Simulation immersion and learning

Frequently lately I’ve said to myself, “self, we are going to blog more”, and then I go and do approximately eight thousand other things instead. But Jo Wright posted this intriguing thought to twitter, which the superb Christina copied me in on:

And I said my response was too long for twitter, and she said her thought was too long for twitter, and so here we are in a blog post. (I hope I still remember how to do this.)

Naturally such a statement is provocative to me because of my year-and-change working on learning games. Jo’s thought is especially interesting because of where it sits in the intersection of cognitive stimulation and learning.

I think it’s more accurate to say that immersion is a satisfying level of fascination, though that makes me wonder if it’s possible to be too fascinated (probably yes; witness Candy Crush Saga). I think “a realistic level of confusion” probably does create a kind of immersion state, but that’s really just “sufficient verisimilitude” — you could maybe just stop at “realistic”. The confusion part makes it interesting because it kind of wraps in multiple ideas: sensory stimulation, cognitive stimulation, and a kind of chaos.

There is definitely a degree to which chaos in a game is desirable and intriguing. And because games often fail because they are too simple — too easily solved, or founded on challenges that are just not fun (like poor UI/UX) — it’s appealing to think that just adding more unpredictability or complexity will make them better. Sometimes this is even true, insofar as randomness can be more accurate to real life.

But what we’ve seen over and over at least in kids is that confusion is a very uncomfortable state, and so in learning I think it’s important to sharply distinguish between confusion and intrigue. There is a thing, which is “not knowing” or “not understanding”, which is part of being intrigued, but the difference between “not understanding” and confusion is that confusion is usually “I thought it was X but it looks like Y”, rather than “I don’t know why it is X”. One of them is more cognitively dissonant. And actual confusion will bounce a kid out of a learning state pretty quickly. Kids will tolerate a certain amount of confusion, but its breakpoint shelf moment is actually a pretty low threshold.

So I might even go so far as to say that what learning games try to achieve is actually the utter elimination of confusion where possible, or at least the very careful management of it (misconception for instance can be a very important part of learning). Fascination is totally different. Fascination actually requires confusion to be very low and “not understanding” to be very high. It’s a very tricky balance. It sounds sycophantic, but really SimCity does come to mind: despite everything that is going on in the simuation, it never seems confusing or chaotic. SimCity actually works very hard to give you the sensation that everything happening in the game is tightly under control. This means that even if it’s very hard, the player rarely blames the game for failure — there is constantly a feeling that if you just tried a little harder, you could understand its systems and win it.

This tractability is incredibly important, and runs opposite to what we often encounter in life, especially when we’re young and/or undereducated; often the world feels overwhelming, confusing, intractable. The best games feel incredibly complicated but tractable — fascinating but not confusing. Playing SimCity is like looking into a kaleidoscope: you might not understand what’s going on, or be able to predict what it’s going to do next, but you have a fundamental trust that what it’s doing is logical on some level, and winnable. (Which is, sadly, often not very much like real life.)

(Note, too, that this feeling generated by SimCity has extremely little to do with its accuracy! That’s where the art is: the emotion of fascination not reliant on the realism.)

The moment games create genuine confusion, especially confusion approaching what we often encounter in the real world, is usually the moment that we put them down.