Depth vs. Breadth in Learning Games

BY Dan Norton
One of the best things about making digital learning stuff is that we get to have a constant dialogue about the nature of knowledge. After all, if you want to make learning tools, you need to have an opinion about what it means to know something!

One thing that comes up a LOT is the idea of breadth versus depth in learning games. When talking to new clients, the (reasonable) line of thinking usually goes something like, “games are very engaging, but they aren’t cheap to build. So let’s make a really really good game, but make it about as many things as possible to maximize our investment.”

Hold the phone, prospective client! The thing that makes a game (learning or otherwise) really good is its content. Entertainment games generally focus on a specific thing- an identity, an action, or a system of some sort, and flesh out your ability to explore and grow your thinking around that thing. A game like Papers, Please starts with an identity of a border guard and the action of processing paperwork, and digs in from there. If Papers, Please added a Tetris minigame and a timing-driven platformer, the game would not improve, it would suffer. The focus on depth is what makes it worth playing.

Even games that seem like “you can do anything” are in reality quite focused. People like to talk about the limitless options of Grand Theft Auto, but in reality, all the actions you take are constrained to reinforcing your empowered hoodlum identity. You can’t bake muffins, or become a lawyer, or perform surgery. Those are things you can do in other games, by the way.

I can remember attending a talk about the game Skyrim in which the presenter skewered Skyrim for its anemic model of marriage and relationships. I thought to myself, “If I were a Skyrim developer, I wouldn’t be sitting here thinking about how we could have made marriage better, I’d simply regret adding it at all.”

So what should you do if you want to make a learning tool that can accommodate any and all learning objectives? There is in fact a way...

If we want a strategy that treats all learning objectives as being the same learning strategy with different content, we already have that: it’s called text! Text lets you encapsulate ideas in sentences, and is easily assessable by determining whether someone can remember those sentences later. Text lets you boil down all content into one metric of assessment- retention, and lets you ensure the time spent on each learning objective is manageable in any way you see fit.

But if we want to really know a thing, we need to understand it not just as a sentence to be recalled, but as an idea that has a purpose, a context, and specific shape that makes it better than another idea for accomplishing a goal. That’s what knowing things is!

So with that in mind, are there ways to make engaging games that reach a broad set of objectives? Perhaps.

One of the awesome things about games is that they have control over scale. You can wage war in a petri dish, or play ping pong with planets- the game determines the size and complexity of its systems. That means if you want to make a game that gets deep about a lot of things, you need a system, identity, or verbs that connect those things in a deep way.

A quick example is a verb like “argumentation.” The act of reasoning is obviously versatile, but it also affords a lot of depth in content to get good at it. If you build game structures around supporting argumentation, you could likely apply that game experience to a wide variety of topics. Another example might be “connections”- many puzzle games thrive on finding relationships between things in order to build, clear, score, etc. If you can make the ways you connect things together varied and full of depth, you can likely use that connection-building verb in a wide variety of formats for a wide variety of content.

These things of course don’t give you deep learning opportunities on each of those now modular pieces of content- you won’t become a master of applying knowledge simply because you thought about arguing about its content intelligently. BUT, you will have made an authentically engaging problem space that lets players experiment with the knowledge as they gain it.

The main reason to use game-based learning might at first blush be for “engagement”- but games are only engaging when they create meaning and context for the challenges that are contained within them. Essentially games are only good when they treat their content as intrinsically engaging, and all of the feedback, reward, identity, and actions that are engineered are built to support that. A good learning game must take its learning objectives, and transform them into ideas and challenges that are interesting, empowering, and engaging.