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 😉 ).

7 thoughts on “How we learn. And what is fun anyway?

  1. ! – dear WoW players, read this:


    “Malcom Knowles: Self-concept: As a person matures his self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.”


    Pick your reward:
    1. become a self-directed player
    2. follow the next !

    WoW has a problem with challenging content. Apparently everyone should be able to do everything without fear of failing even once.
    Challenge does not exist in the “world” of Warcraft anymore. Dungeons at least have the “heroic” option of doing things in a semi-awkward way to make them more difficult. They replaced “adventure” and the option of failure with simple “fun” content. I wonder how long the lowest common denominator approach will work.

    Of my friends who still play or were playing WoW one says he is there for the PvP, all others for dungeons and raids and all see levelling through the world as a chore. I wonder if the new super fast on-rails levelling experience will not bore them or if they will like it for the occasionally laugh-my-ass-off quest Blizz built into it, and the sheer speed – so that they can get over it more quickly.

    WoW is for sure a much fancier abbreviation than DC – DungeonCraft. And there are for sure people who are content with a world where they can ride/fly from A to B and occasionally mine a node or harvest a plant.

    I sometimes wonder if people simply got told so often that WoW is great that they believe it by now. It might have become a cultural phenomenon and an acquired taste.

    • Or it could be that they, I know this is going to shock you given your comments around the blogosphere lately, actually like it.

      Your concept of fun or ‘what the game should be’ doesn’t necessarily apply to the masses. Some people are looking for a brief distraction from day to day life and don’t need to be constantly challenged in their game. For those that do, there are options – serious PvP (arena), hardcore raiding guilds, etc. Are you really taking the position that no one plays WoW for the leveling game itself? There are a number of “altoholic” and/or “casual” blogs (and countless blogless players) that would beg to differ, I’m sure.

      And if you’re going to contest the the open world is no longer a challenge or an adventure, it might benefit you to actually gain some perspective on that in light of the recent changes to WoW. For a new player’s perspective, for example, go read the latest piece about the “WoW noob” over on MMOgamerchick’s blog. Or, check out Rohan’s piece today about the named quest mobs. People playing characters from the ground up are finding the experience better, and somewhat more challenging, than it was in the past.

      Now, if you’re running around decked out in heirlooms, then sure, the leveling game isn’t a challenge at all – but that’s the tool Blizzard has given players who already have a max level character to get another one into raiding-ready shape. That’s a conscious choice you make as a raiding player, and sure, those people probably see leveling as a chore. Doesn’t mean everyone does.

      As for the “lowest common denominator”? Personally, I think that’s just an insult gaming snobs like to throw at the blanket WoW population. The lowest common denominator is over playing FarmVille, man. (See, I can do it, too!)

      I wonder how long the lowest common denominator will continue to eat at McDonald’s… psst, you do realize that people who play other games also play WoW, right? Just like people who eat at fancy restaurants also eat at McD’s. Pigeonholing the population of WoW players as the LCD is just silly.

      • I am sorry, but WoW players celebrate their fat burger as something special.

        You are the “gaming snob” when you assume that new players are below the level of vegetables, aka dumb.

      • I’m pretty sure you just made my point for me. “WoW players celebrate their fat burger as if it’s something special.”

        Who’s the gaming snob, exactly? What do you play that’s so special?

        Even with that aside, the whole comment is a ridiculous sweeping generalization. I might play WoW, but I play other games, as well. I don’t think any of them make me “special”, or that the game itself is “special”. I am not here trumpeting that message at all. I simply don’t understand all the venom people like you spit at WoW, as if it’s inconeivable that people could possibly enjoy something that ‘dumb’.

        I didn’t insinuate new players are dumb – I said you should go read MMOGC’s story about the friend she just brought over to WoW. I think a lot of MMO Vets have forgotten what it’s like to step into a virtual world for the first time. It’s a good reminder of what it was like; even with the experience being “on rails”, it can’t teach you everything at once.

  2. “So there are some kinds of player who just don’t want to deal with stress or anxiety.”

    I suppose that is where Blizzard’s “on-rails” experience comes into play.

  3. @longasc:
    “WoW has a problem with challenging content. Apparently everyone should be able to do everything without fear of failing even once.”

    I think a lot of stuff in WoW lately has gotten to be too easy. Back in vanilla WoW, the focus seemed to be more towards making you “earn” everything by making it very challenging (next to impossible) without a group or at least very, very tedious and time-consuming.

    My complaint back then was that there was a lot of stuff that _could_not_ be done without a good group of friends, and when it came to raids it required a hardcore raiding guild. I didn’t mind the things I could just grind out over a long time, little bits at a time. It was the things that couldn’t be done that bugged me.

    I never wanted stuff to be handed to me, but I also got really frustrated at having so much being completely inaccessible. I liked the challenge of the things I could do whether it required one attempt or twenty. I hated the things that I couldn’t even attempt until (for example, with BC heroics) spending three weeks pursuing every comment in LFG or trade trying to get in on a group. Often it was impossible to find people, even within guild, willing to group up for group quests. A lot of BC group quests languished in my quest log for over a year, until Wrath came and I went back around 77-78 to solo them just to finish them out.

    Now, however, it really does feel like everything is just being handed to me. Quests have been streamlined to the point that not only do I not have to figure out where to go from the quest description, but everything done in the same subarea is handed to me at the same time so I never have to visit that particular spot more than once. Leveling is so fast that even without the heirloom gear I can enter an area at an appropriate level and have outleveled it before I’m even halfway through the quests in that area. So, I’m then stuck with the choice of completing content that is absurdly trivial or just skipping it altogether. Both options greatly reduce the enjoyment of the game.

    I understand that many people do not enjoy leveling. Why not give them ways to skip ahead without making the process so trivial for everyone else? On the other hand, don’t make it so challenging that only a very small percentage of the people are ever able to do it. Why can’t there be some middle ground?

    • The problem is that Blizzard are trying to make leveling easier for those who already have a max level character, but it detrimentally affects those who don’t. Either way people are going to complain, there is no middle ground between “It takes too damn long to level” and “leveling is too damn fast!” there will ALWAYS be someone that doesn’t like it. A game can never be 100% perfect when there are 12,000,000 opinions on what perfection is 🙂

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