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  • How Commercial Video Games Develop Players' Skills

    [11.21.19]
    - Matthew Barr

  • Karla Zimonja, Director on Gone Home (The Fullbright Company 2013), also connects that game with critical thinking. Here, players are provided with incomplete - and perhaps conflicting - information, which also forces them to think critically:

    I feel as if there should be a certain amount of critical thinking that Gone Home could help develop, sure. We definitely tried to not fill in all the blanks, fictionally, but instead to allow room for the player to make the mental leaps themselves. This investment of mental work is much more enjoyable and interesting than just giving the information would have been. Learning is fun and working to understand a thing is super rewarding and satisfying when you succeed.

    For Matt Charles, Producer on Borderlands 2, having players develop new skills was a personal goal, although, like his colleague Hellquist, this goal was closely coupled with a desire to make the best possible game.

    I believed that I had noticed that really great games challenge you in a new way, and a challenge is really just an opportunity to learn something new. Or, it's a mechanic presented in a new way or maybe it's a recurring mechanic from another game presented in a creative way, in an unexpected way. But either way you're learning, right? You're being challenged by it; it feels fresh and new.

    So, for Charles - echoing a sentiment expressed by the likes of James Paul Gee and Raph Koster - part of what makes a game fun is the learning it is designed to elicit. This also chimes with what Zimonja says above in relation to Gone Home: learning is fun. As Charles goes on to suggest, if a game feels stale, "that probably means that, well, we're not really engaging the player, they're not having fun, they're not learning anything new". In line with Hellquist's comments above, Charles acknowledges that teaching players anything that might be applicable beyond the game was not the objective on Borderlands 2:

    The mission for Borderlands 2 was pretty much more, better Borderlands. We're trying to expand the audience, we're trying to gratify more people to a greater degree than we did with the first one, and we're going to do that by refining the things that worked, adding new things to keep people entertained and maybe grow the audience a little bit, and honestly cut the stuff that doesn't work.

    However, Charles is optimistic that some of the design decisions made on Borderlands 2 might have facilitated personal growth in those who played the game:

    Maybe they related to a particular character that had a struggle that was represented in a light that they had never considered before. You know, some way of empathising with somebody struggling with something that had never really occurred to them. That's what I'd consider a useful experience, that they might take with them out of the game.

    The empathetic learning potential of games to which Charles alludes here is a phenomenon that has already generated interest amongst academics and is touched on elsewhere in this book. In Chapter 4, for example, participants involved in the study on which this book is based discussed how playing games such as Gone Home had presented opportunities to explore new perspectives. Gee's Identity Principle, which states that "learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones" (Gee 2007 p. 67) is also relevant here, as is the growing body of research on games' potential to develop empathy (Bachen et al. 2012; Belman and Flanagan 2010; Harrington and O'Connell 2016). What is interesting to note here is that game developers are aware of such potential.

    Mike Ambinder is Principal Experimental Psychologist at Valve, creators of both Portal 2 (Valve Corporation 2011) and Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation 2007). Ambinder's role involves applying knowledge and methods drawn from the discipline of Psychology to game design; for example, "to foster cooperation or communication among players or to manipulate visual attention on screen or to design experiments for in-game economy". However, like Hellquist and Charles, Ambinder's focus is entirely on making the best possible game, rather than creating an experience that will develop skills:

    The underlying goal is always to make something that is entertaining to our customers. Make something they enjoy playing. And that's a nebulous description, but it ends up being something that players will come back to and continue to play over time.

    That said, Ambinder can also see potential for exercising skills such as cooperation in Valve's games, citing the acclaimed zombie-themed multiplayer titles in the Left 4 Dead series (Valve Corporation 2008-):

    Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 were specifically designed to enforce cooperation. That was a very specific part of the game design where we did not want to encourage players to go off on their own, so there are consequences for doing that. And we wanted to encourage players to work together, so there are game mechanics that are implemented that directly work to that end. So, when a player is incapacitated, some other player has to save them. You get higher bonuses for getting your entire team to the end of the level as opposed to just one person surviving, for example.

    So, for Ambinder, it comes down to "what kind of game we're making and what kind of behaviours we want to foster", citing a King of the Hill type scenario as an example where encouraging cooperative behaviours would be counter to the goals of the game: "your game mechanics would not encourage that and then you wouldn't get to see those benefits". In general, though, Ambinder suggests it may be possible for games to develop useful behaviours in players:

    But I think that with games, they are interactive and dynamic and adaptive and constantly changing. So, you do have the ability to elicit certain forms of behaviour that are ancillary to playing the game, but actually end up having better benefits outside the game.

    However, Ambinder is very clear that neither he nor Valve would make any such claims about their games' potential to develop useful player behaviours without investigating them thoroughly, citing an "innate scepticism about claims I haven't directly investigated".

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