Just Keep Climbing & Jumping: Tomb Raider's Pacing & Exploration as a Research Journey

The idea of pacing within a game is not new and certainly not unique to one genre or another. Action, adventure, role-playing, and even puzzle games all require a consideration of pacing. How the player progresses, how the action moves, and how layers of challenge are added are all pacing concepts within game design. The idea of pacing in lesson planning and classroom instruction is not new either, pacing set by teachers, students, or combinations of both are all applied. Education literature has witnessed pendulum swings back and forth between rapid teacher-directed classroom pacing and student-directed variable pacing. Two separate math classrooms found different results in pacing. Sangster (2007) found a quicker paced classroom was beneficial. Vaughan (2005) found that students were more successful when they were able to set their own pacing of a unit before beginning.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary’s challenge in pacing stems its’ heritage and its’ isolated atmosphere. The game throws a large and seemingly open area to explore. The player can explore every gap, cave, and reachable outcropping trying to find artifacts, ammo, and other hidden items. Or the player can seek out the most direct and efficient route out of the room puzzle, progressing forward to the larger goal. This initially creates the feeling of a large area to explore, but quickly the player learns there is typically one, and only one, way to get past the puzzles. There are frequent dead ends for players exploring the area seeking out additional health, ammo, or “lost artifacts.”

The level design does give the player the ability to set their own pace, exploring the open areas for every item or seeking out the solution to the next area. Unfortunately, the level design often creates conflicting pacing. Those looking for the direct route end up exploring because the solution is not immediately clear. And those seeking out each item may stumble upon the exit only to have to return for missed exploration. Over the course of the first half of the game, I’ve experienced both situations.

I believe the game is designed with a slower, methodical pace. A pace that encourages exploration. A pace that reminds the player of how isolated the explorer/robber Lara is. And a pace that was born during an area of game design when there were not clear (or even often stated) objectives, tutorials were not common place, and the rise of game walkthroughs (and sites like gamefaqs.com) were only beginning.

The result of this perceived exploratory freedom is my frequent frustration about where to go and frequent restarts due to missed jumps. The ideas here of pacing tie directly into the directions (and lack of) given to the player. The game asks the player to explore the surroundings and enjoy the journey. While I enjoyed the journey in the first area, by the second area I was focused on the outcome rather than the journey's exploration. I was just trying to get to the next area and goal.

The recent Destrutoid rant on exploration and my classes this week shifted my experience and expectations with Tomb Raider's pacing. The Destrutoid rant talked about exploration in games as a means to either power up and add abilities or as simply as a means to explore and discover. The contrast of exploring to discover and exploring to achieve a goal are at odds with their pacing. When a player's goal is finishing the level or gaining the new ability a tighter, faster pacing keeps the game moving forward and the player engaged in progressing. When the goal is exploration the pacing can be more open and set by the player. These two paces echo Sangster (2007) and Vaughan (2005) from above. The challenge for Tomb Raider: Anniversary is meeting the players' expectation of pacing. When my goal shifted from enjoying the journey to reaching the next area and objective, I was at odds with the game.

Being at odds with the game's exploration pacing, paralleled one instruction experience this week. An undergraduate art history course was looking specifically for articles and resources on their paints and were struggling to find more than a few exact matches. Their goal was to get the required sources and move on to the next assignment and area of their work. The project required them to find tangential sources exploring themes and imagery. The students expectations of classroom pacing were not to search and expand their knowledge and understanding, they were searching to complete the assignment. This difference in research goals effected their expectations on exploration of resources.

In tightly focused research session, the student is able to quickly and efficiently find resources needed. Unfortunately, this can often be interpreted by students as doing a search and finding the closest articles within the first page or two of results. This is not a new concern or expectation by students. Librarians often struggle to help students dig deeper than the top results or to refine a search beyond the "good enough" articles. But when the exploration goal is a quickly paced task to the next assignment, their expectations are at odds with the frequent messy reality of a research journey.

We must also realize that our expectations can be at odds with the students as well. Just as I was frustrated with Tomb Raider slow exploratory pacing, our students get frustrated with libraries with vast resource options to explore. They just want clear directions through the assignment to reach their goal. Not every class can enjoy the journey as much as a Master's of Education class I worked with this week. After three hours of research exploration, and two reams of paper later, they were still enjoying the exploration of every resource and treasure hunt for each new piece of research.

That is the pacing and joy of exploration Tomb Raider: Anniversary expects of its' players. But I was the undergraduate student who just wanted to find my way out of this research cave and out into the daylight of the next assignment. This is a lesson in pacing and exploration that I can take with me into each classroom setting. While I can attempt to inspire the joys of exploration in students, I can also help them understand which path out of their research is the most effective. Just as Tomb Raider's series of jumps, climbs, and ledges may not always feel like the fastest way out of an area, it is often the most effective. In research, sometimes the required information is direct and accessing it is quickly paced. But there are other times when we can help students through the most effective path, which often includes jumps from one database and source to another.

But unlike Tomb Raider's isolated environment, we can help our students understand why this winding research path is important to achieving their desired goal. Unlike Tomb Raider, where the Sherpa died in the opening scene, the individual student is not alone on this exploration. Librarians are there to help pace the exploration, providing both a growing understanding of the journey as a process and effective routes through the deep caverns of research projects.

Sangster, Margaret. 2007. "REFLECTING ON PACE." MT: Mathematics Teaching no. 204: 34-36.

Vaughan, Angela L. 2005. "The Self-Paced Student." Educational Leadership 62, no. 7: 69-73.

images from TombRaiders.net

Not Hot for Teacher: Lara Croft & Tomb Raider as Educator

Much is written about Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series. As a game it set new standards for 3D exploration in a "realistic" setting. As a feminist image, the character is still discussed over a dozen years later:
Jansz, Jeroen, and Raynel G. Martis. 2007. "The Lara Phenomenon: Powerful Female Characters in Video Games." Sex Roles 56, no. 3/4: 141-148.
But as an educational tool and analogy, well, teaching is not often the focus of discussion. Last spring Nicholas over at information.games wrote about his recent Tomb Raider experiences. I respect Nicholas Schiller's approach to gaming as educational pedagogy and his discussion of the game made me wonder about potential educational parallels. So recently Chad from Library Voice and I started playing through Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a remake/re-imaging of the original Tomb Raider for the Playstation.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been inching my way forward in Anniversary, one puzzle room at a time. And now, at about the half-way mark, there are some instructional parallels that are worth spending a little time on:

  • User interface settings
  • Individualized pacing
  • Clear directions
  • Staging assignments

Each of these gameplay experiences has a direct connection to what we teach and how patrons use our services.

User Interface:

Early in the first few stages of TR:Anniversary the player is introduced to the concept of “Advance Toggle” for attacking enemies. The default controls allow the player to auto-lock and draw their weapons automatically. “Advance Toggle” manually draws the weapon. When the control option is introduced it in via a quick pop-up window suggesting the control scheme if you are having trouble. The reality was, I was not having trouble defeating the few wild animals around the levels. Since attacking was not an issue, I dismissed the suggestion and continued through the game.

Unfortunately, not using this option made the first boss battle overly difficult. The first real test of gameplay skill comes in the form of a T-Rex. Using the default interface, which was able to get me through the first three levels only resulted in frustration, lots of frustration and dozens of attempts. When I switched to the “advance” interface I was able to defeat the dino in two attempts.

There is a discussion to have about the practice vs. performance aspect of this boss, going from a suggestion to a requirement of a skill needed to progress does not allow the player much room to develop the ability. Part of the problem with the lack of practice is the ease of the default interface. It is easy enough to run around letting the game AI auto target, but it suddenly becomes much more efficient when using the “advanced” controls.

This is the same situation that librarians have discussed with students for years. In most cases, the advanced search boxes in EBSCO, Proquest, FirstSearch, Jstor, and others all result in more effective and efficient searches than the basic search. Last year when EBSCO switched their interface to the Googlized one line, students were please with the ease of use and access to results. Unfortunately, when students begin with more detailed and specific searches they often came up with the red line reading: Note: Your initial search query did not yield any results. But because EBSCO is so nice, the students still have 100,000s of hits based on some of their search terms. EBSCO often allows students to go through their search finding "close enough" articles. Or the research equivalent of running around and shooting until the player hits something.

This fall in my instruction sessions, I've made an effort to have students search both under the default interface and under the "advanced." Even the students that found results under the default interface's single search line, had more effective searches (relevance & retrieval) using the advance method. By helping the students see the difference and understand how to use the advanced search, they continued to use the advanced interface throughout the session and in future sessions as well.

Just like TR:Anniversary, EBSCO allows the user to get by with the default interface. But to really be effective in both the game and in research users need to dig deeper into the interfaces and find the advanced feature that will improve their quest for information and artifacts.

Next up: Pacing

Tomb Raider Anniversary image via TombRaiders.net

Fall Research: Games as Analogy for Information Literacy

During the first month of the fall semester I've spent my research time split between integrating information literacy into the curriculum and games the teach information literacy. This past spring, I was submitted a proposal (a section of which is shown below) and was awarded a two-year research fellowship student. The student will be assisting in the research, development, application, and assessment of using games to help exemplify and teach information literacy skills.

Description of Projects Involved: The Research Fellow, in collaboration with the project leader, will research and create tutorials that will be used by students to help teach information evaluation skills. These tutorials will include three distinct mediums for student interaction; powerpoint, web-based games, and commercial video games. In order to accomplish this, the Fellow will be responsible for researching critical thinking, information literacy, and game based learning. The Fellow will review gaming projects from other libraries and experiment with online Flash and commercial video games. The project will include four distinct phases: research, creation, application, and evaluation. The first year of the project will focus on research, creation, and piloting of the three tutorials. The second year will include applying these tutorials in workshop or classroom settings and evaluating the results.
We have spent the first month of the fellowship compiling a bibliography and helping the student work her way through the literature. As we work through the literature, I will be posting summaries and discussion of some of the articles. And as the fellowship project progresses, there will continue to be updates and discussion and hopefully examples of games.

While there is much discussion on creating games with the to attempt to teach information literacy skills. One of the goals of this project is to find existing web-based games that can engage players in information literacy skills and help create a discussion of how those skills can be used in their own research. The project will also compare student evaluations to multiple types of games as instructional technologies. The games themselves will not be intentionally library focused. They will ideally use a variety of settings to provide practical examples of information literacy skills and serve as an analogy for academic based research.