Learning to Learn: The StarCraft II Way

December 14, 2012

PROJECTS: Leveling Up



When we discuss learning, some people attend primarily to the learning content, such as physics or math. They may raise their eyebrows when the content to be learned is a game. But it is not learning content that concerns me in this blog. It is about how we can learn to learn. In many contexts, take StarCraft II for example, there is no assigned teacher whose exclusive role it is to teach. Therefore, learners learn based on productive social interactions with peers. In StarCraft II, learning is such a social process. In the following, I illustrate some of the mindsets and specific ways embedded within the social process of learning in StarCraft II.

Losing is Good
When I was in middle school, I would spend my evenings in a public library reading up on political science, history, and philosophy. I wouldn’t do my homework, and so I would fail my physics and chemistry tests (which I found boring). But I would dread the following two grilling sessions for failing the science tests – one by my teacher in front of my classmates and another by my family tutor back home. Failing is bad, or so I learned. But in StarCraft II, losing has a different flavor. In a StarCraft II match, it is a social norm that the loser concedes defeat himself by typing “gg,” the shorthand of good game. It is a graceful way of saying, “You are the winner, and thanks for the great game.” In turn, the winner would also say “gg” in response. New StarCraft II players learn this social protocol quickly while playing online. Good learners should be gracious to their competitors. Like teachers in school, strong competitors help point out our weaknesses. And by knowing our weaknesses, we know what we need to learn.

There is No End to Learning
In StarCraft II, players do not stop learning. As in business and sports, every participant who becomes a better player will raise the bar of the competition. And as an electronic sport, StarCraft II players are learning all the time. One of our interviewees, Michael Santos, 29-years-old, is a former professional gamer of another eSport game, WarCraft III. He told us how knowledge in StarCraft II is always changing,

“The game is just so fast and complex. You may try newer strategies versus other players doing stuff that’s older. Yet someone else would beat you because you don’t realize the specific reason it had worked.”

StarCraft II players need to learn constantly, and to do so, they need a constant supply of the latest analyses of current StarCraft II strategies. To that end, Day[9].tv, a site dedicated to commentaries and screencasts analysing StarCraft II strategies, has already accumulated 578 episodes dedicated to learning StarCraft II. In some of these videos, Day[9] repeatedly recommends reading Josh Waitzkin’s book, “The Art of Learning,” which describes the child prodigy and chess master’s learning principles, such as to learn through failure, which propelled him to become a National Chess Champion at the age of 9.

Your Friends are Your Teachers
There is no teacher in StarCraft II, at least not in the traditional sense. When players need help, they often look for practice partners. We performed a series of trials for the website TeachMeStuff.net to identify peer-learning models for StarCraft II players. By the third trial, we found ourselves deviating from a mentor-student pairing model, which is an issue in our program. For example, paired mentors and mentees may have conflicting time schedules. In a practice partnership, participants are not explicitly divided into mentor and student roles. Instead, the best players within a practice session would coach the weaker players spontaneously. In our trials, we also gradually converge into this free-for-all, peer-to-peer model with no pre-designated teacher and student roles (see previous blog post by Graduate Researcher Timothy Young). In addition, StarCraft II players have found it natural to set their own learning agenda, and to seek help from their peers. I venture this is because: (1) they develop peer learning skills due to long periods of immersion in the StarCraft II community, or (2) StarCraft II’s social environment attracts participants who can direct their own learning.

The Answer Changes with the Situation
In a StarCraft II match, there is no linear and formulaic “solution” that wins games. Instead of saying “solution,” StarCraft II players use the terms “strategy” or “metagame” to denote how they solve a problem. Unlike a solution, a strategy is contingent on the situation, and the situation is always changing. Therefore, StarCraft II players do not just learn to solve a problem, they learn how to adapt to a problem. Needless to say, learning in StarCraft II requires a lot of commitment to practicing and preparing for the many contingencies that may happen during a match. A player who did not prepare enough simply cannot adapt readily. Therefore, many times when a StarCraft II player loses, he will say, “I didn’t practice enough.”

Show Others Your Mistakes
In school, students hide their mistakes from each other to preserve social status. In StarCraft II, players literally circulate their mistakes for their peers to judge. StarCraft II matches can be recorded as video replay files, which can be passed on to other players. StarCraft II players often ask their friends to help analyse these replays, seeking ways to improve their game play. This is a common learning method among practice partners.

Learn by Making Friends
In StarCraft II, friends and teachers are the same people: they are peers. In other words, if a player has few friends, he would have few teachers. StarCraft II experts know this. And they always group themselves into named clans or clubs, in which they will hone their skills with a small number of selected peers. This is one of the findings that Tim and I will publish in a paper titled “Media Technologies and Learning in the StarCraft eSports Community” at the Computer Supported Cooperative Work conference taking place in February 2013 at San Antonio, Texas. In StarCraft II, experts often begin to participate in the community by interacting congenially and thus earning the trust of other experts. They usually have also contributed actively, showing their motivation and aptitude to learn. However, within mass communication platforms like online forums, opinions vary in quality and interactions are not always constructive. Subsequently, such an individual would be invited into one of the many practice partnerships or expert teams in the community, and then improve further.

In many ways, the social processes of learning in the StarCraft II community illuminate how we can learn effectively online and informally. Some of these processes are quite different from other learning contexts, e.g., in school. In StarCraft II, there is no teacher who prompts questions, gives solutions, and grades students. Peers prompt areas for improvement, suggest strategies, and competitions provide measurable outcomes.  These characteristics make learning in StarCraft II peer-centered. It is enviable that these players are able to put together these social learning processes within their environment. If they can transfer their social skills to other learning contexts, learning to learn becomes more valuable than the learning itself.


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