I Haven’t Leveled Up…Yet: Growth Mindset in Video Games (Part 2)

By iThrive Games
February 3, 2017

Note: This article is part of a series that captures game industry experts' opinions on game titles and mechanics that might boost players' positive habits, mindsets, and skills. These insights arose from discussions at an iThrive-sponsored think tank with game developers and scholars.
Last week, we introduced the idea that video games like The Sims might encourage what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset—the belief that abilities are not fixed but can improve through effort.

Research with thousands of young people has shown that a growth mindset boosts achievement, motivation, and persistence. The research on growth mindset in digital games, however, is limited and has focused on "serious games" (those with a primary purpose other than entertainment) like Refraction, a math game that uses a "brain points" incentive system to reward effort and use of strategies instead of just correct answers.

A screenshot from Refraction, which rewards effort, not just success. Photo source

We at iThrive were curious about how existing entertainment games might also foster the mindset that abilities can be built one step at a time. So we asked some experts to weigh in.

iThrive Design Hive

We hosted a think tank ("Design Hive") with six video game experts to gather some insights about the potential for entertainment games to boost skills like growth mindset that are important for teen thriving. These industry experts—a mix of developers and scholars—met with us over a long weekend to trade reflections on games and design features that open the door to positive practices like growth mindset, even if by accident.
Here are seven ways the experts thought games might support a growth mindset:

  • The Buster Principle. The Buster Principle encourages game developers to ensure that games "recognize" when players have hit a wall. In the "brain points" version of Refraction, for example, players have the option to start a new level after 3 minutes of struggle without success. It is important for growth mindset that players don't give up completely just because they don't (YET) have the skill to succeed at one specific task. The Buster Principle urges game developers to design for sustained perseverance by making the task just a little easier when players have repeatedly failed, arguing that, "A small decrease in the difficulty may be the difference between an unhappy player throwing the controller across the room and an ecstatic player rejoicing and pumping their fists upward with a sense of accomplishment." - 100 Principles of Good Game Design
  • Leveling up. This basic feature of role-playing games (RPG's) like World of Warcraft is one reason so many people find them endlessly engaging. Similar to the brain points system of Refraction, small actions completed over time in RPG's accumulate experience points (XP), skills, and stats that let players "level up," becoming more powerful and effective.
Leveling up in World of Warcraft. Photo source
  • Learning how NOT to die. It turns out that both adults and children with a growth mindset pay more attention to what they do wrong. It might sound counterintuitive to thrive by focusing on your errors, but what it really means is that people with a growth mindset aren't afraid of their mistakes. They know that mistakes contain super important information. In some video game genres, including platformers like Super Mario Bros., errors in timing = virtual lives lost (just Google "Ways to die in Super Mario Bros"). This is fantastic motivation for paying close attention to errors: ensure they'll teach you how to survive longer next time. Video games may be safe spaces to learn from failing, instead of letting it shut down effort (or the player).
  • Visualizing the growth you're headed for. Games have many methods for showing players where they're headed if they persist. Progress maps show players where they've been and what's left to explore, lending meaning and direction to each small step. Ability trees in games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XV let players plan for which skills they will choose when they level up, giving a concrete destination for incremental progress. These games tend to feature visual reminders of the effort put in over time, such as more intimidating armor for players who have achieved more.
This ability tree in Final Fantasy XV lets players visualize multiple paths to enhancing teamwork skills. Photo source
  • Literal growth through effort. Games like Dominion, Castles of Mad King Ludwig (both tabletop games), Clash of Clans, and Civilization highlight the literal move-by-move strategic growth of a kingdom, castle, or empire. In games like these, effort and persistence manifest as expanded influence and control and bigger and more impressive castles. In Pokémon Go, players' persistent effort enables them to evolve the creatures they've collected into bigger, more powerful fighters.
In Pokémon Go, diligence in collecting creatures earns candies players can use to evolve a humble Squirtle into the more formidable Wartortle and, eventually, Blastoise.
  • Rewarding dogged persistence. Masocore games and challenging platformers like Spelunky, with its ever-changing levels and traps, reward players who stick with it. Games like these may not make much use of the Buster Principle—they're designed for those who really want a challenge, like gamers with a Mastery motivation. It would be interesting to learn if players who already practice growth mindset are more interested in mastery and more attracted to games like this in the first place.
  • Gamifying real-life growth. "Helper apps" and websites with game-like elements such as Fitbit, Lumosity, and Happify track incremental progress towards physical, cognitive, and emotional fitness, respectively. They are built on the premise that growth through effort is possible, and they make that growth measurable and accessible through game-like interfaces.

Because games are designed to be beatable and fun, there is an inherent optimism that we can succeed, given enough time and effort. We expect games to challenge us and to present a learning curve, but we also trust that they will teach us the strategies and skills we need to progress. And some games will inevitably do this better, or more intentionally, than others.

Our Design Hive experts recommend these games (and gamified "helper apps") that are developmentally appropriate for teens and may provide opportunities to practice growth mindset*:

  • Fitbit: A wearable tracker that charts progress towards healthy habits like exercise.
  • Lumosity: Online brain training that hones players' mental speed, flexibility, memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.
  • Happify: Online "games" that help build habits like gratitude that boost happiness.
  • The Sims series: Players create and customize characters, then guide them through the ups and downs of life, befriending other Sims and building a range of interesting skills from charisma to alchemy.
  • Pokémon series: Gotta catch 'em all! Players explore their surroundings to catch Pokémon, then train and evolve them into powerful battlers.
  • Spelunky: A platformer set underground where levels are randomized, challenging players in new ways every time.
  • Super Mario Bros. series: A classic platformer with many variations and lots of chances to hone timing skills.
  • Dominion: A card game where players are ambitious monarchs, challenging one another to build the largest, most civilized kingdom.
  • Castles of Mad King Ludwig: A tile-laying board game with the goal of building an extravagant castle room by room.
  • Civilization series: A turn-based strategy game centered on building an empire.
  • Clash of Clans: A strategy game where players train raiders to fill their coffers.
  • RPG's: Role-playing games like Final Fantasy XV and World of Warcraft let players aim to achieve a set of skills in areas that interest them, and see their persistence pay off one level at a time.

Have you played any of these games? How have they (or other games) helped you or someone you know to practice growth mindset? Share your story!

For more guidance on adopting a growth mindset, read this.

*Note: iThrive produced the curated games list in a joint effort with expert game developers and scholars. Their recommendations are rooted in evidence-based definitions and examples of growth mindset provided by iThrive. These games have not been scientifically proven to boost growth mindset, but they contain features that appear to provide opportunities to develop it.