In most roleplay games, you actively “design” your character’s strengths.  “I’m going to be a thief,” you say.  “So I’m going to need to invest in being good at sneaking, stabby weapons, backstabbing, pick pocketing, that sort of thing.”

And then, regardless of whether you’re playing with dice or a keyboard, as your character progresses, you actively invest in those attributes, picking the ones that you think will help you along the way.  When you decide to invest in lock picking, poof!, like magic, you are better at lock picking.

It’s pretty tempting to think of building a curriculum like this.  You decide on your web literacy “class” and then pick which skill trees you want to advance towards in order to advance in your chosen class.

It's tempting to design skills in a this-before-that tree like this.

The problem with this model is that learning is a lot messier than that.

In my “computer hardware class” in 2nd year of college, I learned a lot more about how to be productive when your prof decides to pair you with some booger who is the captain of the lazyboat, than I did about actual computer hardware.  And by the end of my “cognitive sciences class”, I was an expert at taking notes at 100 wpm to match the instructor’s speaking speed.

Skyrim breaks the traditional roleplay skill-gathering model by having you gain skill points in anything you do often.

If you spend time sneaking around, your sneak points go up.  If you spend time lock picking, you get better at that.  If you spend time shooting fireballs at goats (what? It was a rainy sunday afternoon!) your destruction magic skill goes up.

The interesting thing about this system is that you often find the following type of message on the game’s message boards:

I was planning on playing a pure conjuration/healing mage, but then I found that I kept using sneak to get closer to my opponents, so I sort of became a thief / mage hybrid.

My first point of note here is how people surprised themselves at what their characters ended up knowing how to do.  They hadn’t intentionally learned anything, it just naturally fell out of what they were doing anyway.

Secondly, this type of organic skill acquisition reminded me so much more of how real life actually works.

People rarely explicitly decide to improve a specific skill.  More often, they are just tackling problems around them, and end up practicing certain skills to solve those problems.

There’s a videogame term for choosing to improve your character’s stats outside of this organic framework: grinding.  Grinding is when you say, “I want to be better at ‘sneak’, so I’m going to spend the next 3 hours of my afternoon just sneaking in circles around this guard, over and over, just going in circles around him, to get better at ‘sneak’.”

Guess how much fun that is?  Pretty much none.

Lessons worth keeping in mind?

  1. People learn what they do, not what they plan to learn.
  2. Learning by chance is so much more fun than grinding.
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