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Challenging Systems

I recently delivered a talk at the National Science Teachers Association entitled “Engagement Unlocked: Using Learning Games for STEM”. I began the presentation by disavowing the title because it suggests that, up to this point, engagement has been locked up and inaccessible in schools. That’s obviously not true. Yes, I remember having to memorize the presidents in social studies class, but I also remember having great fun designing a fictitious country. I remember uninspiring paint-by-numbers labs in science class, but I also remember simulating predator-prey dynamics by taking on the role of a fox and chasing after the rabbit kids in the school yard. Schools are not devoid of engagement, they just need help! And video games can help.

What makes video games so darn good at capturing and holding people’s attention? Is it the graphics and high scores? Sure, for a time. Good production values and tight reward cycles are like the bait on a hook; they lure players in when they have little other reason to be invested. But if the system beneath the glitz doesn’t quickly yield compelling challenges for the player to work toward, they often disengage. These systems are difficult to create, but they’re extremely powerful when executed well. Well-executed systems are those that simultaneously drive the sustained engagement and complex cognition that make learning games such attractive 21st century learning tools.

I’ll say it again in case you missed the big reveal: challenging systems are a key ingredient in the video game secret sauce. Naturally, this leads us to two more interesting questions: One, why is challenge engaging in games but off-putting in school? And two, what separates learning game systems from entertainment game systems? Well, I’m glad you asked!

/Rolls up sleeves

1) Let’s file challenge under “necessary but not sufficient,” because all sorts of unpleasant things are challenging.

For instance, homework and exams are often equal parts challenging and onerous. The key, I think, is not the nature of the challenge itself but rather the state of mind of the person being challenged. Here are four ways that video games facilitate a pro-challenge state of mind:

  1. SAFETY: Video games are safe spaces. Failure costs time but is otherwise harmless, and the space between failure and the opportunity to try again is typically the length of a load screen.
  2. MOTIVATION: Video game assignments are usually opportunities to gain points and experience a “win” state in the near term. (By contrast, school assignments are typically only opportunities to lose points from your overall grade point average, and the overall “win” state takes weeks or even months to materialize).
  3. SUPPORT: Gamers are never on their own when they get stuck; they are supported 24/7 – both actively and passively – by a community of fellow players.
  4. PURPOSE: Video games never ask players to learn or apply anything out of context.

2) Both learning games and commercial entertainment games use the power of systems to engage players.

An important difference is that entertainment games are designed to propel players toward further play while learning games are designed to propel players toward something of value outside the game (i.e. in the real world). If we think of games like stocks, where generating player engagement is comparable to generating dividends, entertainment games ask players to reinvest the dividends whereas learning games eventually encourage them to cash out. For instance, when Filament tested the ocean science game Resilient Planet with middle school students, the game inspired those students to investigate the real world researchers, tools, animals, and locations depicted in the game for days after the conclusion of the intervention…of their own volition. This is the holy grail of game-based learning, and highlights one of our core beliefs at Filament: that learning games only matter to the extent that they change players in ways that persist beyond the game experience.

As I mentioned above, challenging systems are a key ingredient for engagement, but they’re definitely not the only ingredient! What do you think makes good video games so engaging? Let us know over on our Facebook or Twitter!


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