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Scaffolding and Adaptation in Video Games

Scaffolding and Adaptation in Video Games

Teacher is to student as game is to player. Scaffolds and differentiation are cousins of challenge and ZPD.

If you are a teacher/educator, parent, researcher in education or in a teacher prep program then you've likely heard the term "scaffold". It was first coined by Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976). Generally, scaffolding is support given to students according to their needs, to help students meet and/or achieve learning goals. It is heavily related to (what I like to call its "cousin") ZPD, in that both the type and amount of scaffolding that is required for a student to be successful with a task, will depend the level of challenge of that particular task.

Maybe you're wondering what this looks like... In math education, this can take the form of providing students with a calculator, giving them smaller numbers to work with at first, or for example, using visual representations such as a tape diagram when starting to learn about ratios and rates. In ELA this could mean providing students with a graphic organizer to parse out the various elements of a given reading (main idea, characters, setting, theme, etc), using sentence starters, or chunking. The idea of providing scaffolds for students is also closely related to differentiation/differentiated instruction.

Assist mode in Nintendo's Super Mario Odyssey guides the player with arrows throughout the game.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle alerts players about using higher ground to their advantage.

Inherent within the design of almost ALL video games are scaffolds, which seek to guide a player through a given challenge or objective.

So how do video games give support to players in order for them to reach the game's challenges or learning goals? Just like in education, video games attempt to tailor the experience to the needs or ability level of the player, or at least give the player the option to do so. 


Video games often include a brief explanation of a new concept when it’s introduced

Just like in education, video games attempt to tailor the experience to the needs or ability level of the player, or at least give the player the option to do so.

What this looks like varies from game to game, but it often comes in the form of providing the player with some kind of prompt when faced with a new challenge, a hint if they fail to complete an objective, or giving the player some sort of agency with regards to the level of difficulty. In video games, scaffolding exists alongside situated learning, as the scaffold is introduced at the same time as the challenge is being introduced to the player, all taking place within an immediately relevant and useful context. A great example is 2017's Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle in which the game allows you to set the difficulty to easy before battles, and constantly gives the players scaffolds as it introduces new battle challenges. Scaffolds are present in most genres in some form or another. Below is what it looks like in 2017's popular RPG Ni No Kuni II:

Ni No Kuni II provides a scaffold (prompts) to assist the player in defeating the 2nd boss.

"Library" - players can go back to find useful information for help.

It should be noted that scaffolds work the same way in video games as they do in education. That is, the scaffold is removed after the first you are being taught that specific thing.

Video game scaffolds such as prompts for example, do not repeat themselves or show up after the first time they are presented to the player. It is assumed that you have learned whatever the game was teaching you. In case you didn't quite learn it or get it well enough, or you don't remember or haven't played in a while, this information is typically stored in an in-game library or encyclopedia somewhere (usually in the main menu) for the player to access at any time.

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