16 January 2012

Dead again: Failing in games and classes

Video games aren’t fair.

When classes aren’t on, such as over Christmas, things calm down enough that I can play a few games. And I was reminded that when playing video games, you can’t win. Well, you can win, but you’re going to die a lot along the way. You’re going to restart the game many, many times.

Hm. I should be able to drop down behind that suck there, without alerting him and… Whoops, they’re shooting at me! Where do I go!? And… I’m dead. And the Joker’s laughing at me as they take away my body. Ugh, this is humiliating.

When you play many video games, it is impossible to succeed in a lot of tasks on the first go. You walk into a room, press a button to open the door,and suddenly you have monsters released from hidden candles in every section of the room completely surrounding you, and you're dead before you have a chance to react.

Or, as they used to say in the school ground, “Bang! You’re dead.”

Only after you have been in that room, made the mistake – usually multiple times – are you able to figure out a strategy for how to deal with monsters suddenly appearing out of every orifice, and leave the room alive.

And then there are fighting games where the entire point of the game is to get beat up. But as you’re getting beat up, you’re learning the patterns and the tells of your opponent so that you can anticipate which punch is going to be thrown next.

It is impossible to play most games all the way through without dying. Repeatedly. But it’s okay. Because you know you can easily retry what you just failed, and you get better as a result.

I know from my own experience that there are a lot of concepts and ideas that I really didn’t get in class. It was only through continually working with them that I really started to get a hold of them. Now, I think that a lot of learning consists of getting used to an idea. In other words, I kept retrying and kept replaying and kept redoing until I got it.

In teaching classes, it seems that we often expect the students to do the equivalent of playing through a very long, complicated game without dying. And the students expect situations where they will be able to do that: get through on the first try with no mistakes.

This may be particularly true of university students in the sciences. They might expect to be able to take a class and get through without ever falling off the moving platform into the toxic waters below (to use a game metaphor). They usually gotten to where they are because academics have been pretty easy for them. They may never have really had to struggle with classes. Some will encounter that, “This is really hard, and I’m failing! I’ve never failed before!” for the first time in their lives in university.

How often do we give students a chance to learn like they learn in a video game? Where they can keep trying until they get it?

I suspect that there are ways to build this into the structure of classes. Indeed, I think that there should be situations where we tell our students up front, “You will not succeed at this the first time. But the first time is not going to be the only time.” Below, Ryan Dancey talks about setting players up to fail in tabletop gaming. Just replace “GM” with “teacher” or “instructor”:

The delicate balancing act I am required to perform as GM is to make them pay the cost for their mistakes without letting random bad luck doom them (or allow them to know that random bad luck was altered by GM fiat). ...

When I was a younger player I often took the attitude that the players should be free to be as foolish as they wanted. Now however I feel it’s my responsibility to play the metagame back at the players directly. I flat out told them that they could not win this fight. That, combined with the obvious damage I was doing to the party, was enough to trigger the “correct” response – getting the hell out of there.

That payoff? Maybe it will be a little something like this:

The reward is in the story: the players are going to self-generate a fantastic epic tale that will be so much more meaningful because they have to work for it as opposed to just having victory handed to them.

By having students fail, maybe a few times, before succeeding might make them feel like heroes when they do succeed.

External link

How to tell if you suck at last year’s games.

“Run away!” When gamers can’t beat the monster.


Katie Collette said...

This was me with Michaelis-Menten last semester. It was my third time being taught it and it FINALLY clicked. If at first you don't succeed...

Dr. Fox said...

Hmm...interesting analogy, but the more I think about it the less I like it. In video games, what you learn by repeatedly failing is often the precise sequence of actions you need to overcome an obstacle (left-left-up-punch-punch etc.) That seems analogous to students simply memorizing material so they can regurgitate it. Which is exactly what many students want to do. And they even feel a sense of accomplishment when they do it (it can take many hours of effort to memorize a lot of stuff). But I don't think we should teach our courses so that's what students need to do in order to succeed. I recognize that that's probably not how you intended the analogy. But I think it shows that the analogy is too loose.

Jeff Alexander said...

Some will encounter that, “This is really hard, and I’m failing! I’ve never failed before!” for the first time in their lives in university.

Games (at least, good ones) can help reinforce persistence by setting up challenging yet compelling and solvable problems and giving the player freedom to attempt a variety of approaches until success is attained. (That’s an incredibly brief overview. See something like Koster’s A Theory of Fun for more.) Success in life in general, and scientific research in particular, depends on persistence, and that’s not a trait that gifted students exercise much in primary school. Getting them used to persevering beyond failed first attempts rather than learning conditioned helplessness is a good thing. Games can also be an analog to experiments that let students discover first-hand that they have incorrect preconceived notions — a problem that simple lectures have proven ineffective at correcting.

The hazard is that a game’s deliberate, precision pacing, with a solution always present and just out of reach, is the diametric opposite of Real Life. The pacing of game solutions bears no resemblance to scientific progress except by chance. The universe is what it is, and it doesn’t care whether we get it, how hard we try to, or whether it gives us periodic progress reports along the way.