Since Gee’s idea of Affinity Spaces is a major part of my dissertation’s conceptual frame, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about the power of games as learning tools. (Also I date a Filament designer, which tends to bring with it a good dose of similarly themed conversations.) These arguments had been interesting in the abstract, but really came to life for me when I started playing myself. Because video games can be really complicated these days! Matt started me out relatively slow, with Knights of the Old Republic as my first fighting-style RPG, but even that felt dauntingly complex at the start. But the game made me want to play it despite the anxiety I felt about all this, and with a little help from Matt I learned the ropes before I was even off Taris. And now I’m playing Skyrim unassisted with only occasional anxiety about figuring out the skill trees.
Playing these games made me appreciate the conversation about games as uniquely powerful learning tools in a new and much more concrete way. Many of the games I played this past year are complicated by any definition, and yet make learning to harness and navigate those complications not only manageable but genuinely pleasurable. But in addition to teaching you the systems and rules specific to the particular game, video games also teach you how to navigate the rules of the genre overall. You learn how puzzle games work by playing a few of them, and then you have a leg up on the next one you come across. You learn that shotguns are for close range and rifles for long (or you’re supposed to – sometimes you’re an idiot and need your boyfriend to point it out to you); that sometimes you solve puzzles by trying every combination of action and object until something works; that levels and dungeons are usually one-way, and if you’re spending a lot of time backtracking through already-cleared environments you probably took a wrong turn. These conventions aren’t completely universal, of course – and expecting them to be sets you up to be caught by the inevitable moment when a game deliberately breaks them to mess with you (a practice that reached its purest and most meta form in The Stanley Parable).
But generally, by playing a bunch of games you learn not only how those games work, but what you can reasonably expect from other games like them. This is both cool and useful, as it essentially gives you a headstart, even some shortcuts, for learning these new games in the future. It means that when you start a new game, you can, as Gee puts it in an account of playing real-time strategy games, “already know something, have a small foot up.” Each game is “a precursor for later learning” as well as a learning experience in of itself. When you arrive at that later learning opportunity, you’ll be able to make useful and cautiously dependable assumptions about new systems and situations even before you’ve finished learning the specifics.
Most of my game experiences (at least as measured in hours of play) are with RPGs, in a genre I’d describe as “combat/narrative blends” – they have a lot of fighting, but a decent chunk of story as well (sometimes very good ones). Over the last 18 months, I’ve experienced a lot of these “small foot up” moments Gee talks about, with the result that each new game I pick up is easier to learn – and, maybe even more important to my overall play experience, navigating their environments and situations is more and more intuitive. The best example I can think of deals with level conventions: I’ve learned that I can reasonable expect each dungeon/mission/whatever to have one relatively obvious route through it from start to finish, and how to recognize the conventional visual signals used to mark it. I used to get painfully disoriented in even simple level layouts, to the point that it was embarrassing; I’d be looking over my shoulder hoping no one was witness to my getting lost in the Presidium again. But now that I have a few more RPG notches in my belt, I have a much better instinct for the conventions and goals underlying level design, and (usually) have no trouble finding my way unless I’m supposed to. This, and a host of other accumulated lessons, suggest that by and large, combat/narrative RPGs are good at teaching about their genre as a whole as well as themselves.
Except there’s one convention that video games have completely failed to teach me – that of the time-sensitive mission.
In most RPGs, time-sensitive missions are the exception rather than the rule. Taking out the mafia kingpin, storming the lab on Virmire, starting up the water purifier, scoping out the dragon burial site for possible resurrecting dragons – no matter how high the narrative stakes for these tasks, or what your NPC companions are screaming in your ear, you’ve got all the time you need to take care of it. So check out that random hallway. Search every inch of the base. Heck, wander off on a side mission for a few days if you feel like it. It’ll be there when you get back, and no one will actually be any worse off than if you’d taken your sidekick at their word and raced through like this was all actually unfolding in real time. Unless there’s some kind of visible timer on the screen, or screamingly explicit narrative cue, there’s no rush.
This is pretty standard across the RPG genre (at least in my experience), and so presumably is something these games should be teaching players along with level conventions and appropriate small arms use. But if so, it’s in a way that my learning style doesn’t recognize, because I cannot seem to internalize it in any meaningful way. Like, at all.
My (admittedly limited) gaming lessons have consistently presented urgency as something explicitly signaled through visual markers (as in the very first Mass Effect mission, when the bombs must be disarmed before the timer reaches zero). Sometimes that marker isn’t precisely time – it might be shield strength, or a companion’s health – but it gives some visual cue that I can’t be screwing around. On the other hand, they’ve also taught me that narrative matters – that what people say and do around me has implications for what I will be able to say and do subsequently. Mass Effect and Fallout 3 taught me that the cues characters give about themselves and the stories around them are important for making decisions that build the narrative outcomes I want. Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite taught me that even seemingly insignificant background details in dialogue and story can turn out to be majorly important. These experiences have primed me to take narrative, including character dialogue, seriously. They have failed to teach me to ignore that dialogue when it’s rushing my character along – despite that being what I’d argue is a pretty necessary lesson.
Because this learning failure has a definite adverse affect on my play experience. I rush past gorgeously rendered vistas and valuable equipment upgrades. I miss entire side quests and quirky characters. I sometimes experience something akin to actual stress over reaching an objective I’ve been told is pressingly urgent when in reality I could wander off, clean my entire apartment, have a leisurely drink with friends, and then come back and finish the mission to exactly the same effect as my instinctive 15-minute bull rush. Just a few days ago I caught myself abandoning a Skyrim questline I was enjoying immensely because a character I’d just met told me I had to meet her at some random location right away. This didn’t have any negative effect on that original questline (of course). But it had an effect on my enjoyment of the game – I felt rushed and resentful. By the time I remembered that urgency is just a narrative trapping in RPG quests I was already at ground zero for the new quest’s first mission.
I’m not sure why I have so much difficulty resolving these conflicted learning objectives – why I can’t seem to learn that narrative tags about urgency are decorative and not declarative. I’m pretty sure it’s not a widespread problem; if it was, designers would already have switched up how they’re coding and scripting these moments to improve their games’ ability to teach both lessons effectively. I have a fairly conventional learning style – traditional school worked fine for me, I’m not unusually visual or tactile or anything like that. So the sensation of falling through a learning-styles crack (even one so laughably insignificant) is kind of a weird (and, because the stakes are so low, interesting) experience. It makes me wonder what a game would look like that did teach me this effectively. Additional tags about the importance of being thorough and exploring? A section in the tutorial mission that explicitly says “sometimes missions are timed; here’s what that looks like”? The latter seems clunky; the former could be too subtle. But then, even if such a game existed, there’s a chance I still wouldn’t learn. Because sometimes bad design reinforces the wrong lesson – and as Skinner taught us, inconsistent reinforcement is the most powerful kind. Which brings us to Mass Effect 2 and the Kelly Chambers Incident.
In its final stages, Mass Effect 2 breaks the rules that urgency gets exceptional markers: once the final mission becomes available a hidden clock starts, and the longer you wait before starting it, the more of your captured crewmates are killed by the enemy. This includes the peppy and, in Matt’s words, “really attractive” Kelly Chambers, a character who (if she survives) plays a role in the following game. A role I will probably never see, because my Shepard’s Kelly is Collector paste. I’d grown used to people telling me missions were urgent, vital, pressing; and nothing about the dialogue surrounding the final mission cued me to think it was any different in this regard, that this time it really was urgent.
So I dicked around and finished a few sidequests, and Kelly died, and I’m still super pissed about it. The ONE time my natural instinct to rush to the rescue would actually have been correct, I ignored it. Consciously. Because I remembered what the game(s) had taught me.
This seems like bad design to me. What good are stakes if you don’t know they’re there – and can’t reasonably be expected to have guessed it? By changing up a basic rule of the genre without warning, Mass Effect 2‘s final mission undercuts the lessons taught by the rest of the series, and other narrative-based RPGs as well. I would argue that this is an example of bad design on their part – of letting a narrative shock outweigh the game’s consistency as a learning tool of the genre. This is not to say games should never play with or flaunt our expectations – not at all. But that they need to do so in a way that’s consistent with the rules the game’s taught us govern its systems. In a good game, we shouldn’t be overly comfortable about what’s coming our way, but we shouldn’t feel cheated by it either.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I was told several days ago that I’m desperately needed at a dragon burial site, so I should probably look into that.