Teaching Martial Arts and Making Video Games Aren’t All That Different (2011 Essay)
In 2005, I signed up at a new martial arts school shortly after starting a new job as a scripter and gameplay programmer at a video game company. I spent my days crafting engaging gameplay experiences among young, eccentric and irreverent creative minds, and I spent my evenings sweating in the reserved structure of the taekwondo school. At work I went out of my way to be just as irreverent as my coworkers, making sure use some spicy language for the benefit of a few coworkers who felt it necessary to curb their language and expression in my presence. After work, I had to flip a switch and turn it all off to be respectful of the martial art and the dojang where I trained. In the mornings, everything revolved around creativity and discarding old ideas just because they had been done before, but in the evenings old ideas were revered because they were traditional. I felt like every day I was living in two separate worlds that couldn’t be more different.
Several years later, I find myself thinking the opposite.
|The project I was working on at the time.|
Despite the many and obvious differences, teaching a martial arts class and scripting a video game level are both done with a goal of providing a fun and rewarding experience.
What most people outside of the game industry don’t realize is that like martial arts classes, video game levels are also learning environments. For each game on the shelves, the rules are slightly different. Those rules need to be taught to the player, or the player cannot enjoy the game. It must be obvious to the player that doing A will result in B. Since lengthy tutorials can be tedious and not fun, game developers find themselves in the same situation as martial arts instructors. Material needs to be taught, and it has to be rewarding or the student/player will not continue.
|The first game I ever worked on. Let's just say it would be an example of something.|
Immersyve, a consulting company that works with game developers (among other things), explains the psychology of what makes good games so engaging. They point to three key factors: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They argue that when players can direct themselves and make meaningful decisions (autonomy), play the game with a high degree of skill as taught by their earlier experience with the game (competence), and enjoy interaction beyond themselves either socially or within the fictional world (relatedness), the game is engaging and players will return again and again.
In Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink argues that whether we are in the workplace, at school, or in a recreational environment, we are most motivated when we have three key components: autonomy, mastery and purpose. He explains that when people are given the freedom to pursue things the way that they see fit (autonomy), can work toward being better at doing it (mastery), and are able to work toward something larger than themselves (purpose), they are most motivated and most productive.
|Either that, or maybe it's cheesy corporate posters that motivate us.|
While reading Drive, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity. (It was no surprise to me when later I found that the minds behind Immersyve and Daniel Pink both cite the same sources in psychological literature.) Moreover, I couldn’t help but think that it very accurately reflects my martial arts experience.
Autonomy is emphasized with every new open-world game that hits the shelves. But when we think about martial arts, we usually think about discipline and rigid compliance over autonomy. Even so, autonomy is successful in the dojang. Allowing students to choose their own goals, whether it is a rank, or a trophy, or a fitness level, or whatever else, is much more motivating than goals that are imposed by an instructor. (Or a parent! Great example of that here.)
On the other hand, mastery/competence is easy to see in both venues. Doing something well, or even just getting better at doing it, is rewarding. It’s true in practically every recreational activity in the world, but in martial arts, it’s not only true, it’s also often considered a particularly noble goal to do something well purely for the sake of doing it well.
|Of course, getting a new belt is usually pretty cool, too.|
As for purpose/relatedness, that is equally important to game developers and martial arts instructors. Players and students want to feel like they have gained something for their efforts. They want to be part of a community. They want to believe that their time was well spent and the result has value. This is much, much easier for martial arts instructors than it is for game developers, who are confined to virtual worlds. But the idea is the same.
I find this stuff fascinating. I hope some of you do, too.