted there is something to be said for the “just in time,” as Gee describes it, delivery of information that makes the information relevant and important to the user/gamer. But the method of gameplay, or teaching for that matter, that focuses on just passing the boss or the assignment is simply an extension of skill and drill educational practices. A class is passed, a mission is completed, period. Under this method the grade or the amount of health left doesn’t make a difference. One life bar or ten, the battle is over… move on.

Now I’m not the first to use gaming analogies to criticize some traditional educational methods. Others have done it before and done it better. I was rereading an article from Kurt Squire last week from Innovate (2005) and he leveled criticism at skill and drill assessment and traditional curriculum. What is important in this discussion is not the limitations of “teaching to the gameplay test” but how to get beyond it to the mastery level of skill.

Mastery through Play

Chad’s idea of mastery through play really boils down to “good enough” not being “good enough.” Game players may pass a level, but will they return to it again for a better rating/score or to unlock some additional material. While the player was “good enough” to move beyond the level there is often some incentive, either intrinsic or extrinsic, for them to come back. Chad’s question is about how we can create this incentive to come back and continue searching with our students.

Before we try to answer that question, let’s look a little bit more a some examples from games to gain a better understanding of what creates this incentive. Chad uses the example of Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror for the PSP (and ported to PS2). Dark Mirror uses both narrative and gameplay incentives to elicit mastery from players. Each level contains hidden folders that provide additional information about the larger story and conspiracy that occurs throughout the game. This is an embedded narrative device to motivate players to explore more even after they were “good enough” to pass the level. The gameplay incentive is tied to gaining a better rating or score for completing the level, similar to what Chad described.

[It is useful to know the distinction between these motivations because it speaks to games recognizing different learning styles. What connects with some players/learners will not connect with others, so building both styles into the gameplay creates an appeal to a larger audience. It may not immediately seem relevant to talk about video games teaching to different learning styles, but the consideration is there (but that is a discussion for another Vs. Mode).]

I’ve recently played Syphon Filter for the PSP as well, but I’ve been playing the online game Combat Ops. The online multiplayer version encourages mastery through play at the gameplay level. While a player may be good enough to help his team win a match, there is always room to improve. The improvement is encouraged as a player can play similar maps again and again against the same or different opponents. Even though I know I’m not even close to the mastery level in the game, I still continue to return, practice, and hopefully improve. Most online multiplayer games encourage mastery through play, since there is never a next level. Players continue to play matches with and against each other not for the story, but the gameplay. Multiplayer games add a social dimension to mastery, a player’s skills also increases their perceived valued in an online community.

Puzzle and racing games apply the concept of mastery through play as well. A player may pass an individual puzzle or track but there is always the incentive to come back for a higher score or faster time. Most non-story based games use mastery through play as a motivating concept to keep players coming back to the game. This week’s release of Boom Blox for the Nintendo Wii is a great example of this. As you can see from the gameplay trailer below, it is a puzzle game based around the basic idea of building up blocks and knocking them over. There are single player missions where good enough can get a player by. But the majority of the gameplay centers on getting a better rating/score for a level. Players return because the game is enjoyable and there is both an intrinsic and extrinsic desire to do better. The extrinsic reward is the better score or unlocking new content. But the intrinsic reward of having fun or a sense of accomplishment, will always be a more powerful reason to draw players back into games.

Now let’s look again at Chad’s question:

My question is this: 1) Does real learning occur in video games with these methods? 2) Can these teaching methods be replicated outside of the video game world? 3) Which method (if any) should educators and librarians employ when teaching our students? 4) Finally, can we do this without making it too dorky for our students?

1) Yes real learning does occur in both of these methods. But as discussed above, the “teaching to the test” mentality of Mastery of “try and die” is a short term skill. A player who’s barely passed a level once is not guaranteed to pass during another try, if they are not keeping their skill set up. “Mastery through practice” creates long term learning (of gameplay mechanics at least) through practice and continued use. This learning and retention of skill sets falls neatly into place with our experiences in educational environments.

2) The intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that the games mentioned above can be created in our classrooms. Teachers attempt to incorporate these various incentives and learning styles on a regular basis. The challenge is not only in creating these methods in the classroom but retaining them. For librarians how do we get past the “good enough” mentality of students searching for results and doing research? Creating experiences that get beyond “passing the level” is something we continue to struggle with. The hardest question is not if they can, it is how can they?

3) I sure hope that I’ve answered this question above… Mastery through play is a wonderful application when we can achieve it.

4) Ah, the “dorky” librarian question. I believe the answer to avoiding the “dorky” factor as Chad put it, is not to try to shoehorn our instruction into a game mentality. Yes, sometimes games are appropriate but not everything needs to be a game. A classroom setting can be just as engaging through gaming strategies and other teaching strategies without having to play a “game” with our students.

Creating a game sets a pretty high bar of expectations for students. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying and investing in projects and grants to create games. [Those are important and should continue] But it does mean it is not the only path. We can and should be using video games and gaming strategies to inform our teaching, not just simply to do our teaching.

So Chad if we agree that “mastery through play” is an ideal application of helping students move past the “good enough” mentality of the first 3 results in Google or the first page in EBSCO – how do we create it?

What steps can we start taking now to foster this mentality?

Can we ever foster it?

I’m already starting a response to my own question… I believe the answer lies in a combination of new gaming strategies and traditional education pedagogy. How about you?