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

By iThrive Games
January 27, 2017

The first time that I realized that social skills can be developed was, ironically, not in my job at a social and emotional learning research lab. It was when I first played The Sims 3.

I had spent maybe 20 minutes lovingly putting the finishing touches on my Sim, getting her eyebrow shape and her personality quirks just right, until she was a (slightly thinner) mini-me named Victoria. I was, for whatever reason, thrilled by the prospect of guiding her through the mundane activities of daily life in miniature on my computer screen.

I bought her a house and set her off on her daily tasks of burning spaghetti, falling asleep in random places when I didn't get her to bed on time, and going to the bathroom, like, a lot. But it was delightful.

I was getting into a routine when a message popped up on the screen. "Victoria wants to socialize! Invite some people over to give your Sim a mood boost." I hovered the mouse over "Throw a party" and saw that I'd have a limited amount of time to host a get-together which would be judged by my guests. I hesitated but clicked, curious to see what would happen.

When Sims of all shapes and sizes strolled through the front door and started making themselves comfortable in Victoria's house, my heart actually started beating a little faster. In real life, I hate throwing parties. The pressure to have fun and be fun is sometimes too much for this introverted homebody. So, my Sim guests put me a little on edge. Sure, they were just NPC's, but I felt almost the same urgent need to impress and entertain them as I might in real life.

I greeted a Sim named Tom and was taken aback when a bright red minus sign lit up over his head, indicating that I had said something he didn't like. "Tom thinks Victoria is being boring," a notification informed me. And, after another attempt, "Tom thinks Victoria is being awkward."

Fantastic. I am hopelessly awkward and even the game knows it! There's nothing I can do about it. About a million middle school social traumas flooded my mind.

I turned to my (real-life) husband and demanded, "Why don't these dumb Sims like me?!" "Well," he grinned, noticing I had maybe spiraled just a little, "it usually starts out like that. But you can compliment your guests and joke around to win them over. Just keep doing it over and over again."

He patiently showed me the dialogue options with the best chances of success, and soon I had triggered enough plus signs (see photo) to get feedback like "friendly" and "amusing." Aha! I could grow my social skills here little by little. First impressions didn't mean everything. After several interactions, Tom became my friend.

In The Sims, plus signs appear when you've chosen a dialogue option that endears you to another Sim. Photo source

It occurred to me after some practice striking up and maintaining friendships in The Sims 3 that, in real life, there are concrete, meaningful actions anyone can take to build and nurture friendships despite shyness or anxiety. Regular contact, sharing jokes, giving sincere compliments, and showing genuine interest in other people's likes and feelings are deposits in the friendship bank that add up over time.

This was easy for me with some people in my life, but when I was meeting someone for the first time or felt some anxiety in a new group, I found myself conjuring up memories of Sims gameplay as a reminder to get to the basics of social interaction—smile, tell a joke, compliment. Having played out the scripts in a virtual space and getting positive feedback (and new friends) was crossing over to my life outside of the game.

I began to visualize an imaginary Sims-inspired "friendship meter" filling up in my real life each time I struck up a conversation with someone new or finally scheduled that coffee date with an old friend after too many months. My usual anxiety of meeting new people was not as high. (Thanks, Sims!)

Growth Mindset

The Sims, I would argue, is one example of a digital game that plants the seed of what Carol Dweck calls "growth mindset." Growth mindset is the belief that abilities aren't fixed or static, but that trying and effort make a difference in how sociable or proficient in math a person can become. It doesn't mean that everyone has the same potential in every area. It does mean that applying optimism, effort, and effective strategies has the potential to move the dial on the skills you'd like to improve.

Sims devote time to improving skills like musicality, and the results of their practice are visible in the glowing skill meters over their heads and in the improved quality of what they produce. Photo source

Dweck and colleagues including Eleanor O'Rourke recognized the potential for digital games (in this case, an educational computer game called Refraction) to train growth mindset. They collaborated with game scientists to create a modified incentive system that, in their words, was "designed to reward the micro behaviors that are indicative of productive struggle." In other words, their "brain points" system rewards small, incremental actions like trying a new strategy or starting over, instead of rewarding only the slightly longer-term achievement of completing the level.

The researchers found that the 7,500 students who played the version of Refraction with the "brain points" reward system stuck with the game longer and used more strategies than the students who received traditional "level completion" rewards—and they also were more engaged and persistent.

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

The research on growth mindset in digital games is limited and has focused on serious games—games designed for a primary purpose other than entertainment. But experiences with entertainment games like The Sims made us at iThrive wonder what other types of games already out there could be mined for growth mindset principles. And what would happen if more developers deliberately designed games to boost skills like growth mindset using principles of great game design?

We've sat down with expert game developers and scholars to discuss just that. Check in with us next week for Part 2 to see what we discovered!
Has a game ever helped you or someone you know to practice growth mindset? Share your story!

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