Why aren’t my skills leveling up?!

Not quite what I was getting at...but the space looked empty.
Image: Intelligent Systems

Fake outrage aside, I’m having fun learning a new skill during this very warm, sometimes terribly hot, summer. A couple of months ago, I bought a 61-key digital keyboard* to try and learn how to play the piano. As someone who had practically 0 experience with musical instruments (I played clarinet in music class back in grade school), it was pretty daunting. Nevertheless, I got a tutorial book and off I went to try and learn a new skill.

Cue a couple months later and it’s still a massive struggle. While I can read some sheet music (given a moment or two), it’s still tricky to actually play the music...but that’s what practice is for! However, the tribulations have me pondering about skill learning mechanics in video games. Specifically, that “game-ifying” skill learning misses the one hugely important aspect of learning; the importance of correcting mistakes.

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The idea of stat grinding/skill learning harkens back to at least 1982, with the release of Dungeons of Daggorath (“Stat Grinding”). The system has continued onward to this very day, with many modern games, such as the Elder Scrolls series, using this system. Notably, Elder Scrolls: Morrowind had skills gain experience after successful use, so presumably if an attack missed, that skill wouldn’t gain any experience. This was changed in Oblivion and onward so that any use of the skill, whether it succeeded or failed, would result in the skill being developed.

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This simplification makes sense from a gameplay perspective; rewarding the player for doing something instead of only when succeeding. It reinforces the idea that “practice makes perfect,” a common adage taught to children at a young age to encourage them to continue trying, despite failure.

This adage, the variant “try, try, and try again,” or other permutations on the phrasing, is often used as words of encouragement for people of all ages. While the sentiment is nice, when learning a complicated skill, sheer practice does not, in fact, make perfect. It may actually be harmful.

Neuroplasticity refers to how the brain continues to change over a person’s lifetime (“Definition of Neuroplasticity”). Depending on the stimulation, the brain’s neurons can form new pathways and connections that were not previously present**. Unsurprisingly, this takes a lot of time and effort. However, this is how new skills are learned - through the development of new neural pathways.

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Learning new skills then, is theoretically possible at any age. It’s just far easier at a younger age when the brain’s connections are more malleable. As such, when learning new skills at an older age, it’s important to learn how to do things right the first time. This is because, if you make mistakes and continue to do so without correcting yourself, your brain will, theoretically, make new neural connections that reinforce the mistakes.

Take piano playing for example: if I’m supposed to move my ring finger to hit C# but instead repeatedly hit D#, my ring finger’s motor skills will be reinforced to aim for D# instead of the correct C#. While “practice makes perfect” does assume that the learner will correct his or her movements, this assumes that the learner knows to correct his or her movements***. In video games using the stat grind system, a skill will level up whether the skill was used successfully or not. This doesn’t teach the player that it’s necessary to correct for any errors in skill execution, but rather, teaches the player that sheer, absolute practice will yield results. “Game-ifying” skill learning skips the importance of knowing to correct mistakes in favor of convenience for the player.

While it makes sense from a game design point of view, as developers probably wouldn’t want players to spend an exorbitant amount of time learning skills, becoming frustrated in doing so, I can’t help but wonder if this simplification has had any impact on younger gamers today.

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*Word to the wise: a 61-key digital keyboard isn’t perfect because a full piano has 88 keys (so I’m missing a set of chords, or something) and my keyboard does not have weighted keys, it’s all synth sounds (real piano keys are weighted so they have a different feel to them). As a beginner though? No regrets.

**When neurons die, they stay dead. The brain can form new pathways to compensate for the loss, but dead neurons do not come back.

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1. “Stat Grinding - TV Tropes.” TV Tropes. 2018. www.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StatGrinding/. Accessed July 10, 2018.

2. “Definition of Neuroplasticity.” MedicineNET. 2017. www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=40362. Accessed July 10, 2018