Article Tags / learning (7)

The Suspense is Skilling Me: Punishment, Learning, and Tension

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Long ago, I wrote a post about the different roles of challenge and punishment in skill-based games and how they relate to flow and learning. My argument was that challenge should vary with player skill to maximize opportunities for flow while punishment should be flat-out minimized to prevent disruptions to learning. Doing things like kicking the player back to a distant checkpoint when they die inserts delays and distractions between attempts, making it much harder to learn. But there’s a significant difference between first learning a skill and mastering that skill, and this absolutely affects what kind of punishment is appropriate. I’ll explain, borrowing an example from commenters on that old post.

Imagine you are playing a new racing game. The tutorial teaches acceleration, braking, steering, and drifting, requiring you to perform each operation before advancing to the next. You hold the accelerate button, then the brake button, steer around some turns, and then try the drift but your timing is off and you fail to execute it. In this case, it would be counterproductive for the game to force you to start all the way over and pass the accelerate, brake, and steer tests again before giving you another chance to drift. The game is teaching the skill, not testing it. Failing to execute this skill should result in an immediate opportunity to try again. Additional punishment would just make it harder to learn, which is the exact opposite of the tutorial’s goal. A punishing tutorial is a bad tutorial.

But once you’re out of the tutorial and you start racing, the scenario is different. The game is done teaching new skills and starts testing them. You are no longer learning skills; you are practicing them. Your goals are larger in scope - not just “perform a drift” but “win this three-lap race.” And because the scope of punishment defines the scope of challenge, a challenge of this scope is not possible without real punishment. If losing the race results in just restarting, say, the final lap, the challenge becomes “win this lap” rather than “win this race.” In order to challenge you to perform well consistently enough to win an entire race, loss must cost you the entire race.

How I Didn't Learn Guitar by Playing Rocksmith 2014

Rocksmith 2014 box art
I was intrigued when the first Rocksmith came out - a guitar tutor disguised as a videogame? Learn guitar by basically playing Guitar Hero with a real guitar? It sounded promising, but I wasn’t totally sold on the concept. Mixed reviews prompted me to leave it alone and try Rock Band 3’s pro guitar mode instead. I didn’t really stick with that long, though, as it had the unfortunate combination of (a) being really hard and (b) not actually teaching me to play guitar.

Some time later, I thought of taking up the axe again, rescuing my dusty guitar from where she was languishing in the corner of my bedroom. I got another nudge in this direction when a musically-inclined woman on OkCupid called me out on my profile photo where I’m holding a guitar. (“Can you actually play, or is that just to impress the ladies?” “It’s to impress the ladies. Is it working?”) Then Rocksmith 2014 went on sale and I read a glowing review of it, and I took the plunge.

(Incidentally, this is the first game I’ve ever played where I thought, “Man, I actually wish I were playing this with a Kinect.” It’s obnoxious to have to take your hands off the guitar and grab a controller to do basically anything. It would be amazing to be able to just say “Riff repeater, 50% speed!” and have it drop into the riff repeater at 50% speed.)

The game advises you to play for an hour every day, which I tried hard to stick to. Daily play was easy enough to achieve, but I didn’t always manage to last a full hour. At first, it was because I felt like I was learning a lot very quickly, and needed to take a break to digest. But after a few days, it was because I was getting frustrated.

A Parenting Lesson from Athena

Athena box art
One day when my brother was a young boy, he decided to expand his meager collection of Nintendo games. Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda were great fun, but Brother Professor wanted something new.

So he enlisted the aid of Mama Professor, who took him to Toys R Us. With maybe fifty dollars to his name, Brother Professor surveyed the $35 NES games, inspecting the boxes of the games he did not already own. He found the one that looked the coolest, boosted by its ties to Greek mythology, and took it home. Unfortunately, Athena was the game inside.

When he began playing, my brother quickly realized it was an awful, awful game. Graphically ugly with no plot to speak of, featuring poorly designed levels and suffering from major control issues, the game didn’t even have any real connection to Greek mythology besides the name.

Brother Professor tried hard to like the game. It had been a major investment, and who knew when he could afford another one? But Athena was just too horrible. He couldn’t do it. He gave up. From then on, there was a self-enforced rule in the Professor household: rent before you buy.

Decades later, I was talking to Mama Professor and asked if she remembered when my brother had bought that one awful, awful game. “Athena,” she said immediately. I was impressed she remembered the title so easily. It turned out she remembered much more than that.

She’d been watching my brother inspect the game boxes. She knew this couldn’t possibly be a good way to pick out a game. She wanted to tell my brother to check reviews or talk to someone who had played the game. She wanted to forbid him from buying the game until he knew it was good. But she didn’t.

My mother held her tongue, and let my brother make his own mistake. And thus instead of resenting her treading on his freedoms, he learned a valuable lesson. A lot of parenting, my mother said, is knowing when to keep your mouth shut.

Real Games Have Curves: Welcome to the Competence Zone

Let’s make a graph. The horizontal axis is player skill. On the far left is no skill - just random button-pushing. On the far right is perfect videogame godhood, always doing exactly the correct thing at the correct time in the correct way. The first time you play a game, you’ll probably be somewhere in the middle - farther right if you’re a veteran gamer, farther left if you’re a novice. As you play the game, and learn its mechanics, you’ll trend right as you get better.

The vertical axis is performance level. At the very bottom is complete failure - game over as quickly as possible, not achieving any of the game’s goals. Farther up is the passing line, separating failure below from success above. The line itself is a performance level of just barely passing a challenge - surviving the boss fight with one hit point left, clearing the race course just before the clock runs out, and so on. And at the very top of the axis is absolute perfect performance - winning by the largest margin possible.

Now we can chart the performance levels achievable with a particular amount of player skill: the “skill curve” for a given challenge.

Crash Course: Top Five Games to Increase Your Gamer Literacy

Are you on the fringes of gaming? Do you want to get in deeper, but find yourself unsure where to start? Do conversations with experienced gamers leave you feeling lost? Is “sorry, but our princess is in another castle” your freshest gaming joke? When it comes to gamer culture, are you on the outside looking in?

Dogs on the outside looking in.

Have no fear: Doctor Professor is here!

Test Skills, Not Patience: Challenge, Punishment, and Learning

You and your friends are dead. Game Over.

Difficulty in games is a popular and thorny subject. Are games easier than they used to be? Does easier mean worse? Are games being “dumbed down”? And how do the dreaded “casual players” fit in?

The problem with these questions is that it is not productive to discuss difficulty as a single quantity. The term “difficulty” as it is commonly used encompasses two almost completely separate phenomena, with profoundly different effects on the player: