Ever since i met Andy Nealen I always start my talks with the caveat that I am not an academic and I’m not a researcher, I’m an artist, and my conclusions are rooted in anecdote and theory. This is even more important today because I’m going to give a talk that actually includes real research and so that will be extra confusing. The research in this talk came primarily from three places: First - My Mom, who has a PhD in Math Education and did some fantastic research into how to teach expert problem-solving strategies in the 80s, regrettably her paper was before the internet and isn't online. Her work is cited however in this paper, which might provide some additional information (I haven't read all of it). Second - Jeremy Kilpatrick's fantastic research Third - Hey yeah wikipedia Apologies if I misstate anything, I tried my best to thoroughly vet this talk, but again, I am an artist and will likely not get every detail right. That said, I am confident in the thrust of this talk, the language and lens is important and useful, and the strategies have bared out for me successfully across a number of works over the years. Ok now that we’re through that, lets get going. So you know when you’re playtesting a game and it’s just going horrible? Like when you’re watching a tester try the same thing over and over again, only to get frustrated and hand the controller back to you. I think everyone has probably had that experience. What about the opposite? Have you had that joyous experience of watching a player figure something unknown out, and use that to unlock the secrets of your game? Thats the best right? So, In these situations, often what you’re witnessing the frustration of a novice problem-solver, and power of an expert problem-solver. It turns out theres a whole field of research on this. Problem-Solving Research is an area of research which, in service of finding superior educational methodologies, attempted to discover the underpinnings of, you guessed it: problem-solving. This should make sense too, because having good problem-solving skills is sort of like having a magic bullet for learning. Routine problems are problems that the learner knows how to solve based on past experience. For example, finding the product of 567 and 46. In contrast, nonroutine problems are problems for which the learner does not immediately know a usable solution method. For example: Another approach would be to guess and check, yet another would be to form an algebraic representation and solve it that way. So how do they do that? Well, one thing we know, is that a key difference between an expert problem-solver and a novice problem-solver, lies in their ability to form a mental model of the problems essential components. Consider the following problem: In contrast, a more proficient approach they witnessed was students constructing a problem model. A problem model is…any form of mental representation that maintains the structural relations among the variables in the problem. For example, a line graph with the gas stations on it. To back up these findings, researchers studied students’ eye fixations and noticed that good problem-solvers were likely to focus on terms such as So this is literally what is happening inside the brain of a playtester spinning their wheels in your game. So where does this other approach come from? Constructivist theory is based on the belief that learners learn by doing, as opposed to being told. One common way to teach constructively would be to instead of telling a student how a task works, give them a series of semi-routine problems to solve, leading them towards an answer. In this way, learners are still solving problems themselves, but they are doing so in a fairly linearly guided way that doesnt rely on them being expert-problem-solvers. This methodology does a great job balancing focused direction with self-learning. It works great as long as you can tailor your lesson both to where learners are starting from and to how big a leap learners are comfortable taking from a routine problem to a semi-routine problem based off of how good their problem-solving skills are. When we think about the difficulty of games, we’re often referring to the difficulty of a particular problem or set of problems within a game. And we’re often thinking of difficulty in a step-wise mindset. We’re thinking of difficulty like simple algebra problems vs. hard algebra problems — stepwise difficulty, and how these steps relate specifically specifically to each other is how we tend to imagine the overall difficulty of our games. But interestingly, if we think of these two categories through the lens of problem-solving theory, we find that only the most ardent of gamers, that play games like spelunky, dark souls, dwarf fortress, and sunday crosswords, are truly embracing non-routine problems (problems that we could classify as hard). For everyone else, theres Plants Vs. Zombies 2, FIFA 14, Call of Duty 13, Angry Birds 5, and Assassins Creed 21 (if you count all the spinoffs). So I think given this information, it’s important to think about hard difficulty not universally as a quality of hardcore games and easy difficulty not universally as a quality of casual games. I’ve found anecdotally that most people enjoy non-routine or semi-routine challenges as long as they find them accessible, and that really, the major difference between most casual and hardcore gamers is the set of problems that they find to be routine and have the superficial skills for. Because this kind of constructivist framework leaves us in trouble if we want to consider how to introduce truly new players to our games. How does a casual game player ever get into Super Meat Boy? The problems we’d be leveling at that gamer are phenomenally non-routine. And yet, there are a number of games out there that seem to appeal to everyone. Games that have set the world on fire and taught massively diverse players complex skills. Pac Man introduced the world to hardcore arcade games. Tetris introduced us to the joys of mobile gaming. Minecraft introduced us to 3d first person worlds and online multiplayer. And my own game, SpellTower, which is not in the same category as these other mega hits, has nonetheless introduced many technophobic grandmas to the joys of computer gaming. How is this possible? It’s the difference between teaching someone to fish, and having them invent things to do around a pond with a hook line and stick. When you ask learners to provide their own problems, and constrain this request to problems to a certain difficulty, you’re forcing learners to internalize the constraints and focus first on building a problem model, before stressing them out with having them find a solution. Once they have this problem model in hand, they’re fully equipped with all the tools they need to behave as an expert problem-solver. That’s a little bit abstract, so I’m going to walk you through how I employed this strategy intentionally in one of my games, and how i’ve seen it employed (possibly accidentally) elsewhere. There are two important qualities that all of these questions share. The first is that none of them are particularly better or more fun than the rest. Some are harder than others, in a step-wise sense, but they’re all worthwhile and challenging goals. The second is that Just as a side note here, it’s interesting to me how this is the inverse of what we typically do with achievements, where if we do reward exploration, it’s usually only exploration into fun but ultimately irrelevant corners of the system. I’m guilty of this too in my game Bit Pilot. I believe this mode primarily has allowed SpellTower to be exciting for kids to adults to grandparents, casual and hardcore gamers alike. Some of them, like Minecraft literally retain these sandbox characteristics the entire time, and includes a creative mode in which there are no challenges. Others are less explicitly sandboxes, but still manage to have many support sandbox style exploration. Pac Man manages to support this kind of play through obfuscation of its goals (pacman never tells you how to get to the next level, or even if there is a next level), and clearly defined components. This provides opportunity to for players to create their own goals, many of which are more exciting to novices than actually trying to achieve a highscore. Goals like: Again, the key with these goals is that they’re all in service of improving your pacman skills. In Tetris, the slow initial speed and pure sandbox novelty of coming up with interesting shape combinations, or trying to get 2, 3 or 4 rows at a time can be enough to keep people going long before they start attempting highscores. Now, I’m not saying all games have to be taught this way, but I do think it’s worth having this in our toolbox. Because although each of these games seems like a straightforward videogame, we can use the lens of problem-solving to reveal one possible reason why they’re so accessible, and possibly, why they’re so popular. |