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Video Game Level Design Reflects Challenges in Education

May 5, 2011 by Josh Caldwell

Thanks to my PLN, I scan through a ton of education articles every day, parsing much more information than I could hope to encounter on my own. Sometimes, though, the best finds come when pursuing my other interests. Sometimes I just can’t help but view everything in my life through my teacher-glasses.

Case in point, Shaun Inman’s post about video game level design.

Good level design coaxes a player into first discovering then utilizing their abilities in a variety of situations. It requires balancing revelation and repetition.

Mentally I replace “level” with “course” and “player” with “student” – all of the sudden I’m back to thinking about my students (how do they get into my head like that???).

Shaun goes on to discuss the process of introducing and reinforcing basic skills and game parameters before presenting the player with tasks that require more sophisticated interactions. So, by gradually introducing new obstacles, players (students) are allowed to experience successful mastery of a skill before moving on to another. Then, just as players master the core skills, they’ve got to discover how those skills interact with other game elements. All of these building blocks have to be mastered and reinforced before a player can beat the game. You fail to master a skill, you don’t move on, you don’t win. The game doesn’t keep going without you, instead it ask you to practice until you’re reading to progress – at your own pace.

What does this approach reveal about the learning aspect of games? Game design necessitates a balance of success and challenge; games that are near-impossible to succeed are no fun (except to the die-hards) and games that are too easy provide no engaging challenge. You can’t think about the final goal without deeply considering how to build in the frequent, achievable-yet-challenging goals that take you there.

The message to educators – we need to spend more time on the level design. We need to teach players to run, jump, and shoot before we toss them at the final boss. We need to allow players to discover the parameters, reinforce skills, and make their own way through the levels. We can’t force a student a student onto level 2 when they haven’t mastered the skills to beat level 1.

The article ends with some questions that will be very familiar to educators.

How long should each level be? With what frequency do I introduce new concepts and threats? At what stage do single threat introductory screens become patronizing rather than educational? Repetition is necessary for learning but at what point does the lesson become too repetitive?

I have a feeling that trial and error is the name of the game from this point on and a hope that experience will eventually start answering those questions before the handwringing sets in.


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  1. Pharaoh Lamothe says:

    I was actually doing research for my Eng 101 final when I happened upon your website. I find it pretty interesting. One thing I wanted to add to this article though, I find what many teachers will present “core skills” to the student, the student learns them, then they aren’t talked about for weeks at a time, then suddenly, BAM! Remember that concept you were supposed to have learned way back when? Well we are going to build on that, right now.
    I think where video game designs succeed and some classrooms fail, is that core skills are reiterated through the whole experience. They don’t present a skill then just let it fall by the wayside.
    Just food for thought. Haha.
    Nice site though.

  2. Ted Curran says:

    Hi Josh–
    Great discussion. I have come to some similar conclusions in my post about the Angry Birds Guide to Online Lesson Design.

    I’m stuck at the implementation phase– what technologies would allow a student to take an online exam, pass it, get the badge, and move on to the next level?

    Keep up the great blog!

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