Feedback loop de loops

Written by Andrew Peterson

Education can learn a lot from game design and development. Let’s talk about feedback for a moment. Oftentimes when I’m feeling silly, I like to imagine a game that is designed to give feedback like a poorly designed or facilitated course. Allow the player to do anything in the game, and then after a specified time delay, either give points or enforce a negative consequence.

I picture a player picking up a classic Nintendo controller and starting Super Mario Brothers (World 1-1). They run through the Goombas, break bricks, and collect mushrooms as usual, but the positive or negative affect doesn’t happen until later in the level. Even a delay of 10 seconds would completely destroy the experience. Would the players (assuming they have never played before) even be able to associate the difference between positive and negative behavior?

The timing of the immediate feedback is so critical to shaping the players’ idea of what is good/bad behavior in game design that it sounds obvious. When a player does something good, reward that immediately. When a player does something bad or fails to succeed at something, punish that immediately. I hear from so many students who complete some task in a course, only to wait weeks for any feedback. I think it would be fun to allow instructors to play a video game that highlighted that delayed feedback loop.

This also makes me consider the role of assessment in gaming. Gamers (a super generalized category, sorry) don’t usually care about the assessment (score). It comes out as asking if you beat Level 3, not how many points you scored on that level. Sure, there’s a small population of gamers who will want to make sure they got every single one of the 9,300 possible points, but the vast majority just want to pass the level and move on. There might be several paths to beat the level, a logical conversation might ensue as to how they beat the level, what strategy they used, and the two players would compare notes. However, there’s no debate about fair or unfair assessment as they both (likely) beat the same final boss.

How do we emulate this in a classroom? How do we allow students the freedom to defeat the final boss while staying within the same game the other students are playing, but still allow for freedom to fail, try again, and eventually succeed in a common challenge? If I can answer part of the rhetorical question, I’m sure no one is yelling “Multiple choice tests!” at their computer screen.

Students want an assignment that has meaning. The only time I’ve seen a student excited for turning in a PowerPoint is when they want an “easy A.” Students usually know what A-quality work looks like when they turn in a PowerPoint. The instructor will ask for 15-20 slides, notes, and at least three references to the course reading (for example). When an instructor starts to get creative, the certainty of the assessment starts to fade. Some students just want an A; they really don’t care about learning but just want the highest marks. We have created an educational environment where an easy A is more sought out than hard learning.

Sometimes you see this in gaming circles. There’s a player type, usually called “min/max’ers” as in they try to figure out the easiest possible “win” condition. From a game design perspective, this player approaches my game as a puzzle to be solved. They want a scenario where any possible negative is minimized and their ability to win is maximized. This is usually disappointing as I want to design a game experience, not something that can be solved and easily won. My classroom is the same as I want to design an educational experience, not just something that is an easy A.

I could go on, but most research shows that I’ve already exceeded your attention span by 7 minutes and 38 seconds. I should probably cite someone about how most statistics are made up on the spot, but hopefully the sarcastic and playful nature of this post shows through. If anyone dares cite anything I’ve just written, I give full permission to whoever their instructor is to just fail them out of principle.

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