How we learn. And what is fun anyway?

The discussion this week about levelling in WoW – too fast? too easy? not enough challenge for experienced gamers? has inspired me to do some digging around for information about how adults learn. Sorry if this gets a bit technical.

There is a lot of interesting work done on this topic, and I think the notion of Andragogy (how adults learn) is actually pretty cool. I especially like the notion that as adults, when we learn something new we want to be able to use it as soon as possible. I always thought that was just me being really impatient ;)

There are two basic views on adult learning:

1. Learning should be about overcoming a series of challenges. From this point of view, a bit of anxiety is part of the learning process. It would be very common (maybe even necessary) for people who are learning something new to think, “Eek, I feel a bit lost and out of my depth here, how can I do this new thing?” You have to get to that stage before you can move on and actually learn, and deciding to ease the anxiety by mastering the new topic is one of the ways adults motivate themselves to learn things.

There’s an interesting quote here in which one psychologist claims that learning isn’t really fun for adults, and says that learning only happens when survival anxiety (omg I need to know how to do this OR ELSE) outweighs learning anxiety (erk, this is a new thing and I don’t know how to do it.)

Schein dismisses the notion that learning is fun, especially for adults. He equates adult learning within organizations with that of the brainwashing techniques he observed while studying prisoners of the Korean War

Each of these anxieties could be managed, for example learning can be constructed in a “safe” environment where the consequences of failure are minimal. Survival anxiety can obviously be increased by threatening job loss, a lack of security, or recognizing competitive elements of the market.

So this is where games come in. The game should be a safe environment for learning where the consequences either way are pretty low. In a more competitive game, or where players are more invested (maybe your guild performance is important to your social life) then you get the other anxiety too.

I think anyone who has raided with a progression guild will probably know that feeling of being terrified of failing to learn quickly enough and letting the side down. But on the other hand, hobby gamers tend to enjoy the learning anxiety and being able to make it go away by mastering the game. We’re good at learning. Hold onto that, it’s a very useful life skill :) People in this group would dispute the claim that learning isn’t fun because for us, it’s the entire basis of our hobby!

Just bear in mind that it actually might not be fun for a lot of other people.

2. Learning through play / experience. The idea here is that people will learn by doing things, and they might not realise how much they have learned until they get a chance to think about it and talk to other people afterwards. There is also an idea that all learners are equal; as long as they are actually doing something (ie. and not avoiding the experience altogether) then they are learning and will have something to bring to the discussion.

This is why the WoW blogosphere is so interesting. Some people want to talk about strategies for high end raiding, others about how they work gaming in around their family life, and others just want to share pictures of their in game pets. They are all sharing different but valid experiences of the same game.

So from this perspective, the goal is to create a friendly environment that should be easy to get into with lots of ways for people to go off and experience it in whichever way they want. In other words, the buffet approach to MMOs.

So there are some kinds of player who just don’t want to deal with stress or anxiety. They aren’t playing because they want to be challenged in that way. They might be challenged in different ways (I want to collect 100 pets! I want to explore the virtual world!) but it will all be very controllable and they probably appreciate having a well marked story path available.

I think that the more MMOs bring in gaming elements, the more they will tend towards the first category. Structured sets of challenges, underpinned by strong competition to motivate people. And the mystery of WoW at the moment is how they are trying to make the low levels offer an immersive learning environment at the same time as the high level raiding offers a very different sort of gaming experience. Clearly, if you are an experienced gamer coming into the game new, it’s just going to be frustrating until you reach endgame (at which point it will be frustrating for different reasons ;) ).