Ceasar's Mind

Follow me: @Ceasar_Bautista

Educational Gates or: How I Learned to Hate School and Love Games

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If you’ve yet to watch Salman Kahn’s talk at TED, head over now and give it a watch- you won’t regret it.

Sal says a lot of insightful stuff here, so I’ll be revisiting his talk several times, but at the moment I want to comment on a small point that Sal makes.

Sal explains that one reason education is failing is because it passes students who don’t fully understand what they are being taught. Not just on a grade-to-grade basis, but lecture-to-lecture. A student might not fully understand a subject, get labeled a B student after the test, and then be expected to understand the next lecture which builds on what the student ought to know but doesn’t. Sal makes the analogy, it would be liking a father trying to teach his son to ride a bike, evaluating him after a week, seeing his son is having trouble maintaining his balance on left turns and noticing trouble with managing the brakes, and then handing his son a unicycle, and expecting his son to manage. It’s obviously faulty, it doesn’t work, and there’s a good reason this analogy doesn’t take place outside of schools.

If you don't know how to jump by now, you're fucked.

Personally, I’ve experienced this the hard way. As a game designer during high school, I once collaborated with a friend to produce a tactical puzzle game (called “Pinnacle”) where a team of five players had to coordinate their military units in order to defeat an AI opponent by utilizing a particular tactic. At one point, we made the decision to, rather than failing the players if they couldn’t figure out a level and making them try again, instead just push them through to the next level (the idea being, we wanted to make it more arcade-y and let players taste the entire game, rather than getting stuck and quitting). In theory, this could possibly work. If each level didn’t require an understanding of previous levels, this would be totally okay. Not being the case though, it (and the players) failed miserably, with players progressing to harder and harder levels despite having never learned the basics (which were often difficult to convey with one try). We quickly realized our mistake and reverted it, and learned firsthand why in Super Mario Bros and other professional games, you can’t just skip ahead nor does the designer push you forward- if you don’t understand the skills required to pass the current level, you’re experience with the next level is going to suck.

I’m not sure if the concept has a name, but if I had to call it something, I’d call it an educational gate. You can’t pass until you have the skills that will be expected of you on the other side of the gate. Most notably, these gates show up in the form of boss battles (although frankly, almost every instance, from the first Goomba in Mario, to random pits in Prince of Persia are technically all gates). Rather than trying to challenge the player, boss battles are typically designed to stop the player from progressing until he has achieved a certain level of mastery with a particular skill. (If you’ve ever tried you’re hand at one of the Legend of Zelda games, you know exactly what I mean.) In fact, I recall reading an article on Gamasutra that detailed a designers experiences with designing boss battles that did not test a player’s skills, and his explanation of how they sucked.

Frankly, I love this article because the contrast between exams and boss battles is ridiculous, despite them being analogous. I mean, okay, they both test us, but really, how much cooler would tests be if instead of just testing abstract concepts, all of the questions were connected to a central theme, that made us feel like we were really accomplishing something?

And furthermore, what if each lecture was a test in itself, that also made us feel like we were accomplishing something, while preparing us to take the exam? That’s how games work. Consider the scene below from Valve’s critically acclaimed Portal.

This scene made me cry.

In this particular scene in the game, the player must sacrifice his friend, the Companion Cube, in order to progress by dropping it in an incinerator. A relatively simple task, but it forces the player to understand how incinerators work.

Another incinerator, but this time, it's used to avenge the Companion Cube and destroy Glados, Portal's boss.

Later, an understanding of incinerators is required to defeat Glados, Portal’s boss. This is the only the tip of the iceberg though- the entirety of Portal, Super Mario Bros, Zelda, Metroid, and many other classics were designed using this pattern. In reality, games are hardly games at all- they’re more like extremely engaging classrooms. (Spoiler: Learning is actually fun.)

Really, schools have such a long way to go, having made virtually no progress in pedagogy despite game designers having illuminated the way since the 70s. Anyway, now you understand why I’m such a critic of education. It’s just too hard not to be when you see it consistently done wrong.

Written by Ceasar Bautista

2011/03/19 at 20:43

2 Responses

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  1. Hey TW, pol-trip here from clan TDG.

    I never really stopped to read your blog(s) -just today realized they are more than 1!- and I regret it. You write very well and all your posts I have read so far are quite interesting.

    I myself love strategy games and read stuff about them on the web somewhat regularly -I mean game design stuff, rather than a particular game´s forum for instance-, and I even ordered a game design book at a library! Unfortunately, even though I have played RTS games at a decent level and have a degree on Comp Science, I don´t have your clarity of mind and background -I haven´t read much if at all about other related subjects- to form such solid, well-founded opinions.

    Anyway, just wanted to congratulate you on the blogs, I think I´ll follow them since I like the subjects and think I can learn lots.

    Thank you, and keep it up!


    2011/03/22 at 15:02

    • Hey pol-trip! Thanks for checking my blogs out (and sorry for unintentionally hiding this one. The old one was so focused on strategy games that I didn’t want to start adding in random other interests, so I decided to make a new one). It means a lot to know someone appreciates it.

      I’d also like to suggest that you probably underestimate yourself there. I mean, I would find it hard to believe that I’m the only one who connects seemingly random dots in my head before falling asleep- that’s really what all my posts are.

      Anyway, thanks again!

      Ceasar Bautista

      2011/03/22 at 15:45


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