Library Voice vs. Research Quest –Games and mastery

This is the second week of Research Quest vs. Library Voice on the topic of video games. Paul and I have agreed to have something out on the topic each week, which challenges us (and hopefully others) to think more about understanding video games and learning.

After writing last week’s post and thinking more about how GTA teaches players, I began to think that something was missing in GTA. GTA definitely teaches players and helps them learn to play the game. However, I have my doubts about whether players truly master the skills they learn. However, I truly believe that games can teach players to truly master a skill, and there are some great games that do this.

Growing up, I attended a soccer camp almost every single summer. At the camp we learned new skills from British soccer pros, and then put those skills into practice through various drills. We also had the opportunity to play full matches as well each day. After playing soccer for eight hours a day for a whole week, you could almost guarantee that you would be a better player on Friday than you were on Monday. Throughout the week the pros would demonstrate how a particular skill or drill was to be done, then the players got plenty of practice attempting to apply what they had learned. Once players got better at a drill, the pros would give them something else to work on to further challenge their skills. It was this combination of challenge, feedback, and practice that helped to make me a better soccer player. I even won the skill champion award for my age group one year. (I still have that trophy somewhere)

Video games also incorporate this idea of practice makes perfect, and some do it very well. Games my use a try-and-die approach to mastering a skill, or they may encourage mastery through replay.

Try and Die

Many games are based on the idea of try-and-die until you master a particular skill. As a gamer, this can often be an extremely frustrating way to learn, but it can also be very rewarding when I’ve beaten a boss or accomplished a mission, or completed a level. 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. Game developers often struggle with making a game balanced enough to be a challenge for players, while also making the game fair enough to not make them overly frustrated. If a game is too easy, the player gets bored and quits playing. If the game is too hard, the player gets mad and quits playing (or searches the web to find some cheat codes). Most games I have played are based on the concept of try-and-die, and most are balanced enough to keep playing the game. As a gamer, you may have to replay the same sections of a game over and over again, but you’ll definitely know when you’ve mastered the level by completing it.

Unfortunately, many games that use this approach do not let you go back and play a level or mission again. GTA for example, does not let you go back and play previous missions. Why would a gamer want to go back and play a mission? Well, if a mission was fun enough, or rewarding enough, he might want another shot at mastering the skills needed to beat the level again. Or, if you’re like me, you got lucky or barely scraped by in beating the level, and you want to try it again to do better the next time. However, to repeat a mission in GTA, you would have to replay through the entire game from the beginning to find the mission, or make sure you save under a different save file. There is no built-in method for mastering a skill through replay.

Mastery through replay

Games are getting more and more expensive these days for developers to produce and for consumers to purchase. As such, gamers are demanding more value from a video game purchase, causing developers to add more to the gameplay experience. One way that developers can give players more game for their money is by enhancing the replay value of a game. Many of the best games have superb replay value, and as such, these games are often given high ratings as a result. While games with high replay value give players more bang for their buck, these games also promote a higher level of mastery than games that have low replay value.

Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror, a game that I’m currently playing on my PSP, has excellent replay value. The game has a number of incentives to make it very worthwhile for a gamer to play each level over and over again. The game has the typical linear progression like most video games do, where the gamer guides his character through a level, accomplishing various objectives. Once the player accomplishes all the tasks in the level, the level is complete and the next level is unlocked. In many games, the player simply goes to the next level, never to return to the level that he just finished. Syphon Filter has a different approach. Once the player completes the level in “story mode”, he then unlocks it for “mission mode.” Mission mode allows the player to return to the level at any time to play the level again. The gamer can then play the level over and over to truly master the level. There are various incentives for playing the level without dying, playing the level without being detected by the enemy, and for using various weapons or strategies. As the player gets points in each level, he builds up status points that can unlock new weapons and new levels. There are some levels in the game that I know like the back of my hand, simply because I’ve played them so much to unlock the incentives. In the process of repetitive play, I have developed a certain level of mastery with the game. I’ve still yet to beat the game, but that’s another story entirely.

The question

Here we have two different methods that video games employ to get players to master the game. One requires that a player keep trying-and-dying until he gets it right, and the other offers the player to become a master through replay. My question is this: Does real learning occur in video games with these methods? Can these teaching methods be replicated outside of the video game world? Which method (if any) should educators and librarians employ when teaching our students? Finally, can we do this without making it too dorky for our students? Paul, what are your thoughts?