Experiential Learning vs. Abstract Learning in Educational Games

Synopsis & shortly stated points: 

Neural Architecture + Heuristics = Experiential Learning > Abstract Learning

Simulations are models of the real world that allow us to engage in experiential learning at an accelerated pace, and without unrenewable consequences.

An abstraction of a learning model that is not fun, is not fun.

Children love to learn by playing in the real world, and this desire is called intrinsic motivation.

Simulations based on real world systems that allow the player to engage in experiential learning are the ultimate education tools.

They are also capable of becoming predictive models of human behavior, and could be used to pilot and discover new economic systems, new market structures, new communal strategies, and new modes of subsistence.

There’s a reason educational games these days are ridiculed pan-demographically. It’s cuz they’re BORING.

And everyone knows it. But no one can seem to figure out, if video games are such a great platform for learning, why learning games, as they’re being made, suck so much.

I think I’ve hit on why, and I think it’s so simple you’ll enjoy the thought too.

Current educational games are models of models that are not fun. They’re simulations of the industrial model of education, which is already boring to students, done up to look like games.

Children love to learn. Play is the mammalian method of learning, one of the 5 traits that allowed mammals to emerge over advanced reptiles as the dominant species on earth in the cenozoic. Somehow, global culturemakers managed to establish that play is not important. It is now cultural law that work and abstract learning are important, and play is…well, “play.”(the word is now synonymous with frivolous relaxation) The most powerful tool ever passed to mankind has fallen out of our hands. Come now, pick the controller back up. It’s going to make you a genius. Let’s explore why.

Organisms that are capable of learning survive much better than their peers. Since we’re both humans, we probably agree on this. But not all learning is born equal.

This is because of how thinking works in the brain. Let’s compare some thoughts. If you don’t mind lending me a hand here, please think about a horse.

When we think about horses, we don’t think about the abstract idea of a horse, the word, or its meaning. We actually re-experience a pastiche of some horses we’ve already experienced before. If you’re afraid of horses, in order for you to think about them, you’re going to re-experience a portion of your fear as part of the horse. Not because of some deep-seated freudian connection between the horse and your insecurities, but because those are the parts of your brain that were active while you were experiencing those horses, and your brain is activating exactly the same neurons that it did when it saw, felt, and smelled them.

In Belize, I ate something called a breadfruit. I want you to think of it now. (Please google it at the end of the article, not now, thank you.)

What was that like? How did the breadfruit look or feel? What related actions did you contemplate taking or definitely NOT taking in regards to the breadfruit? Remember this: You shouldn’t eat breadfruit without frying it.

If you’ve never experienced a breadfruit before, and you couldn’t Google it to build a model, it may have looked like an illustrated cartoon cross between a mango and a loaf of bread. Because you had no experiential neurons to activate to think of breadfruit, you built a frankenstein memory out of known experiences. This is the nature of abstract thinking. Combining existing experiences to create something different. This is how creativity works: Our creative minds are permutation machines. Sadly, this framework means humans are incapable of having novel thoughts. It’s the reason why the strangest creatures in mythology were just collages of various animal parts. It’s why Aliens are always foreign-looking humans, or bipeds crossed with familiar Earth species that we think are gross or creepy. We, as humans, CAN’T think of anything directly that we haven’t sensed experientially.

Think of what pine trees smell like. Ok, now try Sclerocarya birrea(remember, no google.) Haha, okay, I’ll stop messing with you. On a serious note, what you’ve just learned about what thinking actually is has a dramatic impact on how you can learn well and how you can’t. EVERYTHING you know that you didn’t sense directly, is built out of stitched together pieces of what you did learn directly. Including language.

If you read Steven Pinker, you’ll quickly see that all language is made up of metaphors that are abstractions of primary sensory experiences, co-opted to describe more complex phenomena by opportunizing on our capacity for creativity. We LOVE metaphors.

So even your absurd calculus equation is a pyramid in the sky built in bricks of metaphors, themselves mixed together batches of sensory experience.

Would you agree now that Experiential Learning, then, is actually the only kind of learning that can produce new knowledge? That the farther away a lesson is from actually being or doing whatever it is you want to understand, the less valuable it is? If you(aka your prefrontal cortex) isn’t convinced yet, the rest of your brain is. Let’s give it a chance to explain itself, and perhaps your prefrontal cortex will be moved and inspired.

Three second response: What should you do with a breadfruit?

As thinking humans, we are finely-tuned heuristic machines, sorting sources of information in a priority ranking that decides how accurate, and how relevant that information is. The higher the priority, the more likely I’m actually going to learn it. If I tread into an avalanche and get crushed by a boulder, I’ve most definitively learned not to walk into avalanches! However, I am also dead. Bummer, I had some great and very valuable information. That’s a valuable resource I lost by going off and dying.

What if I told you that you could steal life-saving lessons like these from your dead counterparts? It’s called Vicarious Learning.

If I see my friend tread into an avalanche and get crushed by a boulder, and I’m an advanced primate, I can learn not to walk into avalanches too! That’s because I’m equipped with fucking awesome mirror neurons that let me experience things THROUGH my friend, just by watching them happen! I only get about 20% of the sensation, but if that sensation is being pounded into dust by a rock 20% is plenty to remember it by.

This type of vicarious learning allows us to enjoy the benefits of wonderfully pertinent life-saving information without the consequences of, uh, dying. The direct relationship between boulder-crushes and avalanches is pretty convincing at 20%, that’s a pretty high-accuracy, high-relevance lesson. But it’s still not perfectly convincing. I may try to dodge through an avalanche again if I’m, say, in a hurry(hey, I’m still just a primate.) So you can imagine that in much more subtle situations, 20% commitment to the accuracy of some information may not be enough to get us to engage in the appropriate behavior every time we encounter that situation again.

If you’re a hacker, you may have already gone here: What if we could turn up that 20% to get more informed behavior out of being present to a situation, but still not die?

This is where virtual worlds, and video games, become so powerful. Virtual worlds allow us not just to vicariously experience through watching, but personally experience a phenomenon without incurring the costs of doing so.

Events inside of virtual worlds don’t result in death or unrenewable loss. They can also speed up time, allowing us to learn valuable information about what actions to take in the present to prevent undesireable outcomes in our real futures. The timeline in the real world can be shortened, and played out fully through a virtual experience that triggers the same feelings of loss as making the mistakes in real life would.

Gamer’s Remorse is a cult term for how players feel at the moment of realization after binge-playing a video game for 3 days without leaving their house (or similar self-destructive game-playing behavior.) All “gamers” are familiar with this feeling of total invalidation.

I am committed to causing a paradigm shift in the industry of video games, such that Gamer’s Remorse is replaced with Gamer’s Empowerment!

In Gamer’s Empowerment, playing games is about real-world skill acquisition, and the experiential learning of concepts relevant to healthy and powerful living. In this paradigm, play comes back into our lives as the ultimate empowerment of humans, and vastly expands the possible futures we as humankind can live into.

This paradigm shift will be spearheaded by the actual creators of games, and is only possible when WE as creators begin to see games as empowerment. This will look like women and people of ethnicity and people from demographics and people who have personal passions that haven’t been making games, starting to make games about what matters to them.

I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but I took the first step to changing the landscape of games by opening a community to support, encourage, network, and train beginners so that anyone can make games. I pressed publish on www.IndieDevClub.com two months ago. At IndieCade, the international festival of indie games (aka heaven on earth), I shared my dream of video games as a pure form of self-expression with the amazing people there, and they were inspired! I was blown away by their support, and my relationship to the community became one of intimate acceptance.

In this community, we assert that the only necessary quality to make games is to WANT to make games. And the kinds of games this new demographic of game creators makes are as unique as they are themselves.

When games can be about self-expression and not obsessive behavior, it’s possible for the Gamer’s Empowerment view of video games to take root. Once it has, I am committed to taking a stand for making the next step to shift this paradigm. I will make games that actually powerfully improve the real lives of our players in and out of our games. I am so gratified to see the same desire and inspiration in others that I meet, and hope that countless creators will follow suit and make games that make a difference.

Let’s change the world together!

[Article to be continued…]

Neural Architecture and Information Priority Heuristics(certainty, survival relevance) make Experiential Learning > Abstract Learning

Learn more! Concepts used in this article:

Mirror Neurons

Steven Pinker



2 responses to this post.

  1. Hahahaha “FUCKING awesome mirror neurons”! The horse example! This is the shit. A Q and a Comment:

    – What Pinker book is this? I used to think he was a dirtbag but this sounds dead on
    – Regarding your comments on even calculus being structured by experience and metaphor, they’re finally getting some results, from the ground (showing the number line is constructed, not innate). The guy for this is Raphael Nunez at UCSD: http://kutaslab.ucsd.edu/talks/nunez.html

    I’m interested in hearing more about the last sentence (“replaces the mechanics with a model of a model”), specifically the model of a model part


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