There’s a special appeal to playing really hard games. Games were you have to grind it out over time to get anywhere. A type of those really hard games are called roguelikes. But what makes them hard? What makes them appealing?
Most importantly: how can we use the difficulty of roguelike games for games-based learning?
What are rougelike games?
Roguelike is a subgenre of role-playing video game characterized by a dungeon crawl. That means a player moves through a space (dungeon) to reach some objective. In roguelike games, that space is procedurally generated, usually includes turn-based gameplay, and permanent death of the player character.
Where did we get the term “roguelike”
Roguelike games come from the original 1980 game Rogue: The Adventure Game, Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom. Rogue was a dungeon crawling game where the player assumed the role of an adventurer in a fantasy role playing game. The game starts at the top most level of a dungeon that contains monsters and treasures. The objective of the game is to fight all the way to the bottom level to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor. The player then has to return to the surface. The monsters in the dungeon become progressively more difficult through every descending level.
Roguelike games are meant to be difficult like the origin’s name sake. Most of those difficult design choices are included in the characteristics present in the original game. Roguelike games are challenging based on how players progress through the game.
What are characteristics of roguelike games?
The term “roguelike” has evolved over time, and so has the characteristics that are attributed to roguelike games . The following distinctions are made for roguelike games that honor its predecessor:
-Controlling a single character
Learning through experience
One of the biggest and most memorable characteristic of roguelike games is the permanent death attributed to players. Compared to other games, where players are allowed to re-start where they were previously eliminated, roguelike games do not include that option. Instead, players need to restart the game from the very beginning.
This might sound harsh, but part of challenge of the game is learning though each play. That includes determining what may arrive in the dungeon, how to best fight or mitigate dangers, and how to best succeed throughout this particular “run.”
That means that roguelike games excel not only in player engagement but also by learning through design. This is because players are required to continually explore and engage with its systems in order to demonstrate their competency in mastering the game.
This experience takes place in two formats. First, the player learns the systems of the game and adapts their play style to become more successful through future plays. The second includes the changes and attributes the game affords to its players. This can come in the form of power up’s, buffs, or other resources that help the player navigate the dungeon on future runs. This include a better starting weapon, special information on the next dungeon floor, or armor to reduce damage.
The point of including these additional power up’s is because the engagement loop for roguelike games can be long one. If a player reaches a deeper level in the game, only to lose, it can be a hard proposition for the player to return to keep playing. The cost of that failure is too steep, and the psychological momentum lost too great.
What makes roguelike games like learning?
In a way roguelike games are lot like learning. Like roguelike games, the player and the student often start with nothing. This gives them both the opportunity to learn and progress gaining information and options along the way. The permanent death option in roguelike games gives players a degree of weighty decisions to be made in the game. Because a wrong decision could spell the end for their run.
Students on the other hand regularly experience this form of “permanent death” in learning. That could come from administrative responsibilities from having to re-take a class if their grade is low enough, failing to pass a critical assessment like a test or paper, or missing too many classes in a row. All of these options could spell doom for the student’s “run” in the class.
However, many of these aspects can be mitigated by closing the feedback loop between the result and the action of students. This is why structuring summative assessments in a scheduled format is often best practice for instructors. In this format, students aren’t asked to write a final paper at the end of the term. Instead, they work each week on writing and creating content. Then, at the end of the term, those individual pieces are arranged into their final paper.
Such structuring allows students to get feedback on their work. Similar to the dungeon diving Rogue, when players are given additional power-up’s, weapons, and armor that helps mitigate some of the dangers of the dungeon’s creatures. Active feedback from instructors on students’ work can empower them to take effective and significant action to do better.
Following this structure, roguelike game design emulates a lot of what is already present in the modern classroom. Yes, there are high stakes assessments, but there are also opportunities for students to improve their positions through work and dedication.
Roguelike games can be exceedingly tough, brutal, and difficult. But so can learning challenging material. The main takeaways from roguelike games for learning is to create instructional materials that help students meet their learning outcomes.
The scaffolding and structure that you use to do so can be steep like roguelike games. But also like roguelike games, you can provide students with opportunities for them to gain powerful insight and agency in their learning by providing strong and actionable feedback.
That feedback can take many forms, but so long as it helps the student improve on their work in order to become better learners, then it serves the greater purpose.
Dave Eng, EdD