Let me explain a bit further. All games, at some level, have to teach their players how to play and be successful in the game world. Once upon a time, this was done with weighty manuals (Civilization 2 had a manual spanning 200 pages when I got that in 1996), but now the teaching aspects of games tend to be embedded in the gameplay. Although games are only ever going to be a proxy for classroom teaching, I do think there are some essential principles followed by the best games, which make their ‘teaching’ elements effective. I call these the “Nintendo Principles”, after the company who, according to Metacritic, have made 5 of the top 10 games of the last 20 years.
These ‘Nintendo Principles’ are perfectly illustrated in the most recent release from the Japanese game studio, the Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild. The game follows an ‘open world’ approach, meaning that players are thrown in with very little preamble, and can pursue their own path through the game. So far, so progressive. In all honesty, I am not recommending an ‘open world’ approach to teaching, curriculum is too important, but because of its structure, the Legend of Zelda has to do almost all of its ‘teaching’ in game, whilst ensuring there is a good balance of challenge and reward. My contention is that these ‘Nintendo Principles’ are comparable to the fundamentals of good classroom teaching and provide a useful starting point for new teachers to consider their practice. They are also principles which pupils will be aware of, either implicitly or explicitly.
Principle 1: Challenge is Important to Motivation
Video games producers have a direct interest in ensuring their games hit the right level of challenge. For producers, getting this spot on means more interest, greater longevity, and the prospect of better reviews and critical acclaim. In most adventure games, challenge is linked to story progression (another powerful tool), but it might also be connected to collecting a range of items, achieving certain goals in a number of areas etc.
The only exception to this principle is when making games accessible for younger audiences. In this case, some degree of assistance might be necessary. In the Legend of Zelda, the only nod to assistance is when the game provides hints for particularly difficult puzzles. Importantly it does not give solutions, and only provides the hints after 10 minutes of trying and failing to make headway.
I think there is a crucial point in here for new teachers. When starting to teach complex topics or ideas to students, we tend to feel we need to simplify or reduce the level of challenge for our pupils. Whilst this might be necessary sometimes, for the most part it is the challenge or puzzle of a topic which provides its interest. As Christine Counsell once said, “No puzzle, no history.” Our goal as teachers should be to help students to embrace the puzzles and challenges in our lessons. One of the best ways to do this in history is through judicious and careful use of historical enquiry questions. For more on this see Riley (2000).
This is one of the key ones, and where I believe Nintendo really excels. Every game has its mechanics. Some of these are matters of custom (pushing the control stick moves the character) but others are highly game-specific. In order to solve puzzles in the Legend of Zelda, the player needs to absorb new ideas and concepts and apply these to solving puzzles. Early on for example, the player learns that the aim of a puzzle shrine is to open locked doors and reach the end. They also learn that items can be picked up, moved and thrown and that arrows can be used to activate buttons and cut ropes, as well as attacking enemies. But solving puzzles throughout the game means adding a whole arsenal of new ideas and concepts and combining them.
Whenever a new game concept is introduced, it needs to be taught to the player. Whenever this is done, Nintendo follow the principle of teach, practise, apply. Take the example in the video below.
- That crystals can be activated by green glowing things;
- That power can be transmitted through ‘metal’ items;
- That powered crystals will open doors.
These concepts are directly taught to the player in the first room of this puzzle. As you will see in the video, an example is given which the player then copies. This is a type of modelling in which the game gets the player to complete a task with support.
In the next room, the player is asked to apply the same three ideas again. This time they have to use previous skills to obtain the orb and then use it to power the crystals. This is a process of practice and embedding the concepts from the first room.
With the first three concepts embedded, the player is then introduced to another key concept through the equivalent of ‘direct teaching’ – that power can jump small gaps in water. In the video you will notice that the player needs to revisit the explanation to understand this concept and they are initially unsure how to solve the puzzle. This underlines the importance of the teacher introducing ideas and clearly exemplifying them.
Finally, the player is asked to apply their new concepts in a different setting. In this instance, players have to combine existing and new conceptual understanding without the aid of teaching input.
I think this is a great proxy for the teaching method: teach and model new ideas; get students to practice them; ask students to apply them in a more complex context.
Video games are often associated with the notion of short term reward. When we look at things like Class Dojo, or Vivo Rewards we talk about the gamification of education. Yet ironically, we often promote extrinsic rewards in school without even thinking: “complete this and you’ll get a merit point”; “finish this exam and you can have golden time on Friday”; “everyone who gets full attendance will receive an iTunes voucher”; “if you just spend time on this now, you’ll get a good GCSE and a good job.” What I find most odd, is that the majority of video games do not rely on extrinsic reward at all, and yet still manage to get players to engage with them. Never can I remember my childhood being punctuated by a parent saying “If you play three more levels on Mario, I’ll let you have some ice cream,” or “You don’t have to tidy your room if you beat the last level on Space Invaders.”
Let me give you a few examples of intrinsic rewards from the Legend of Zelda:
- Complete a puzzle and you get a new weapon to help you progress in your quest.
- Find a secret location and a new piece of the story is unravelled.
- Get some in-game money and you can exchange it for items to help you survive longer.
- Pursue the main quest and you will unfold the mystery of how the land succumbed to evil.
- Take pictures of every item in the game and….have the self-satisfaction of knowing you did it.
- Talk to every character and you might find a geeky reference.
None of these things have any value outside of the game. They are all things which either help the player continue further, or are just joyful aspects of exploring the game itself. Most people don’t even share these achievements, they just enjoy them for themselves.
So, here’s the final comparison: rewards are important, but the best rewards are those which give you a sense of satisfaction, or allow you to go deeper into the puzzle or mystery you are exploring. The best rewards in history lessons are when students are able to see the next layer of the enquiry, find the next part of the narrative, or can reflect back on a explanation rooted in a deep understanding of what they have studied.
I hope you have found this piece interesting. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on the Nintendo Principles of teaching. Have I missed anything? Am I completely off beam here? Please leave comments below or tweet on @apf102.