Attachment and Progression in Educational and Non-Educational Video Games
“We feel more competent, a sense of strength, and ready to take on more challenges.”
Video games keep players hooked not only because of the constant verbal or visual representations of one’s skill (feedback), but designers have a great ability to instill a sense of attachment and progression within the game. This feeling of attachment and progression is linked to the pacing of the game, but more importantly, the player gets a sense that their skill and ability levels are increasing. Modern action and role-playing (RPG) games often do this in the form of what is known as “skill trees” — tables that contain a list of abilities/skills (these help you progress through the game) that the player can choose to acquire using “skill points” (they might be called something else depending on the game) typically obtained after “leveling up”. Leveling up occurs after the player obtains a set number of “experience points”, typically earned by making progress and completing objectives in the game. Once a player levels up, their character(s) get a permanent boost to their stats (they get stronger) and they earn skill points that they can choose to spend on whatever skills they would like with one caveat — stronger skills and abilities typically have prerequisites before they can be acquired.
Take Spider-Man’s skill trees in Marvel’s Spider-Man for example. Notice the arrows/lines linking each skill, showing the pre-requisites for each skill in each table. What’s also fun, is players are allowed to choose the tree they’d like to allot their points to. This allows for different playstyles and freedom in how you choose to play the game. Maybe you’re a player who likes to play more defensively (Defender tree), or perhaps you like to Spider-Man’s webs more often (Webslinger tree). The point is, as you continue to get further and further down these trees, you have more options and abilities to play the game, and therefore have more fun as you continue to invest in playtime.
Funny enough, the way these skill trees work isn’t really any different from prerequisites in college. For example, students typically can’t register or take classes further along in a series of courses without taking the prerequisites first. And likewise, there is a sense of accomplishment we feel once we reach make progress in, or better yet reach the end, of a series of courses in any given program.
Leveling up can serve other purposes besides just making characters stronger. In Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XV, the protagonists each have a hobby that starts at level 1. For example, the character Ignis is good at cooking. Raising his cooking level gives him the ability to make more complex dishes (that provide greater benefits to the party than dishes that can be made at level 1).
While completing and acquiring skills on a skill tree and even leveling up peripheral abilities can be fun, they are often nowhere near as compelling enough reasons for addictive gameplay like leveling up and obtaining pieces of equipment to make your character(s) stronger. As mentioned in the beginning of this post, leveling up raises character’s stats — a numerical value given to a variety of different attributes that represents how strong a character is. A great example is Santa Monica’s God of War (2018). Each of these attributes affects the player’s character in different ways (e.g. strength affects how much damage the main character Kratos does, while defense affects how much damage he receives).
As players continue to make more progress in the game and overcome more of the game’s challenges, they obtain better equipment (which by the way, have stats of their own, that “stack” or add to the character’s stats), develop stronger characters, and are able to take on stronger foes and stronger challenges. As your character becomes stronger, there is a visual feedback that screams “I am getting better and making progress” in this game. Aside from test scores, is there an educational equivalent? In video games there is truly sense of not only ZPD but feelings of attachment or ownership — just like one feels when they complete a degree or course or program. We feel more competent, a sense of strength, and ready to take on more challenges.
The most important thing to remember is that with modern games, these feelings are no longer something the player is experiencing by themselves. There is more investment from the player with these games as now we’re connected with other players around the globe, and can even play with them cooperatively or compete against them. The fun never ends and these games are designed this way. It is easy to see how this concoction of different elements of game design can produce what researchers have been calling for decades “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Some semblance of progression can be found in educational games as well. In the geometry game DragonBox Elements, you’re first instructed on how to make basic triangles and quadrilaterals, and as the game progresses, you learn more rules for creating more complex geometric shapes such as a rhombus and equilateral triangles. There is also a visual marker of progress, as the context of the game is a tower with numbers representing. As kids continue to make progress in the game, they’ll see themselves continually going upwards, until they reach the top of the tower and complete the final level of the game. Kids are required to call upon knowledge of particular rules used to create geometric shapes from previous levels in order to solve new levels, making the game cumulative — much like how non-educational games require you to use all of the abilities you’ve learned in order to keep making progress.
Players can get attached in the sense that they are making progress in the game (getting closer to completing it), but there are no avatars or characters that the player can become attached to. Furthermore, the genres are different (DragonBox Elements would be akin to a puzzle game) and it is harder to develop a sense of attachment in puzzle games. The reason for this has to do with how linear the games are. Action games allow for a variety of different ways to play them and overcome each challenge. Sure, although some playstyles are better than others, it is still totally up to the player. Puzzle games on the other hand may have only one or two solutions, and usually there’s a particular way to solve them. This is especially true in children’s puzzle games. There is also a lack of synergy that non-educational games have. There are no forums where players can connect (which means no co-op) and the games are not made with enough detail or depth to sustain engagement for very long.
Maybe we can use what we know from action games like these or ones like Fortnite, where gamers develop a sense of attachment through levels and cosmetic items for their avatar, to elicit investment in educational games from students. What do you think? Leave your comment below!