Monday, April 20, 2009

Not to easy, not too tough: A difficulty level for Education?

After listening to the latest Brainy Gamer podcast, the topic of setting difficulty level came up as a balancing act for engagement. Too hard and the player gives up in disgust and doesn't enjoy it, too easy and the game is boring with no real rewards. Michael brought in Jesper Juul's Fear of Failing article as a baseline for difficulty setting in modern computer games. It struck me, though, that this kind of engagement through difficulty settings could also help in the broader educational environment, and would be greater achieved through personal learning environments.

Jesper quotes Falstein's work in that difficulty progression isn't just a smooth path either, but comes in waves as the player experiences failure, then adapts and leaps back into success. Maybe little 'Aha' moments all along the journey? I'm drawn to my experience in World of Goo where each level builds on the skills of the previous level, but is not attainable by those skills alone. The problem remains interesting because there is a subtle tweak in the mechanics to allow progression. The engagement comes in finding those tweaks, experimenting with them, and building them into your repertoire for the next level.

Could education be like that too? It smacks of self-directed learning where the student is encouraged enough to seek out answers to the problem by themselves. Maybe the last few questions in maths class should be lead-ins to the next topic? Using previously learned skills COULD get you there if you tweaked the mechanics enough. What happens to those in the class that don't get it? Doesn't seem to fit the teacher-centric model where everyone needs to be at the same level. There is always one strategy that can be used over and over; wait for the teacher to tell you the answer.

When looking at PLEs though, you have the flexibility of delivering the content to people in an individual way so that they can all keep 'in the channel'. Understanding just how much failure is required to make the material engaging would be very appropriate.

'How much failure' is probably the wrong phrase. It's not the measure of intentional failure (you don't set the curriculum to purposely make people fail), but the perceived failure that increases engagement. As long as you know you could have failed. Reminds me of an adage from Sim Golf: "A golf course should look hard, but play easy". The little sims would enjoy the sight of lots of water in front of them, but hate it if the ball went in the drink. A little water or sand placed in the hit-over zones breaks up the course into achievable chunks that made the sims feel challenged, but remain happy.

Juul's GDC talk on Beyond Balancing also indicates that the failure count can be high as long as the failure cost remains low. The failure cost, in this case, is:
Failure Cost = Failure count * Failure communication * Failure setback * Failure repitition
Failure count = number of fails.
Failure communication = ease of identifying why you failed.
Failure setback = how much time and energy the failure cost you.
Failure repitition = how much the task needs to exactly repeated again.
In a personal learning environment these would translate to:
Failure count = Number of attempts to demonstrate the skill (both in a session and over multiple sessions)
Failure communication = Teacher's / curriculum's ability to highlight to the student exactly where they went wrong.
Failure setback = How much time and energy wasted on repeat attempts.
Failure repitition = Whether or not different examples can be used to demonstrate the skill.
Failure also needs to be looked at with a positive attitude. Juul warns against learned helplessness (through attribution theory) where the attitude of the person turns pessimistic. Instead of seeing it as a challenge, they see it as a personal failing. Instead of attempting to do better next time, they give up. Instead of accepting that they may be underperforming in only one area, they see it as total failure. It looks like the psychological effects in an educational context are more grounded, so hopefully that won't be an issue to tackle just through PLEs.


  • Falstein, Noah. 2005. "Understanding Fun—The Theory of Natural Funativity". In Introduction to Game Development, ed. Steve Rabin, 71-98. Boston:Charles River Media.
  • Juul, Jesper. 2009. Beyond Balancing: Using Five Elements of Failure Design to Enhance Player Experiences. GDC conference 09.
  • Juul, Jesper. 2009. "Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games" From Mark J. P. Wolf & Bernard Perron (eds.): The Video Game Theory Reader 2. New York: Routledge 2009. pp. 237-252.