Curiosity-led Learning

A highly-anticipated game has just been released — “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch)”. It is already hailed as one of the best games of all time. It accomplishes that by saying “yes” to anything you ask of it. Similarly to other free-roaming games, it is nonlinear — “if you can see it (a non-player character, a place in the distance), you can reach it”. Theoretically at least, it’s up to you when to progress and in what direction. Like others, such as Skyrim, The Witcher 3 , Grand Theft Auto V and Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain, the new Zelda has recreated open worlds that can be explored at a player’s discretion.

But Breath of the Wild takes this approach a step forward — “if you can think it, you can probably do it.” Sandbox games (I’m using the term sandbox differently from free-roaming and open world, to denote games in which you can create a large number of game objects, and/or solve game challenges and puzzles in different ways) are doing something similar, by allowing players to “play their own way”. For example, the somewhat silly Scribblenauts allows you to conjure up virtually any item you can think of in order to solve its puzzles. For another example, in the monumental Minecraft you can build practically anything, as long as it is made of those low-res blocks. However, the former is quite limited in scope whereas the vast scale of the latter is vacant. So they are no match for the legendary content-filled size of the new Zelda.

Breath of the Wild has one more thing going for it — it keeps its mouth shut. Many other games suffer from “the curse of the golden exclamation mark”, an in-game symbol that want to make it explicitly clear that there’s a thing that needs doing. A guide. A reminder. A soft-restriction that breaks the immersiveness of free explorations. While you might be able to go everywhere and overcome challenges in different ways, these games implore you to use their training wheels. Breath of the Wild doesn’t provide that option to begin with, and it doesn’t pick you up when you fall. It’s a subtle difference but one that makes it stand out from the rest of the pack. And it works because of the impeccable game logic that the developers implemented, coupled with a world designed to invite exploration and experimentation.

Now, to my point. Breath of the Wild elevates discovery-based gameplay to a degree in which is has a life of its own. This is how I envision the perfect type of learning — curiosity-led. Beyond “inquiry-based education”, “discovery learning” and other related pedagogies, it is wild. No defined tasks, just content to conquer. No defined rules, just a consistent logic. No aid, just the right amount of “divine intervention”. No educational goals, just curiosity.

Play on.