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  • How Commercial Video Games Develop Players' Skills

    - Matthew Barr
  • Do commercial game developers think of their games as having the capacity to develop useful skills in those who play them? Or, do they believe video games present players with opportunities to learn something about the world, or about themselves? Might developers consciously include such opportunities in their games, despite their remit to entertain and - in most cases - generate revenue? To explore some of these questions, games industry personnel responsible for developing the games used in the previously described study were interviewed. The interviews began by asking developers if they had considered that their respective games might develop useful skills or experience in players.

    Paul Hellquist, Creative Director and Lead Designer on Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software 2012), is clear that the development of such skills was not a goal on that game. However, in retrospect, Hellquist identifies how the player's application of critical thinking is embedded in the game's design:

    That was certainly not a goal, to make a game that encourages people and helps them learn how to collaborate or whatever. But I definitely can see how the game could help with that. Certainly, critical thinking was important to me. My goal wasn't to teach or to train, but from my game design standpoint, critical thinking was important to me.

    Hellquist describes how forcing the player to think critically about the weapons and other loot that they obtain in the game is actually part of the fun. During the development of Borderlands 2, this philosophy led to an internal debate about just how much information players should be given about each item they encounter. For weapons, in particular, there was an argument in favour of reducing their on-screen statistics to a single ‘damage per second' figure, in a manner similar to Diablo (Blizzard North 1996). Hellquist resisted such a move, explaining that because attacks on an enemy in Diablo requires nothing more than a click of a mouse, it makes sense to reduce such a transaction down to a simple ‘damage per second' calculation. In a shooter like Borderlands 2, the outcome of an enemy encounter is affected not only by weapon statistics but also by factors related to player skill. So, from a game design perspective, reducing weapon statistics down to a single ‘damage per second' stat made little sense. Instead, players were to be presented with a number of different stats for each weapon, requiring a degree of critical judgment to determine their relative merits:

    What I thought was a really important and core element of the fun of looting in Borderlands was forcing the players to actually look at two weapons and say, ‘Hmm, is it more important for me to have a faster reload time or a higher rate of fire? How do I compare those two things? Which one do I think, as a player, will result in a higher damage per second?' I wanted those questions to be unknown, so that players could do that critical thinking and make their own decisions.

    One of the intended side effects of obfuscating the absolute merits of in-game items was to encourage online debate within the player community, which Hellquist feels paid off. Certainly, the game has inspired innumerable online forum posts, player guides, and wiki entries which address - in significant detail - the strengths, weaknesses, and strategies associated with the weapons, characters, enemies, and maps featured in the game. Such collaborative efforts are not uncommon in online gaming communities, of course, and discussion around the more opaque titles is particularly lively.


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