Learning the Game of Life

If only it were so simple...

In my last post, I talked about the “magic number”—10,000 hours, the amount of dedicated practice time that it requires to become a master at a certain skill.  I reference the fact that as it stands currently, the average gamer will have 10,000 hours of gaming experience under his belt by age 21.  We are all, in fact, experts at gaming.  But what does being an expert gamer actually teach me?

Learning With Your Hands

In the comments on the last post, my father reminded me of a special we both saw which talked about laparoscopic surgery.  Laparoscopic surgery is a form of surgical procedure in which rather than slicing open the patient completely, the surgeon makes several small, nickel-sized incisions and inserts a tiny camera underneath the patients skin.  He then uses these complicated tools as his “hands” to perform surgery—including cutting, cauterizing, and stitching.  It’s much less invasive than traditional surgery, and the recovery time is much quicker.  It was of special interest to the two of us at the time, since my father had just undergone a laparoscopic procedure in his shoulder.

I imagine most of you have guessed the punchline.  The special indicated that surgeons who play video games have a higher success rate at performing laparoscopic surgery than surgeons who didn’t play regularly.  And we’re not just talking about a small increase here—we’re talking about performing surgery 27% faster, and with 37% fewer errors. That’s a tremendous difference when we’re talking about errors in surgery.  With numbers like that, wouldn’t you want to know you were being operated on by a gamer?

If you think about it, the connection between the experience of gaming and the experience of performing laparoscopic surgery is not a hard one to draw.  Laparoscopy involves using complicated tools to make fine, careful movements, and your only guide as to how you’re doing is—you guessed it—an image on a video screen.  I imagine it surprises no one that these are skills that you can develop by playing a lot of video games.  Only the staunchest anti-video game activists would ever argue that you can’t learn hand-eye coordination from a video game.  But can games teach us more than that?

Learning With Your Heart

Some time ago I read an article on Wired which you may have read also—it made the rounds on a lot of WoW related blogs.  The article was titled You Play World of Warcraft? You’re Hired!

This article is packed FULL of choice quotes, but let me reproduce the most important one here:

In this way, the process of becoming an effective World of Warcraft guild master amounts to a total-immersion course in leadership. A guild is a collection of players who come together to share knowledge, resources, and manpower. To run a large one, a guild master must be adept at many skills: attracting, evaluating, and recruiting new members; creating apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group strategy; and adjudicating disputes. Guilds routinely splinter over petty squabbles and other basic failures of management; the master must resolve them without losing valuable members, who can easily quit and join a rival guild. Never mind the virtual surroundings; these conditions provide real-world training a manager can apply directly in the workplace.

I ran a World of Warcraft guild myself, for a while—a small one, back in The Burning Crusade.  We never got further than Karazhan, and eventually we dissolved into a larger raiding guild; my WoW playing these days is much more low-pressure.  But that brief time, along with my experience as an officer in previous guilds, prepared me better for the workplace than any previous job I had ever had.

Or to put it in more absolute terms: Being a WoW guildmaster is better “management experience” than any non-management job.

Everyone is familiar with the old catch-22 of the working world: you can’t get hired until you have experience, and  you can’t get experience until you get hired.  I daresay that if the people who do the hiring can learn to recognize it, this could present a very real solution to this age-old problem.

So we’ve talked about how gaming can make you a better artisan (physical), and how gaming can make you a better manager (social).  What does this leave?  Could gaming teach you to better perform complicated mental tasks as well?

Learning With Your Head

At GDC I was afforded the opportunity to have dinner with the author of Lost Garden, one of my favorite gaming blogs ever.  One of the things he mentioned at dinner was his recent creation of a game called Ribbon Hero.  Danc has written a post explaining it here, but as before I’d like to reproduce a relevant quote:

Ribbon Hero, in part, was born from a speech I gave back in October 2007 on applying the design lessons of Super Mario Bros. to application design. I made the following bet:

  • If an activity can be learned…
  • If the player’s performance can be measured…
  • If the player can be rewarded or punished in a timely fashion…
  • Then any activity that meets these criteria can be turned into a game.

Not only can you make a game out of the activity, but you can turn tasks traditionally seen as a rote or frustrating into compelling experiences that users find delightful.

Danc also posted the slides from the original speech, which you can download in PDF format.  Danc puts together great slides, so I recommend these highly.

The fact is, genuinely powerful computer applications are incredibly complicated.  At one point I went to school to learn how to use Pro Tools, and the teachers there had all been working as professionals in the recording industry for years—and yet I still managed to show my teacher a useful Pro Tools shortcut he didn’t know about.  The level of complexity in an app like Photoshop is unbelievable, and let’s be honest—the manuals aren’t doing anyone any favors.  Pro Tools for Dummies is 720 pages long.

But if you can make it into a game, I can learn it.  Not only can I learn it, but I can learn it quickly and permanently—in a way that I retain over the long term—and I will have fun doing it.  And as Danc explains in the slides linked above, it’s not even that difficult.  It all hinges on the idea of exploratory learning.

The modern conception of user interface design centers around the concept that users are dumb.  The oft-repeated mantra is “Don’t make me think!” UIs are built around the idea that people are stupid.  As Danc writes, “Sit in on any usability test and your subjects will flail about, click on the wrong things and ignore most obvious visual cues. We assume that users are idiots because we see them behave like idiots whenever we test them.”

But users AREN’T idiots.  The level of skill involved in effectively organizing and defeating a high level raid in World of Warcraft are on par with the skills required to do high level photoshop work, or complicated audio editing in Pro Tools.  And yet I know 10 or 15 people who can effectively execute a high level raid in WoW, and only 2 or 3 who can do pro audio editing, and 2 or 3 who know their way around Photoshop—because unlike WoW, I can’t learn Pro Tools or Photoshop as a game.

But…what if I could?

The Power of Games

Cracked posted an article a few days ago, entitled 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying To Get You Addicted.  Danc puts a more positive spin on the same concept when he says, “It turns out that games are carefully tuned machines that hack into human being’s most fundamental learning processes. Games are exercises in applied psychology at a level far more nuanced than your typical application.”  David Wong from Cracked writes about how these powers can be used for evil.  But Jane McGonigal from TED talks to us about how they can be used for good.

So the big question: We can use the principles of game design to do more than entertain.  How are we going to use them to educate, to train, to build social and emotional skills, and to make the world a better place?

Published by Malgayne

Community Manager at Google. Formerly at Sourcebits, Spark Plug Games, Zynga, and Wowhead.com. I like chiptunes and hefeweizen.

9 thoughts on “Learning the Game of Life

  1. If I had to believe the user was smart using a Microsoft Word-esque interface, I sure wouldn’t. Some people I know had to get my help to figure out how to save a file! :(

  2. I’ve actually been starting to consider a degree in game design—not necessarily because I want to be a game designer, but because I want to change the world, and games seem like the way to do it.

    1. Regarding your comment about wanting to be a Game Designer.

      I too, wanted to do just that, for very similar reasons. I felt many years ago that there weren’t enough “productive” and “positive” games in the marketplace, even though there was an audience for them. I come from a religious background, yet always had a good laugh at the comical manner in which these “positive” messages were delivered (which was the reason they never became wide-spread successes). Some companies had their act together, more than others, but there was still room for major improvement.

      So I went and got a degree in Game Design at Full Sail Real World Education. Shortly before graduating, I realized my error in pursuing the field; turns out I wanted a healthy amount of time with family, raise my daughters and be with my wife – goals which were not common within the industry.

      True, there are some companies that have surfaced as of late, that would have allowed for those goals to be realized concurrently. I just didn’t have the patience to wait for that to happen.

      I ended up in the Graphic Arts field, doing design / marketing for a Food Service company. It’s a “neutral” job, in that it does not have a moral or ethical impact on our consumers (we run business food service like catering and cafeteria). I’m ultimately happy with the outcome, but sometimes wish I had pushed through and continued design & programming. I would have loved to work on something positive like Jane’s vision.

      I feel I would have felt true success if I had gone that route. I’ll settle for the mediocrity I’m currently involved in…

      1. I don’t think it’s ever too late to do something that makes a difference in the world. Sometimes when you’re older is the best possible time.

        I don’t mean to advise you to abandon your job. That may be the right decision for you, but I wouldn’t count on it. Not everyone’s work can be satisfying—that’s inevitable. But I do think that if you’re not finding satisfaction in your work, then the right thing to do is to seek satisfaction elsewhere. My work doesn’t leave me much time for working on games. But, slowly but surely, I AM working on a project or two. :)

  3. The level of complexity in an app like Photoshop is unbelievable, and let’s be honest—the manuals aren’t doing anyone any favors and And yet I know 10 or 15 people who can effectively execute a high level raid in WoW

    Interesting. I’ll be contrary for a moment, as someone who loves and knows Photoshop, and holds her own in a dungeon. Photoshop, for me, is all experimental. That’s how you learn. A manual and tutorials can help, sure, but for me (and quite a few of my fellow Photoshop-ites), it was just *spending time* with the program that opened it up. You learn how to use levels by making best friends with the Undo button and just fucking around with levels.

    WoW, on the other hand, doesn’t work that way. For soloing, absolutely, and I soloed most of my way up to where I am now (72), but dungeons are a completely different story. Why, for example, shouldn’t I use all the same techniques as a DPS as I would use beating a boss solo? Oh, then I get yelled at for “pulling aggro.” Pulling what-now? WoW has sent me back to websites and asking friends for questions more times than I can count — what is aggro? How do I pull it? What is an effective tank? What’s a good healer? These things are things that can be learnt as you go, but it’s a pretty steep learning curve.

    Basically, what I think I’m getting at is that just because something is a game doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to comprehend.

  4. You are 100% correct. But I think what you’re describing is a flaw in World of Warcraft, not a flaw in the game design theory. The fact is there are a number of people—my father, for example—who do very well in a soloing context, but lock up when they’re in a group because of the fact that you have to learn an entirely new set of skills, and suddenly you’re doing it in front of a (frequently impatient) audience. Nothing in the World of Warcraft soloing game directly prepares you for such a thing, and as such the transition is unnecessarily awkward and difficult.

    The reason why people push through this barrier despite the obstacles that Blizzard (unwittingly) puts in their path, is because World of Warcraft is a Skinner Box, like the one I linked above (http://www.cracked.com/article_18461_5-creepy-ways-video-games-are-trying-to-get-you-addicted_p1.html). There a lot of motivating factors encouraging you to push through the barrier despite the difficulty, and if nothing else you’ve already sunk about 40 hours of your life into this game and you’re not about to give up now.

    As far as Photoshop goes, I agree that experimentation is the best way to learn it. But the same can be said of virtually any activity—you can learn nearly anything via exploratory learning, only a few skills shouldn’t be learned this way (martial arts, arc welding, etc.). What separates the process of learning Photoshop from the process of learning a video game is the fact that in video games, the exploratory learning is mediated—or perhaps “guided” is the better term.

    In a typical video game, you have to learn a few basic skills to get past level 1. When you have level 1 down, you face level 2—in which you must use all the skills you learned in level 1 plus an additional skill or two. In each case you are prevented from proceeding until you have learned the relevant skills, and you are clearly and directly rewarded when you learn them. You’re guided to the skills you need to know, shown them in the order that makes the most sense, and invariably given a virtual cookie when you get it right.

    Learning Photoshop via experimentation can be likened to playing World of Warcraft—only you start at level 80 with all of your skills already trained, and there are no quests. :)

  5. Honestly, I think Photoshop fits in better with your discussion of exploratory learning, at least better that Warcraft. You are given a goal. You are not told how to reach it. You can fail. You can succeed. Delight.

    I suppose I’m a bit confused, because your argument seems to be that users are smart, but then in a context of something like Photoshop, you cry foul, saying that the experience should be easier. I agree with what you said: users *aren’t* looking to be pandered to, and in this case, spending time with Photoshop is what separates the men from the boys. You can’t say that the reason people aren’t good at it is because it isn’t “like a game” (read: what? easy? simplistic? guided?) – the reason is they haven’t devoted the time to it, and it isn’t a priority.

    So then: And yet I know 10 or 15 people who can effectively execute a high level raid in WoW, and only 2 or 3 who can do pro audio editing, and 2 or 3 who know their way around Photoshop—because unlike WoW, I can’t learn Pro Tools or Photoshop as a game. I don’t think that’s the point though. I don’t think the primary barrier to Photoshop learning is that it isn’t a game – there are PLENTY of people who are highly skilled in Photoshop, and it’s a matter of them seeing the ROI in investing their time in learning it. If you made it game-like, you might have a larger pool of amateurs, but that would just dilute what it meant to be skilled in Photoshop.

    The only thing that seems to be different in your analysis is the need for the guide – what then of games like Braid that offer no real guide except for what you find out yourself? You learn from experimentation that different things move at different times and are affected by time (or not). The game doesn’t show you that: you learn.

    /ramble :)

  6. Braid is actually a perfect example of the kind of moderated learning I was talking about. Braid doesn’t give you an instruction manual, to be sure. But nonetheless, the skills you learn are carefully managed in the order they’re given to you. In the first world, you are taught that you can rewind time. You do various things with this ability for a while, and solve some puzzles. Then you reach “The Pit”, and suddenly you are met with a new concept—items which are immune to your time-rewinding abilities. This is a new factor, which you haven’t seen before, and in order to fully understand how to take advantage of it, you must already have learned that you can rewind time, and how to use that ability. If you were faced with the ability to rewind time AND things that are immune to rewinding both at the beginning of the game, players would have quickly become confused—not just because they’re being presented with a lot of information to absorb at once, but also because they’re being presented with a rule that appears inconsistent. Instead of learning “I can rewind time” and then later “I can’t rewind time for some things”, the user instead learns “I can rewind time…kinda?” This is much harder for the brain to absorb, and presents an obstacle toward learning the system. Game reviewers will say it has a “steep learning curve”.

    I stand by my statement that people are smart. I think, though, if you ask most UI designers, you’ll discover that they don’t seem to agree. Twitter is an excellent example—it was intended originally as a departure from the confusion and clutter of sites like myspace or facebook, trying to get things as simple as possible. And it IS simple. You type a sentence, you click “Tweet”, you’re done. If you want to see who else is tweeting, you follow. If you want to search, type in the searchbox. But Twitter is also very restrictive in what it allows you to do. Twitter added functionality like #hashtags and @messages because people wanted to use the service to do MORE than its inherent capabilities. Twitter was smart enough to build in support for these things, but I don’t use Twitter’s UI to post anymore—it’s too oversimplistic. I use TweetDeck. You use CoTweet. Obviously, the whole “Keep It Simple Stupid” design concept can only take you so far.

    This, however, creates barriers to entry. Twitter.com is very welcoming to a newcomer. TweetDeck, however, is not. If you sat me down in front of TweetDeck from the very beginning, I probably never would have started Twittering, because TweetDeck presents you with a tangled mess of options, customizations, and features. TweetDeck is “advanced Twittering”.

    I’m proposing game design principles as the solution to this conflict—that something simple enough to be picked up by a newcomer is not powerful enough to satisfy an advanced user. Photoshop is powerful enough for advanced users but not simple enough to accomodate newcomers.

    Your initial argument about Photoshop is a misunderstanding of my initial intention, in the use of phrases like “separates the men from the boys”, “it isn’t a priority”, “amateurs”, and “dilute what it meant to be skilled in Photoshop.” What I’m suggesting is, what if we lived in a world where everyone had 10,000 of Photoshop experience by age 21? What if it was web-development experience instead—where everyone above the age of 21 could code not just a passable, but a truly excellent website? How could that be a bad thing for the world?

    What you’re saying, if I understand you correctly, is that right now, all the people who REALLY want to be good at Photoshop are good at Photoshop, and the people who aren’t are not good at it because they weren’t willing to put in the time. This is true. But lots of people are willing to put in the time to play video games, because video games are fun. What I’m saying is, let’s apply the principles of game design to make learning fun—for all kinds of skills, not just “gamer” skills.

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