Love of Learning

Because I’ve been packing quite a lot of learning into life recently, I’ve been having some of those cool “wow, I’m getting better!” moments (to go with the “oh god this is crushing my soul” moments). Like when I manage to write code to animate bouncy balls with basic physics and a save and load feature. Or when I play through the chord progressions in C, F, and G without looking up my chord chart. Or when I rattle off a phrase in Danish without stumbling repeatedly.

Those are good moments – presumably, other than the “end” goal of the learning activity, they’re the reason we keep going with it at all. There’s a deep satisfaction available in simply being measurably better than you were, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative, personal or objective.

Which naturally makes me wonder about similar experiences in games, and thus to ponder how often I feel that sense of learning and improvement during the games that I play. And the answer that mostly comes back to me, at least in terms of my remembered conscious experience of play is: not much.

One game that stands out to me on this front is Skate 3 because it so centralises the process of understanding its controls. Because everything is technically available from the beginning, the gulf between your current skill and your potential skill is quite obvious. And thus, the progress you make is also quite obvious and you can take pleasure in it.

The other opportunity we get to experience our own learning in games is, of course, the replay. Whenever we’ve played a game for a while and then return to it and start from the beginning, we can often catch just how much better we are now. This is particularly true as we play through the levels that were intended to introduce a novice player. We breeze through without a hitch and experience, at least for a period, the joys of training and expertise.

But that’s a rather special case. I’m sure there must be games (and maybe genres) that foster a “look how far I’ve come!” feeling inside, but I suppose I haven’t played them, or simple am not thinking of them right now. Instead, I’d venture to say that many games fixate instead on always assuring us that we’ve extremely competent – they’re frequently (perhaps quite rightly) afraid of making us feel like we’re not masters of our own domain.

It is a bit of a pickle – I love the feeling of hard-won learning, but all that hard-winning doesn’t feel so good at the time.

22 March 2011
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