What a little bug with a sword taught me about learning

Screenshot from the gameplay of Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight on Steam

These last few months at home, I’ve been playing a lot of video games. I started with relaxing ones, like Stardew Valley, tried my hand at some first person shooters like Overwatch (not my greatest strength), and replayed a few old favorites from childhood, like Mario Kart. I definitely do not identify as a hardcore gamer — I play games on Easy mode, I embrace the word “casual,” and I’m really not interested in the gate-keeping ferocity that comes with that identity.

But I found myself at home with a spooky little action-adventure game called Hollow Knight. You’re a little bug with a nail for a sword, exploring a vast underground kingdom. As I played this summer, I saw how video games are a type of learning environment. Here’s some things that Hollow Knight reminded me about learning:

Non-linear Learning

This game is laid out like a big, interlocking web of pathways. Because there’s no one way to complete the game, you can access areas that you’re not strong enough to face yet. It’s easy to get in over your head, but it’s also a chance to experiment and creatively beat the game. Just like there’s no one path to knowledge, you can approach this game in multiple ways and get different results, even different endings to the story.

Threshold Concepts

At the beginning of this game, you are very weak, and the skills you gain build on one another. It’s very satisfying to earn a new ability and then immediately put it to use on the next level. A threshold concept in education is like a portal that opens up “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (Meyer and Land, 2003). In Hollow Knight, we’re talking about parts of the game that are literally inaccessible until you learn a new skill, like a passage underwater or a really high platform to a new level. You’ve got to jump before you can double-jump, you know? 

Mapping

Concept art for the elaborate map of Hallownest, the world Hollow Knight takes place in

When you enter a new area of the game, you don’t have a map right away. You have to fill it out yourself as you explore. You can even see your little knight scrawling on the map, recording travels and lessons learned. This design adds to the satisfaction of exploration, as Nevada Dru says for video games blog Bits & Pieces: “When you have no map and no idea where you are going in a new area, the world feels dangerous and unknowable. When you finally find that map and see all the areas yet to be explored, finding and uncovering their secrets is exciting.” I love how discovery begets more discovery. This makes me want to incorporate more mapping in my classroom activities.

Patience

I’m notoriously impatient in a video game. As soon as I enter a boss fight, I want to get right up on the guy and finish the battle as soon as possible. But Hollow Knight does not reward this approach — there’s timing to every enemy’s attacks, and you’re going to need a lot more strategy than just “hit him really fast!!” I learned to slow down, pay closer attention, and it paid off. Practicing patience also boosted my confidence; even in tough spots later in the game, I’d think to myself, “I can do this.”

Failure

Patience leads me to another important element of this game: repeated failure. After you use up your health, you die and have to start from your last save point. It’s very easy to fail in this game, especially when you enter a new section or are facing a boss. The number of times I’ve died in this game is probably in the thousands. But aside from sometimes losing your money, the stakes for failure are pretty low — you just gotta get back up and try again. It felt good to persist, to make progress, to do something over and over. And surprisingly, after you’ve done it once, like timing out your jumps perfectly to navigate a room of spikes, you’ve got it and you can do it again.

Walkthroughs

A video game walkthrough is a step-by-step guide to help a player navigate either the entire game or specific sections of it. Sometimes they’re text tutorials, and sometimes they’re video. When I’d get stuck in a tough part, I’d watch someone else complete that area in a YouTube walkthrough, and suddenly I could do it too. I found that watching someone else “do the thing” makes it possible for me to achieve it. It’s like having a mix of a tutor and a role model, and it’s especially helpful when it comes to challenging tasks.

It’s nothing new that video games could have educational purpose. But in a summer separated from my students, it was comforting to find learning in leisure.

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