Monday, September 1, 2014

Learning from Failure—as a game mechanism

One of my favorite insights from the scholarship of teaching and learning is that, essentially, all learning is learning from failure. Every time a person encounters a mismatch between a mental model and reality, it is an opportunity to learn. I have been working for several years to incorporate this idea into my teaching, notably in the expansion of the CS222 project from two to three increments, specifically because it gives teams more chances for safe failure. Indeed, one of my favorite descriptions of university is that it is a "safe fail" environment, where students can fail in order to learn, without the economic cost it would take outside of academia.

It was only recently that I thought about what this phenomenon means in terms of game design, and in role-playing games in particular. Character advancement is a common component of RPGs, giving the player the opportunity to increase the skills and capabilities of his character. Such advancement is generally limited through in-game resource management, such as accumulating threshold values of experience points or by earning sufficient skill points to expend on new abilities. Dungeons and Dragons set the precedent whereby experience points are earned by overcoming obstacles, most often through combat but (with a good DM) also by other means. This has become the de facto standard and can be seen in all manner of modern games, including computer RPGs and RPG-inspired boardgames: success earns points that are used to gain skill.

Recently, I came across The Zorcerer of Zo (ZoZ), a role-playing game by Chad Underkoffler published by Atomic Sock Monkey. In fact, I have had a copy for almost a year, having bought it in a Family-Friendly RPG Bundle of Holding, but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I read it. The game is based on Baum's Oz series, and since my two older boys and I are currently on the tenth book, we are quite familiar with the setting.

ZoZ uses the "good parts" variant of Underkoffler's Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) system, the full version of which is described in a free document from Atomic Sock Monkey. A critical aspect of the system is that it eschews conventional attributes, skills, and inventory for qualities such as "world-traveler," "small," or "afraid of cats." Each quality is ranked, the range starting at Poor [-2], Average [0], and Good [+2], with each rank giving an adjustment to the 2d6 used for all conflicts. Again, for full detail, check that free PDF. It was a lot of fun to create ZoZ characters with my sons using this approach, since most of the time was spent describing the character's background and interests. One is a talking mouse from an island of merchants, who is in fact a small world-traveler who is afraid of cats. The other is a rockman warrior from a far-away island, who, since he does not need to breathe, simply walked through the ocean to Zo after hearing that it was a nice place to visit. There are no classes or races, and the setting lends itself to this kind of creative storytelling: it doesn't matter that there were no rock men in the Oz books, as long as my son wanted to make one, it was easy to create.

It is the character advancement system of ZoZ that got me thinking about the backwards nature of the conventional RPG systems. When a character encounters a conflict with a chance of failure, the player rolls 2d6 against a target number. If the roll meets or exceeds the target, the character succeeds. If not, the character fails and gains a Learning Point, and a player can improve his character by later spending these points. Consider how this matches what we know about how the brain works: when everything goes well, we actually learn very little, but when we make mistakes and reflect on them, our skills and knowledge improve.

It should not be missed that earning a Learning Point when missing a roll takes a lot of the sting away from failure. Although you did not get the result you wanted, you still get something: the opportunity to learn. This is a true yet countercultural statement. Conventional wisdom is that failure is bad, and this is a dangerous meme that is hard to overcome. Nowhere is it so endemic and unquestioned as in formal schooling environments, the very places whose mission it is (or should be) to instill a love of learning—and a love of learning necessitates tolerance for, if not embracing of, failure.

A player is still rewarded for success, of course, but it is done through the narrative. The use of narrative as a feedback mechanism is cleverly addressed in Koster's essay, "Narrative is not a game mechanic," which I recommend to anyone interested in weaving games and authored narratives together. In ZoZ, players can earn Hero Points for their characters by taking especially brave or noble actions. Hero Points are not used for character advancement, but rather to shift the story in the players' favor such as by getting hints, trading in favors, or getting a one-time boost to a roll—a sort of Oz Karma.

I have been impressed with Zorcerer of Zo and enjoyed playing it with my family. It has inspired me to consider how I might incorporate learning from failure as a game mechanism in my own designs, and more generally, how I might take more ideas from my scholarship and apply them to my game designs. This semester, I will be engaging in an experiment in public game design in concert with my honors colloquium on serious game design, and I expect to use this blog for that purpose. Watch this space for further announcements and designs, and as always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

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