Video games often strike a balance between challenging players and forgiving them for not being perfect. How might forgiveness in games lead us to new insights about learning design?
In platform video games – from the original Super Mario Bros. (1985) to more modern platformers like Celeste (2018) – you control a character who makes often difficult jumps across gaps, spikes, or other hazards. One trick developers use to make these games feel better to play is “coyote time.”
Named after the Wile E. Coyote cartoon, coyote time is a brief period of time after running off a platform where the game will still register the player pressing the jump button. This means that players don’t have to be absolutely perfect to complete a jump – there’s a small amount of wiggle room. As a result, players are less likely to be frustrated by the feeling that they actually did make the jump, but the game didn’t recognize their input.
Of course, coyote time makes me think of teaching and learning. It makes me think of all the times we demand precision from students – both in terms of timing and performance. It makes me think of how it would feel for students to have grace windows and large error bars in acceptable performance. It makes me think of the many students who, when they try to run and jump, instead fall into a pit of spikes because they were just a little off.
Celeste is still a very challenging game, but by adding in coyote time (and many other forgiveness mechanics like it), the developers keep it from feeling frustrating and punishing. This is what I hope our courses strive for: stretching students and challenging them without arbitrarily punishing them for not being perfect.
This is a delicate balance to achieve. In moments of tension between challenge and forgiveness, I tend to prefer forgiveness. After all, tolerance for error is one of the key tenets of Universal Design. However, I think games can teach us a lot about how to design experiences that are challenging and yet still work to minimize the consequences of errors, mistakes, and imperfections.
In this post, I’ll explore a few other forgiveness-adjacent game mechanics similar to coyote time. I won’t be suggesting specific teaching practices. Rather, I’ll discuss what I think these mechanics illuminate about the experience of playing a challenging yet forgiving game. By looking outside the world of teaching and learning for inspiration, I hope that we can think creatively about how to create the best possible experience for students. While I may mention a few teaching practices that come to mind, I will mostly be leaving the connections to you, dear reader.
Let’s dive in.
Invincibility Frames: Stopping Mistakes from Compounding
Many games have to address the problem of mistakes compounding on each other. For example, let’s say your game includes combat and is set in a room with walls. A group of enemies backs you into a corner. You get hit, losing some health. Then, to get past the enemies and out of the corner, you inevitably have to take more hits and lose more health. Your mistake (getting cornered) can thus lead to your situation getting worse and worse with little you can do to remedy the situation.
One solution many games use to deal with this situation is “invincibility frames” or “iframes.” Iframes are a brief period of time after getting hit where your character is immune to damage. For example, in Hades, a game quite prone to the cornering issue I mentioned above, getting hit gives you a brief shield that displays as a gauzy bubble around your character.
While these iframes are short, they make a big difference to how easily players can recover from a bad situation. This is tacitly acknowledged in Hades by the fact that “Hell Mode” disables the iframes entirely.
Many games also include iframes for situations other than getting hit, such as when dodging an attack. In Hades, you can dash, a very quick form of movement that also works as a dodge mechanic. When you dash, there is a brief period of invulnerability, which makes it much easier to get out of a tricky situation.
Iframes make me think of all the ways that mistakes in learning can compound on each other. They make me think of how we can give a safety net when students are struggling or backed into a corner. They make me think that sometimes, challenges are best tackled when you know you are going to be invincible, even for just a second.
Enemy Awareness: Failure Is a Path, Not an Immediate Result
Stealth games have you sneaking around, navigating around guards, cameras, and other traps to reach a particular objective. These enemies are often too dangerous for you to take on in an outright firefight, hence the need for stealth. When enemies spot you, you’ve essentially failed and may need to start over again. Most stealth games would be immensely frustrating if the instant an enemy saw you, they opened fire.
Stealth games get around this by having “enemy awareness” systems. In these systems, enemies who spot you are moved into an alert state, rather than immediately opening fire. In the alert state, the enemies may change their patrol patterns to look for you. But, crucially, if you’re able to get behind cover or get away from the enemy’s search pattern, you can avoid detection. As a result, failure is not an immediate result of your mistake but a longer path of multiple mistakes.
Some games, such as Metal Gear Solid, add even more layers to the failure path. For example, if an enemy spots you, they will go to radio it in. During this time, you can potentially dispatch that enemy, returning you back to your original stealthy state.
Enemy awareness makes me think of the ways that students are immediately impacted by mistakes and not given opportunities to right course. It makes me think of the significant learning (and joy) that happens when we have to recover from our mistakes and are given space to do so. It makes me think that failure feels much better when it is the result of a long string of actions, rather than one or two mistakes.
Catch-Up Mechanics: Helping Struggling Players Find a Path Forward
Competitive games often have to address players who have “fallen behind,” since their natural tendency may be to disengage or give up entirely. If you can’t see any path forward, why would you keep playing the game?
Games often address this issue with the use of “catch-up mechanics,” mechanics that favor the player who is losing, hinder the player who is winning, or both. While video games often include catch-up mechanics, board games are even better at this.
For example, Power Grid is a board game where you are building your power grid across cities in the United States. Two of the main mechanics of the game are buying power plants at auction and buying fuel to power your plants. Every round, the game determines who is winning and losing based on how large their power grid is.
Then, during the power plant auction, the winning player goes first and the losing player goes last. In this auction, the last player is at an advantage, because they can patiently wait out the auction and essentially choose their preferred power plant. Similarly, when buying resources, the winning player goes last and the losing player goes first. Here, buying first is an advantage because you can get cheaper fuel.
As a result, players who are losing in Power Grid have two significant advantages: they can essentially choose whatever power plant they most want, and they can purchase cheaper fuel than anyone else. This gives them a path forward: a way to climb out of a hole and, with some skillful play, potentially win the game.
Of course, this example is from a “zero sum game,” a game where one person winning means another person losing. This is, thankfully, not how education works, so here’s a similar idea to consider: automatic health regeneration.
Many games that include health mechanics will include some way to automatically regenerate health when you are low on health. This ensures that players who are in a bad spot (low on health) have a path forward to “getting back on track.” Crucially, these games will not restore all of a player’s health but usually only a portion that will ensure the player isn’t completely stuck and doomed to die.
Catch-up mechanics make me think of the ways we discourage learners who fall behind. They make me think that having a possible path forward, even if it’s a tricky one, can encourage persistence and engagement. They make me think that opening a door is always preferable to closing a door.
I’ve shared four game mechanics related to forgiveness:
- Coyote time forgives players for not being perfect in timing their inputs.
- Invincibility frames stop mistakes from compounding and allow players to escape a bad situation.
- Enemy awareness systems allow failure to be a path, a consequence of multiple decisions and not just one or two mistakes.
- Catch-up mechanics give players who are behind a clear path forward, encouraging them to continue playing and striving to win.
My hope is that by considering these mechanics, you may have some new perspectives on your teaching practices and how you work to both challenge and forgive students. I encourage you to share your reflections in the comments below.
Burgstahler, Sheryl. “Universal Design: Process, Principles, and Applications.” University of Washington DO-IT. April 12, 2021. https://www.washington.edu/doit/universal-design-process-principles-and-applications.
Thorson, Maddy. “Celeste & Forgiveness.” Maddy Makes Games. https://maddymakesgames.com/articles/celeste_and_forgiveness/index.html.