Sunday, 17 March 2013

How computer games can teach complex skills AND make you feel like a bad-ass

Below is a short video playlist showing how a new game mechanic, Rope Arrows, is introduced and then used in Tomb Raider:

Video 1 - You first get rope arrows and the game shows you an example of how to use them.

  • Notice how the gameplay does not stop.
  • There is good reason for introducing the mechanic now; you just found the rope and there are several immediate (and fun) uses for it.
  • At no point is this dull; you are learning a new skill, but using it makes your character feel instantly more powerful. See how excited the guy is, first when he realises that he has a new tool to play with, then when he discovers another place he could use it: "Oh, this is awesome!"

Video 2 - Over the next hour or so of gameplay there are multiple basic puzzles using solely rope arrows (but in different ways)

  • No step-by-step tutorials here, you just try things out in a low-risk setting and see what happens.
  • The puzzles very slowly rack up in difficulty and introduce new ways to use the rope arrows.
  • Many of the puzzles are optional and for extra rewards (makes you feel like you are a good player).

Video 3 - A later puzzle involving rope arrows and earlier learned skills

  • This is a fairly complex puzzle with multiple steps and multiple pre-introduced skills used in combination (although still a pretty early puzzle).
  • Throughout the rest of the game you use rope arrows along with other learned skills. Many other skills are then added and introduced in a similar way.
  • Each puzzle requires you to think about how you can use your learned skills in the environment, what the effects will be, and how you can combine these effects.
  • The pay-off for solving the puzzle is fully satisfying, excellent cinamatography - you feel like a bad-ass!


This is not how maths games (currently) work: either they focus solely on practicing a pre-learned skill or include a dry written explanation of the concept (probably copied from some revision website). This is because maths games are not made by people who understand much about computer games (and not always much about teaching), and their budgets are miniscule in comparison to the blockbuster franchise of Tomb Raider.

Focusing of practice does serve a purpose to a certain extent, but there are some problems:
  • As you focus on one skill, all the problems become exactly the same (and easily gameable)
  • It is difficult to incorporate any feeling of progression or mastery (one of the main rewards all computer games use)

So can maths games teach maths in this way? As a gamer who now possesses a wealth of completely useless knowledge of moves and button combinations and tactics, I am inclined to say yes. There are obviously big differences between what a game will teach and what is included in the standard maths curriculum, and taking the steps to understand how to intuitively introduce these topics will not be easy. However, there is an online company who seems to have solved at least part of this puzzle. More on that company and my thoughts next week. Stay tuned!

Bonus - See how the gravity gun is introduced in Half-Life: