Gated Mastery-Based Learning

Hollow Knight is one of my favorite games, even though it is also one of the most difficult I’ve ever played. But it is so well-designed that the difficulty doesn’t feel unfair. Your pause screen clearly indicates empty spaces for powers and upgrades you have yet to find.

The most difficult areas and bosses are closed to you until you have the abilities you need to beat them. In some cases, you’re welcome to try a harder section or boss before you have all the power-ups, but there are no penalties for failing in these cases (not even losing a life). Bosses all have a pattern, and if you can learn it, you can overcome them. Similar to chess, if you lose, you can see exactly where you messed up. But you can keep trying and save points are generally pretty close to bosses, especially the harder ones.

Hollow Knight is in the metroidvania genre, which is characterized by maps with areas that you gain access to as you gain abilities. You generally travel over the same area over and over again, each time discovering new areas and power-ups depending on what abilities you’ve unlocked since the last visit.

Mastery-based Learning

What a great way to learn! You get exposure only to the subject matter that you have the tools to understand. You can’t even progress until you’ve demonstrated mastery of the necessary supporting material. It is still a struggle to apply your knowledge in new situations, but you are at least assured that you have the necessary knowledge to overcome the challenge with enough work, and this assurance gives you the courage to persist.

That’s generally not how subjects are taught in academic settings. Students are considered ready for a class if they’ve “passed” the prerequisites, which means earning a C, or 70%. Yet, classes are taught as if students know 100% of the prerequisite material. If you’re going to let a student take a class with only 70% of the required knowledge, don’t turn around and punish them for missing 30%!

The lie of prereqs

The effect of doing this is that students accrue bigger and bigger gaps in understanding, especially in cumulative subjects like mathematics. They are told that they “should” be at a level where they can handle the course material but they are not. Thus, motivation tanks.

And unlike metroidvanias, they can’t go back and collect all the items they missed on the last run: there just isn’t time, since regular classes already require students to pull late nights.

A tangent: what is the point of education?

Well, say some, the smart/hard-working students will survive and even thrive, and everyone else can be content with mediocrity.

That’s a topic for another post, but in short, that assumes that the point of education is to “find” the “smart ones” by filtering out everyone else, or at least ranking people. I’m not going to say that society should or shouldn’t frame education that way, but it’s something we should look at.

Here, I want to focus on the idea of mastery-based learning, which is what Hollow Knight enforces in its gameplay. You cannot advance until you have the necessary tools (or you are a crazy speedrunner who is basically hacking the game, and then you’re good enough to do whatever you want).

Education is not just presenting knowledge

In general (i.e., the real world), knowledge is not structured this way. Someone had to figure out the first path through the jungle. But students are learning in a contrived environment. I think that’s fine: the point of having a teacher is to help you learn faster. So pedagogy matters.

Halo has a very different sort of progression mechanism. In Halo, your characters start with all the gear and strength they will ever have throughout the game, so the game makes it very obvious that any progression in your character’s abilities will come from the your skills as a player. Thus, you don’t waste time looking for missing abilities.

In educational terms, this means that you can be sure you have everything you need to overcome a problem, you just need to refine your approach and application of what you already know.