C&I 675: Researching Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Analyzing World of Warcraft’s Notion of Framing Games & Learning via a Close Reading of James Paul Gee’s “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.”
So, I’m finally starting to ‘flow’ with my Dwarf Hunter, ZZ Blackstone—I mean flow in the sense of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, or better yet, Jenova Chen. I’ve overcome the initial inertia of learning a new game system, a new control layout, a new gestalt—a new mise en scene. And yes, as Gee suggests, I’m becoming increasingly addicted to the gameplay, continuously seeking one more quest—one more level up—before I can find a good place to pause. This kind of perfect balance in the unfolding gameplay action reveals expert game design on the part of Blizzard. Their design team has executed a masterfully incremental learning by leveling up/leveling up by learning system, that’s always just hard enough to be challenging, but fulfilling and rewarding at the same time.
Since I only have a few pages to work with here, I’m going to select some of James Paul Gee’s key Video Game Learning Principles and apply them analytically to my specific experience playing World of Warcraft’s first ten levels.
2. The Design Principle. As Raph Koster once said in a GZ interview, “all games are systemic,” meaning they play out according to hard and fast rules. These gameplay dynamics and conventions can become well understood, predictable, and eventually mastered by students of the game, as happens when Halo players exploit glitches either to gain an advantage or to amuse themselves. In the process of unmasking the game’s design architecture, players begin to appreciate the artifice of game design and its principles. The corollary here might be an appreciation for the illusory craft of filmmaking. As a viewer, once one has begun to analyze and think critically about special effects and the trompe d'oeils that one is experiencing, a person may begin to enjoy films even more, since one is now able to appreciate this multimedia art form from a more rewarding, multi-faceted vantage point.
6. “Psychosocial Moratorium” Principle: My experience with WoW’s first ten levels has been similar to nearly every video game experience I’ve ever known in that failure is engineered into the game’s core design—it is expected to occur early and often. In WoW, I find it both original and uniquely morbid that you reawaken from death in a graveyard as a ghost and that you have to go reclaim your corpse. This strikes me as an idiosyncratic design convention that seems to have stuck. As experienced gamers might both hope for and expect: there’s no punishment for dying, other than the annoyance factor and the lost time. Other games, such as GTA, punish the player for dying by taking away money and weapons—a kind of tax for foolhardiness. As Ben Mattes points out in a GZ interview, modern games such as the new Prince of Persia utilize gaming conventions, exemplified by the reconsidered role of Elika, to prevent the act of death altogether. The goal is to prevent the game’s ‘flow’ from breaking.
Historically, games can wind up falling into a pattern like this: wind up, try it, fail, resurrect; wind up try it, fail, resurrect; wind up, try it, succeed, etc., on and on. Therefore, developers such as Ben Mattes have sought design methods to maintain continuous ‘flow’ and immersion. Therefore, Elika always saves the Prince of Persia when he falls, returning him to the moment just before he put himself in danger. This way the gameplay remains continuous. The trouble is that without any consequence for failure whatsoever players don’t feel properly challenged—the stakes aren’t high enough—and so they lose interest in the game.
The tone has to be just right.
The 12. Practice Principle is at work here, whereby the learner/gamer gets lots of more or less non-boring practice. This type of grinding performs a balancing act between being necessary in the early levels as a design tool intended to teach players the basics while providing players with a fun, rewarding experience.
Getting this right is invariably a challenge for both the designer and the gamer. The player can’t enjoy the game’s later levels without a firm grounding in the game’s systemic principles, but if the training is excessively tedious, the gamer will burnout, resent the game’s dull limitations, and rage against the designer’s lack of empathy, nuance, and controlled mastery. Harmonious design is essential for the 13. Ongoing Learning Principle and 14. “Regime of Competence” Principle to work, whereby the gamer is always testing the edge of his or her skill level, always having to build upon the skills learned earlier, unravel a previous understanding, and add a layer of complexity to it. This is where I think Gee really nails it. He’s absolutely right that game designers are excellent teachers—they utilize not only their own endless personal testing to find this sweet spot, but they also employ testers to play the levels endlessly until the level designs are functioning perfectly.
Learning a foreign language reminds me of playing video games in the sense that when you first look at a new language lesson, it could not appear more obtuse, random, and incomprehensible. It simply hurts your head to look at symbols and grammatical exercises for which you have no context, no clear means of deciphering their significance. But upon approaching the problem in increments, you decode this word, now that. And soon thereafter, the entire lesson makes perfect sense, and you can’t remember what it was like not to know what to do. You can no longer look at the lesson with that same lack of understanding—the memory of incomprehension becomes difficult to recall. Well-designed games achieve this via teaching/learning principles, to a point where after you’ve achieved Level 10 on WoW you can no longer remember what it was like to awkwardly move your character around the initial spawning area, trying to figure out how/why to click on a Quest Giver.
25. The Concentrated Sample Principle sustains as an ingrained training method in the early stages of video games, including WoW. Players must perform many types of fundamental tasks that are secretly training them, similar to the way Mr. Miyagi trains Daniel-son in the Karate Kid by making him paint fences and clean pools, only instead of Miyagi’s emphasis on monotonous work tasks, game designers attempt to integrate elements of enjoyable quests into core skill building. Importantly, modern designers avoid instruction manuals, attempting to integrate the instructions into the early stages of the game—something you experience both in WoW and in nearly every console game these days. Requiring a player to stop and learn the gameplay mechanics kills immersion and ‘flow’ and is therefore unacceptable. As defined by the 28. Discovery Principle, the game should unfold like an appealing, pleasure inducing narrative, totally immersing the player, creating invisible walls, and presenting the illusion that the player is experiencing an organic story world that emerges as they discover it.