The Fail-State is Not Permanent: What Roguelikes Can Teach Us About Revision

By Emma Kostopolus, University of Kansas
@kostopolus

Hades screenshots - Image #29305 | New Game Network
A screen shot from the Roguelike game Hades.

What do we expect when we play a video game for the first time? If it’s a type of game we’re not familiar with, we probably expect that we’re going to fail, which is generally represented by our on-screen character dying. We expect to fail a lot when we start playing, but as we play more and get better, we expect to fail less and less often, and eventually win and beat the game. What this means is that failure in gaming is expected as a part of the learning process; if you don’t fail and try again, you don’t learn. Failure also isn’t punished in gaming in the same way it is in other things: when you fail at a game, you’re given the opportunity to try again, often with low or negligible consequences for prior failure (unless you’re playing something like Dark Souls, but that’s the exception and not the rule). This lets people play again and again, and experiment with techniques until they find a successful path forward for themselves via learning how to play. In gaming, the fail-state is not permanent.

This is clearly not the case for all types of learning, but what I’d like to talk about today is how it particularly isn’t true for a lot of the ways we teach writing, and how if we shifted our perspective to treat learning to write in the same way we treat learning to play a game, both teachers and students stand to benefit. The traditional method of assessing writing is that a student writes and submits a single draft of something, that is then assigned a static final grade. If a student happened to have done well on the assignment on their first try, great! But if a student understandably needs more practice with the skills of the assignment and they do poorly, well, then they’re just out of luck and stuck with a bad grade for the semester, while the class moves on to testing different skills. So how do we break this cycle? Simple, and with a technique that teachers often exhort their students to use but do not always build into their classrooms or assessment themselves: revision.

Revision is the process of re-seeing and transforming your prior work in response to feedback, so that it more clearly aligns with your goals and the goals of your audience. And revision, though we don’t think of it that way, is something that games tend to do really well. To understand how we can learn more about revision from games, let’s think about the genre of the roguelike. In an archetypal roguelike, you play a character attempting to navigate a randomly generated labyrinth of some kind, like a dungeon, while collecting boons to increase your stats and fighting increasingly difficult enemies. When you die in the game, your progress is not saved at a certain point and you return at around the point you died; instead, the whole game resets, and you start over. You’re expected to play the game, and fail, repeatedly and recursively, instead of progressing in a linear fashion. Roguelikes are thus a game genre that present failure not as a consequence of subpar play that you can incidentally learn from, but as an integral and expected part of play itself, and how you learn to play.

Hades | Rogue Like | First Impressions - YouTube
A promotional image of Supergiant’s Roguelike title, Hades.

Some games take this even further, like Supergiant’s most recent game Hades. Hades does interesting things with the nature of death in the game because instead of having the entire game start over, your character dies and returns to the starting point, but they retain certain attributes that they can use to level themselves up, and there is a linear story that builds itself around your multiple attempts to flee the underworld and your many deaths trying. Thus, dying not only presents an integral part of learning how to play, it’s also key to you progressing in the narrative.

What we can take from this is that learning is ultimately a process of iteration. While we can gather basics from things like having behavior modeled for us or having abstract things explained (like in a tutorial), we really start to learn when we put our skills into practice and receive feedback on the results. So by doing things like having students write an assignment once and then receive only one grade, we’re actually cutting the process of learning short, because we aren’t letting them adjust their strategies based on our feedback. If we implement stronger revision strategies and practices in our classrooms, we actually stand to foster a lot of learning that would otherwise not occur.

But how can we do that in an already busy classroom? It’s understandable that an instructor might be leery of the increased grading load from opening up revision as a free for all experience; if we let students revise all their projects as many times as they need, that opens up the potential for an unmanageable increase in work for the teacher, and we need to set boundaries. But we can still implement revision possibilities structurally, through some simple practices in our classrooms that you might already be doing.

Investigating the effects of classroom memory skills training in college —  Psych Learning Curve
A rather full, presumably busy classroom.

The first practice is peer review. By having classmates look at a draft before it is submitted to the teacher, we’re giving students an opportunity to engage in some valuable work thinking about what the assignment requires, as well as getting feedback on their draft from fellow experts working on the same assignment. We can think of this as some co-operative play: finding a friend to fight through the dungeon with you. Students still receive feedback, but it’s lower stakes than getting a grade with opportunities to revise.

Another way to implement revision is having the instructor look at the work before it’s submitted for a grade. Some instructors do individual conferences, where they meet with the student and view a draft. But if you teach three or four classes a semester, this becomes untenable from a time management standpoint. For this, I suggest partial revision tactics. Instead of a full draft, have students submit things like an outline, or their thesis statement or research question, that can be quickly assessed and still provide the student with valuable feedback. We can think of this as giving students a buff, or a small advantage as they move forward through the dungeon; they aren’t fighting the boss yet, but they have an extra advantage they didn’t have previously.

The most obvious way to build revision into a course is to let students revise projects. A good way to build this into a syllabus if you don’t have time for endless grading is to have your final unit be based around revision. We do it in the composition program at my university, and it works like this: we have students select one of their prior projects, set goals for the revision based on prior instructor feedback and any ideas they have for success, and then revise the project, which is graded on how successfully they met their own goals. By setting aside time in class specifically for revision, we can allow students to learn from prior experiences and try again, much like in a roguelike.

Exams Revise Sticker by Loughborough University for iOS & Android | GIPHY

By building revision into our courses and treating them like games, by getting up non-permanent fail-states, we will gain many things in our classrooms. Students will both learn more from their experiences with the writing that they do, because they’re given the chance to respond to feedback, and they will feel more open to experimentation in their writing, since writing will no longer be a single-shot all or nothing high stakes and high stress ordeal. If you haven’t implemented revision into your classrooms, I highly recommend looking into it as a possibility. After all, we’re the dungeon bosses. Don’t we want to make it interesting for our players?


About the Author
Emma Kostopolus is a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Kansas. When not working on her dissertation or CPGS stuff, she writes about games for Unwinnable Monthly, Sidequest.zone and Critical Distance and brews very weird beer.

This piece is part of a series written by CPGS members about current thoughts, reflections, or projects in and around games and gaming. If you are a CPGS member and would like to contribute to these musings, please contact Beth Caravella at caravell@yorku.ca or via the CPGS Discord.

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