What Mario knows that you don’t: Video games and assignment design

Back when video games came in cartridges and video stores existed, I rented a Nintendo game only to get home and find the instruction booklet was missing. Without that booklet, the game was unplayable. Random button mashing did not result in any productive action from my avatar, and I kept dying on the second screen.

Video games no longer require cartridges, and now it looks like they no longer require printed instruction manuals either. At least that’s the thought of Electronic Arts (EA), the gaming company responsible for many popular games, including the Madden football games. Last month, EA announced that they’d no longer include printed instruction manuals in video games. EA’s decision follows Ubisoft’s strategy who made the same decision to go manual-free last year.

While I’m sure that environmentalists will appreciate the trees that will be saved, this news should have more of an impact on teachers. What the video game industry has provided for us is a referendum on how our students acquire necessary skills and stay engaged in learning.

The lesson of EA and Ubisoft is that we could do a lot better.

Why look to video games?

A lot of people have written about why teachers should pay attention to video games over the past few years. I won’t try to summarize all of those here. I will say that those authors who claim we need to pay attention to games because this is the only way to get through to kids have it a bit wrong. Instead, I side with the group that says we need to pay attention to games to figure out how they get through to kids in ways that we can’t. In other words, I’m not interesting in jumping on the games bandwagon so that I can bring more games into the classroom. I want to figure out why there’s a bandwagon around games and bring that knowledge into the classroom.

Here’s my take for on why games matter to educators. Game designers have a unique task.  A game has to immediately grab and hold a gamer’s attention. It has to be quick and simple to learn, and then challenging enough so that it continually presses the upper ranges of the gamer’s abilities. A good game will also keep a player coming back over and over again until s/he masters the challenges. Put shortly, games have to teach in such a way that the gamer wants to keep learning. And given the highly competitive market where technology is continually improving, some game designers have gotten very good at doing this.

But how do games translate to writing assignments? Consider Jane McGonigal‘s definition of a game from her book Reality is Broken, which looks at the psychological and sociological reasons behind gaming’s popularity. McGonigal writes, “All games share four defining traits: a goal, a set of rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.” That definition sounds overly simple, but there’s really a great deal of elegance in how it fits everything together. The goal is the desired end result that is made meaningful by the obstacles introduced in the set of rules. To get gamers to voluntarily participate in the game, the game develops a feedback system that encourages players to keep wrestling with obstacles and tells them how they’re doing and how close they are to achieving the final goal.

I don’t know that I could come up with four traits to better describe a writing assignment. Each assignment has a goal, either to demonstrate critical thinking skills or mastery of a topic by relating information about that topic to an audience. Each has a set of rules that is closely linked to the skill the instructor wants the student to learn: analyze this book, use four secondary sources, don’t just Google, don’t write a five-paragraph essay. Each has a feedback system; the assignment will be graded and handed back at the minimum, but it might also call for self reflection on process or workshopping. And each ideally has voluntary participation.

Some readers might snicker at the concept of voluntary participation, since getting students to voluntarily engage with their own learning is often the hardest part of the task. But that’s precisely why game designers have something to teach us. Getting a player to voluntarily participate in a game, especially when that game costs money, is a challenge that designer have to consistently overcome. And they rely on their control of the other three facets of gaming, the goal, rules, and feedback system to compel as much voluntary participation as possible. Instructors can do that too.

Given the similarities in the two tasks, the fact that EA and Ubisoft are going away from instruction manuals should teach us something about our assignment design. Before we get there, let’s look at how they get around it.

Teaching the gamer

Reflecting on the last few games I’ve learned to play, I’ve glanced at the paper instruction booklet, but it’s not as if I needed to do so. I could have played the game without even cracking the manual. How do video games do this?

Game companies focus on providing instruction at the point of need. In other words, they don’t want to give players loads of information until that information is of use to them. The most commonly-used controls are explained in a tutorial or while playing through the first level. When a segment of the game calls for a less commonly-used control, an on screen instruction appears to indicate how to perform that task. The key aspect to notice here is that a gamer does not receive instruction until s/he’s ready to use that instruction.

Game designers have also made games where it’s easier to play around in. Many games have gone away from the concept of “lives”, which limited the number of tries a player gets at a particular world. When video games existed primarily in arcades, game designers needed for players to fail so that they could get them to deposit more coins. However, with video game systems in homes, video games have now made it okay to fail. A failure generally just lets the player try again with only a minimal penalty of being transported back to the last save point.

Many traditionalists might be thinking, “Making failure okay? We’ll have a nation of people who don’t try hard.” But that’s precisely the opposite of what has happened. When game designers made failure less of a penalty, gamers learned to use the games failure system to learn from their mistakes. Because of this many players won’t read instructions until after they’ve failed a few times over.

To get a better idea of how all of this fits together, let’s take a longer look at how a highly successful game teaches a player how to play the game.

Case Study: World of Goo

Despite the silly sounding name, World of Goo is an award-winning puzzle game that provides great model for how a game can compel voluntary participation through a clever introduction of its goal, rules, and feedback system.

In the game, players link tiny creatures called GooBalls together to build structures into the air, across chasms, and around obstacles. The goal is to build a tower high enough to reach an open pipe onscreen. When that happens, a vacuum turns on and all the unused GooBalls ascend the structure and exit safely. If a tower gets too unstable or wobbles into an obstacle, the tower collapses or explodes and those GooBalls are lost. Levels are completed if a certain number of Goo balls are preserved.

Learning the game is all done while playing. As a downloadable game, World of Goo doesn’t even have the option of coming with an instruction manual. The game uses the first few levels as a tutorial and provides point of need instruction along the way as players encounter new challenges.

Players learn the basic goal of the game by following a diagram which is printed on a billboard in the first level. A few of these billboards appear in other levels, but never do they contain more than ten words or so. The game has an overarching storyline, yet it is there to show players progress through the game more than it is to give players a goal to shoot for. The primary goal is solving puzzles for the sake of solving puzzles.

Players learn to play the game by picking up GooBalls and bonding them to other GooBalls, which are already part of the structure. This process is facilitated by instantaneous feedback. When a GooBall is selected with the mouse pointer, the player can move it anywhere on the screen. When s/he does light guidelines appear to show how the GooBall will connect with the current structure. As the tower grows, a player begins to see weak points in his/her own construction. To demonstrate when a tower is getting too tall, it starts to wobble.

As the game goes on, levels become more complex, and completing them calls on some sophisticated techniques and problem solving skills. Players pick up these techniques largely through experimentation, building and watching towers fall and then rebuilding to address weaknesses. Players learn how to support tall towers with wide bases and how to provide structure for cantilevered portions of their tower through trial and error.

Each level introduces new twists in the game play. These twists include new types of GooBalls and new obstacles like wind or spikes which restrict where and how a tower can be built. Each of these twists makes the game more challenging than the last level, encouraging players to refine and test their skills.

Hints appear on small wooden signs within the game. Almost always, the hints are cryptic, requiring another level of engagement. In one of the early levels, a sign says, “A new species of GooBall. Must say they look quite beautiful. Maybe they have commitment anxiety; I’m not sure, but it looks like they can be easily detached from one another.” This hint helps readers learn that these GooBalls, which are green rather than the normal black, can be detached and reused on other parts of the structure. How and why such a skill would be necessary is not covered, but throughout the course of the game, these particular GooBalls come back in new ways, and each time, the challenge they present the player is harder.

Introducing these new twists through point of need instruction is so much more effective than previous method. In older games, instruction manuals would list pages and pages of potential obstacles to watch out for. Gamers might glance at that information when starting the game, but because they had no need for the information yet, they did not retain that information until they used it. Now that information is introduced right when the player needs to use it, and through it’s use, the player learns new skills.

The plus of this particular type of point of need instruction is that it allows for replay without distractions. Each hint sign must be clicked in order to bring up the information that is on it. Users therefore only have to search for instruction when they can’t figure it out on their own and don’t have to be bothered by clicking through a number of screens of information that they already know.

To facilitate additional learning, the game offers a sandbox level. (In video games, a  sandbox level refers to a level where the player can “play” with the elements of the game without furthering any of the games story line.) Called the World of Goo Corporation, the game’s sandbox level allows players to build towers in world free of barriers and obstacles. Here, players are also given the option of attaching and reattaching GooBalls to a structure with the sole aim of building the tallest possible tower. The higher the tower goes, the more it demands a more complex structure, and the more a player learns about the physics of the game.

The game adds a twist to this sandbox level by limiting the resources available to players.  GooBalls become available to use in the sandbox level only when a player exceeds his/her goal for the number of GooBalls saved in other levels. For example, if a player must save twelve GooBalls and is able to save sixteen, four extra GooBalls appear in the World of Goo Corporation level to play with. The limited resources mean that a player can’t ensure a stable structure by building a massive pyramid of GooBalls. That limitation means that a player must be creative and perform cost/benefit analyses when building higher structures.  Eventually, the player learns to better gauge how wide a base is needed to build to certain heights and to innovate new structural elements that enable stability while saving resources. These new innovations can then be used to improve performance in other levels.

The World of Goo Corporation also introduces a social element. As the player builds his/her tower higher and higher, s/he can see how that tower compares to other towers built by players around the world whose heights are marked in the player’s window in real time.

The design behind the game, specifically the way the game teaches players, is really quite brilliant. Like all great games, almost anyone who can manipulate a mouse can get some enjoyment out of it, but expert users can still find value in coming back to the game as they build higher and higher towers.

From game design to assignment design

As I said previously, I’m not the kind of person who thinks we need to turn our classrooms into gaming centers. Not that I don’t think that will work for some students, but not everybody likes every game. Plus, I feel it slightly diminishes the value of completing a writing assignment. Even those writing assignments that most effectively operate as a game are not going to give the same visceral experience World of Warcraft.

That said, I think there are lessons from World of Goo and EA’s strategies. Game designers do some things better than we do, and I think we can learn from them. I’ll summarize some of the applications of how games teach and motivate learning here, but I hope you will come up with and share your own in the comments section.

Provide clear, compelling, and meaningful goals

Game designers tap into players’ cravings for meaning, which McGonigal describes as “the chance to be a part of something larger than ourselves.” She notes that “[w]e want to feel curiousity, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.”

Student’s cravings for their work to mean something doesn’t simply disappear when they sit down to write an essay. I don’t think we’ll be getting writing assignments on epic scales anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from games to make assignments have more meaning.

Compelling students to find meaning in the goals of an assignment sounds like a tall order. Many instructors would be content just being able to get every student to hand in a draft on the day it’s due. However, perhaps that’s because some writing assignments don’t offer enough intrinsic value.

I’m not trying to blame instructors for all of this. So many students treat assignments as just a routine exercise because they don’t see any meaning in their education besides getting their ticket punched.

Because of those motivation problems, I tend to like assignments that have more meaning built into them. Providing assignments which have  a meaningful goal can help associate the value of those acts to extrinsic and intrinsic rewards writing can bring. While we can’t enlist them in a quest to save the world from alien invasion, we can task students with solving real world problems. An assignment might ask students how they’d take everything they learned in a sociology class to figure out a fix for the state’s education system. Or an assignment might ask students to analyze how a particular experience in a novel helps the reader understand and access a complex emotion.

That connection to real world problems can be enhanced by providing students with a specific audience to write for. For example, you might ask students to write about education problems with the goal of sending those to the state’s head of schools. Or you might have students get together and read each other’s papers on the complexity of an emotion to see which they’d give to a person who is emotionally ignorant. This social element of writing, the idea that a student isn’t writing just for a teacher, can replicate some of the positive social motivations that games have been moving towards.

You can further enhance the meaning of assignments by incorporating these real world issues into your course. Instead of setting up a course to simply deliver content, layout the real world problems that such a content will help students solve/understand. That way, students will always be thinking about the use of information, and they’ll be in a better position to write a paper when the time comes.

Change the way you keep score

In the arcade days, gamers used to aspire to climb up the high score list for a particular game. There’s some value to that, but anyone whose seen the King of Kong (which you should if you haven’t) can see the negative stress that is associate with aspiring to be the highest score. Such a scoring system provides a focus on rewards that have to be validated by others and therefore can make the gamer feel as if their effort is undermined.

Few video games keep score in the same way. Those games that do keep score, focus more on how you stack up against your past performances so you can see you’re getting better. There still are those high score lists, but those are managed differently. Many of them, like the Apple Game Center for iPhone/iPad/iPod, let you choose friends to compete against. There are still the globally-tallied high scores, but usually those scores are so astronomically high that gamers don’t stress about falling short.

In other words, games provide a score system that provides intrinsic value to every single gamer. That’s a huge motivating factor because it connects their effort to their improvement.

I’ve written about the dangers of stress on motivation to write and the feel of failure that comes with being too focused on extrinsic results, so I don’t want to repeat myself here. I will summarize and say that we want students to feel rewarded for effort and that getting students to find intrinsic value in their work is a way to motivate students to improve.

Students don’t get better at writing because they don’t effectively process feedback. They don’t learn from their mistakes.

Getting students to learn from their mistakes can be partly achieved by getting them to recognize their mistakes before you do. Hand out a rubric and then have students compare their paper to the rubric. Have them state what and why they believe their grade will be. If you feel students are not yet at this stage, you might do this after you’ve given them comments, but before you’ve actually given them a grade.

The theory behind these types of exercises is that it trains students to tell when they’re doing a better job, which ideally should enable them to feel like they can more efficiently focus their future efforts.

The focus on intrinsic goals can be enhanced with self reflective pieces that ask students to describe why they chose the topic they did and what they learned about writing or themselves from completing this particular task. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get much in these essays at first because students aren’t generally used to these metacognitive steps. But these short reflections give you a great opportunity for targeted feedback on how students can be more intrinsically motivated.

If you’re feeling braver and interested in taking on a completely new scoring system, you might ditch grades entirely. When I taught comp, I never gave any grades to any paper. Instead, I located where the paper fell within a rubric on a scale of 0-9. I did not tell students how the numbers on the rubric related to grades in the course. Instead, I told students that the goal for this course was to see how far on that rubric they could progress. In the final grade calculations, I let them know that I would more highly reward improvement.

I don’t have enough data to claim that this sparked a fundamental change, but anecdotally I found students more engaged with their own learning. Some students hated the scale and came to complain about not having grades. To those students, I simply told them that their grade was not yet set and that if they continued working hard, they could do very well. Other students loved the idea that they weren’t hamstrung by their prior ability. If they started off doing poorly, they could still do well in the class if they kept at it.

I saw this quirky grading scale as something similar to experience points in a video game. Experience points are points that are rewarded for completing tasks. They encourage players to continue playing because they see a tangible reward for their effort. By grading on this scale and encouraging students to focus on improvement rather than the final product, I wanted students to feel as if their effort was being considered and rewarded.

Give students a chance to learn from honest mistakes

Gamers keep trying to get better because there is no mark for failure on their permanent record. While we can’t wipe the idea of failure from education, we should at least consider how students become more motivated to learn from failure in the gaming world.

The most obvious way to encourage students to learn from their mistakes is giving them an opportunity to rewrite a paper. I’m of the school of thought that students should be given every opportunity to become better writers and if they want to take second or third chances, they should be given them.

I know a lot of people fear that this will result in students who don’t give full effort in their early drafts. I share that concern, but I don’t think it sees the full picture. Students who aren’t giving full effort are often students who are procrastinating, and students who procrastinate have problems with stress, anxiety, and fear of failure, which are the three biggest causes of procrastination. An opportunity to do a second draft doesn’t necessarily make procrastination go away. Without treating the root causes, they’ll still put things off until the last minute, and the paper won’t be all that much better. However, if you minimize failure and emphasize learning from mistakes, you provide students with more agency and convince them that they can improve, which thereby might decrease some of that stress and anxiety and enable their natural intelligence to come out.

Have students declare their quest

Video games send players off with very specific quests where the path to improvement is very clear. That’s usually not the case in a writing assignment, but it can be.

Get students to name specific goals that he or she will work on in a particular writing assignment. These goals should address weaknesses in student’s writing and press students to become better. When getting students to name these goals, it’s a good idea to send them to their past papers, rough drafts, or workshops. These goals may be concrete, such as goals focusing on writing grammatically correct sentences, or they may focus on more abstract goals such as working on transitions or sustaining an argument.

The idea behind getting students to name their specific goal is that you will get them to think about how to accomplish that goal, and perhaps even come into your office hours for additional coaching at the point of need. Just as a quest in a video game forces the player how to lay out their path to improvement, the student’s naming of their own quest is their naming of what they’ll work hardest on.

The bonus of having students name their own individual goals is that it makes commenting on papers much easier. When you assess a paper in general and you’re looking for all kinds of mistakes, you feel like you need to point out all those mistakes in the comments. If you know students set their own specific goals, you can comment specifically on those goals and assess how they did on those goals. Ideally, they’ll be tuned into receiving those comments because they’ll be thinking about the strategies they used and open to hearing suggestions for how to tweak those strategies.

Keep students focused on the end goal of becoming a better writer

Video games never focus on what you did in the past that was incorrect. They always look towards that end goal and tell players how much progress they’ve made.

In your comments on papers, tell students where they are on the progression towards the ultimate goal. If they do things incorrectly, don’t just point out what they didn’t do. Instead, tell them how to improve. For example, saying,”You provide evidence without interpretation,” emphasizes failure. Noting that a better paper is going to provide more interpretation of the presented evidence shows students the end goal. Telling students what they can do better rather than what they did wrong keeps their focus on improving and getting better.

In short, don’t comment on paper to tell students where they’ve been. Tell them where to go, and give them a bit of an idea of how to get there.

Provide grammar coaching only at the point of need

So many writing instructors mark every single grammar mistake. That doesn’t help students. For one thing, they don’t read all of those grammar mistakes unless they are correcting those mistakes and handing in a revision that is just surface level revision. For another, students need to know how to spot these mistakes, not what they are. Provide your feedback only when it’s clear students need it.

Video games have a model for how to do this. Many games will let a player fail a puzzle a few times, and then it will suggest help. For example, in the New Super Mario Brothers game for Wii, if a player fails a level a certain number of times in a row, a box pops up on the screen asking the player if he or she would like to watch a tutorial on how to beat the level. The game doesn’t offer this immediately from the start of each level because most players would skip it. They only see the option when they know they need it.

In grading writing for grammar, only mark a grammar mistake when you see it for the third time. At that point, mark it as a pattern and not an individual mistake. That way, instead of demonstrating a fault with the paper, you’re telling the student that s/he is missing this particular aspect of grammar and they need to learn the rule and how to spot it in their essay.

Finally, ditch, or at least cut down, the printed instruction manual

The best assignments can describe the goal and the rules of the assignment in fewer than 100 words. Probably a lot fewer than a 100.

Yet I see assignments all the time that look like legal documents. That doesn’t really help the student get started on the essay. Plus, it provides information that would be much better provided if and when it’s needed.

I know why many instructors take this tact. They’ve heard or experienced horror stories of students who come in and say that the assignment didn’t say they needed to put quotation marks around direct quotes, so they didn’t do it. If you feel you need to protect yourself from that, take a page from websites and put all that stuff in a Terms of Service document that students sign at the beginning of the semester.

McGonigal notes that “it’s a truism in the game industry that a well-designed game should be playable immediately, with no instruction whatsoever.” We may never get to that point with paper assignments, (though it’s worth noting that’s how most papers are written post-college.) However, there’s something worthwhile about putting an almost blank page in front of students that simply lists their goal and the rules. Ideally, this would be paired with time for them to generate questions to figure out what other information they need to complete that task. Such an activity might take the place of the traditional “here’s your assignment, are their any questions” activity, and would probably work a whole lot better.

We may never be able to construct a video game that helps someone get better at writing. Weaknesses in a students critical thinking skills can’t be detected by any artificial intelligence that I know of and writing teachers perform too many microadjustments in their instruction based on the needs and personality of the student for an algorithm to be able to provide the best service. But that doesn’t mean we can’t understand why video games are successful and find a way to import those things into our assignments.

Video games have dedicated, passionate, engaged players who continually rise to challenges and seek to improve themselves. If that kind of student walked into your classroom, wouldn’t you be pretty happy? Now’s the time to figure out how games do it and how to tap into your students’ own dedication, passion, and engagement.


5 Responses to “What Mario knows that you don’t: Video games and assignment design”

  1. August 5, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Hello! I’ve been reading your website for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Lubbock Texas! Just wanted to tell you keep up the good job!

  2. 2 http://luisjavierfont.Wordpress.com
    January 28, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Tampoco he conseguido resistirme a dar mi opinion.
    Me parece muy bien dicho

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

Most Visited Posts

%d bloggers like this: