In the prior post, I talked about how actions can map onto cognitive learning. In this post, I’ll extend this and look at tool use in video games. There are an endless number of tools in video games: swords, keys, maps, armor, potions and so on. These can, like elemental actions, be grouped into some rough categories.
First, there are tools that extend actions. The sword is an archetypal example, extending reach and adding the ability to cut and stab. Another example might be a magnifying glass that extends the ability to see. Tools like swords and magnifying glasses seem simple and basic, but they have an important effect of expanding both ‘sensory’ and ‘motor’ function creating a more complex understanding of the virtual world and increasing players’ response repertoire, enriching the world with which they interact. Like elemental actions, there is a procedural, motor element to tool use, such as learning how to wield the sword, but also a cognitive element. Each tool has different properties such that a player needs to learn what tools can and cannot do and when and how they should be applied, not to mention how they work. The player not only learns the properties and uses of the tools, but gains a deeper understanding of the virtual world and its characteristics, such as, for example, that swords don’t go through rock. Similar to elemental actions, the cognitive layer is, within the game, arbitrary– a story– and it can be any story, including stories that teach math or physics, for example. Tools that extend actions increases the player’s ability to act upon the environment within the game and, in the process, can yield greater understanding of that environment.
Second, many games include tools that might be thought of a ‘direct’ cognitive tools. The archetypal tool of this genre would be the map. As players navigate through a game, they form a representation in their minds of the virtual world, including its spatial layout as well as more abstract relationships and rules about how the virtual world works. A map extends this mental representational system and can serve several purposes. One, it can be a learning tool that extends memory. Before someone has a solid representation in their mind, they can keep referring back to the map until they more thoroughly internalize its information. Two, a map can highlight relationships that might not have been apparent in a players internal representation: oh, that swamp is just around the corner from the castle, I didn’t realize they were so close. Third, a map can direct future exploration and learning, increasing efficiency. ‘Maps’ can be metaphorical are not limited to virtual geography, but are representations of any set of relationships. For example, a lineage of goblins and how they segregate into good and bad goblins is a representation that maps out categorical relationships. Video games contain many forms of ‘cognitive extensions.’ Another example might be finding scrolls or clues that slowly tell part of a story, piecing together a narrative, which is another form of accounting for how and why a virtual world works as it does. As with tools that extend action, cognitive tools can represent anything, including educational curricula. What is critical is that the content of ‘maps’ in the broad cognitive sense are not simply a bunch of information players are forced to learn and remember, but that the information is relevant and functions as a tool to solve a problem in the virtual world.
Keys comprise a third class of tools. Keys turn locks; we all know that. But there are two aspects of keys that are more fundamental to learning. First, they are a specific solution to a particular problem. Usually, this is a set of teeth that match a tumbler within a lock. But more broadly, unlike a sword or magnifying glass, they represent a class of tools with very specialized properties that fit a specialized problem. Another example might be a special amulet that kills the seemingly invincible dragon, or a mathematical operation that makes a particular thorny problem go away. Using a key requires understanding the relationship between its special properties and the problem at hand. In the case of a lock, this is pretty simple. But a key could be anything, really, including a method for finding derivatives. The more remarkable aspect of a key is that once applied to the specialized problem, it opens up access to parts of the world not previously available. The key is, in other words, the quintessential tool of discovery that expands knowledge and understanding and begins with solving a specific problem. In designing educational video games and mapping action and cognition onto a particular domain of learning, keys are key, unlocking of understanding one specialized problem at a time.
In the same way that tools extend the capabilities of a player, tools expand the opportunities for teaching domain-specific content in video games. To achieve an educational purpose, tools, like elemental actions, require mapping their use onto cognitive representations; tools, however, provide greater flexibility and offer the opportunity for opening up ever more complex aspects of a virtual world and its corresponding curricular content.