Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Angry Birds: A model for learning

Renown literacy scholar James Paul Gee is the author of What Video Games have to teach us about Learning and Literacy, which outlines 36 principles for good learning. Gee derives the principles from what he’s observed as a gamer and from interviews with gamers, and he argues that the same things that make a video game good could (and should) be applied to school learning. Gee specifically focuses on immersive role-playing and first-person-shooter games, but many of his learning principles about basic skills, practice, and rewards apply to much simpler games, including Angry Birds.

Basic Skills

Two of Gee’s principles about basic skill acquisition are prominent in Angry Birds: the “Bottom-Up Basic Skills Principle” and the “Discovery Principle.” The bottom-up basic skills principle states that skills are not learned in isolation; instead, the learner discovers the skill as she engages in the activity. As Gee puts it, “by the time new players are aware of what are basic skills in a given type of game … they have already mastered them” (140). That said, throwing learners into an unknown environment without any overt instruction is not advisable. As Gee explains, humans “need immersion in actual contexts of practice, but they can find such contexts confusing without overt information and guidance” (114). This is where the discovery principle comes in—overt instruction exists, but is kept to a minimum, allowing the learner to experiment and explore.

In Angry Birds, the overt instruction happens every time we are introduced to a new bird:

Notice the subtlety of this “instruction”—there are no words, the image doesn’t fully demonstrate the bird’s capabilities, and once you press the check, you don’t get the image again. You learn the rest through actually playing the game. As you experiment, you find out that the red bird is good at breaking wood, but not anything with metal around it, and the blue birds are especially adept at breaking through ice. The “training” for the yellow bird makes it look like the bird will change directions when you tap your finger, but it actually speeds up in the direction that it was already heading and thus very good for breaking through dense structures.  

Situated Practice

As you continue playing the game, you learn more about the different birds’ abilities, and you are introduced to more birds. You are also forced to adopt more sophisticated strategies, which is all facilitated through practice. Angry Birds’ approach to practice is particularly indicative of Gee’s “Practice” and “Regime of Competence” principles. The key to the practice principle is that engaging in a task over and over is not boring because the learner experiences ongoing success; she needs to feel like she is moving forward and not simply repeating the same skill. Part of what makes practice enjoyable is illustrated by the regime of competence principle, which states that the learner is operating on the outer edge of her abilities such that the task is challenging, but not impossible. (Gee 65-68)   

Practice is built into every aspect of Angry Birds. The first levels only involve the red bird, and often multiple red birds, so the player repeatedly practices positioning the slingshot so that the bird hits the structure at the desired angle. Furthermore, players are encouraged to play the levels multiple times either because they were not successful on the first attempt or because they only earned one or two out of the three possible stars. This repetitive practice is further reinforced because most levels take less than a minute to play, so it is not a big commitment for the player to repeat a level and experiment with different strategies. This repetition does not seem dull because success is constant; players are rewarded with points any time their birds hit a structure or a pig, they are rewarded by the three-star system, and they are rewarded by the potential for earning new high scores when they repeat levels.

The regime of competence is similarly ingrained in Angry Birds, and is especially noticeable from level to level. For example, I learned from the first few levels of Angry Birds Rio that aiming my bird at the base of a structure was sure to knock it down and it meant I earned more points because I received points for breaking up the structure as well as for releasing the birds from their cages.

However, when I tried the same strategy a few levels later, it didn’t work, partly because the base was made of metal, which the red bird can’t break through.

After several unsuccessful attempts, I finally tried shooting the red bird high over the structure, and found that, in this instance, a dive-bomb was better than attacking the base.

Charles Mauro, president of Mauro New Media, argues that practice in Angry Birds is particularly enjoyable because the designers cleverly managed response time. Instead of making the flight of the birds fast, players watch a slow progression along a clearly marked trajectory, which gives the player time to think about error correction. In my case, it meant I attempted to shoot the red bird at the base in a variety of ways because I hoped a different angle would produce better results. There is also a time delay between when your last bird hits the structure and when the screen comes up to allow you to retry the level or continue to the next one. Mauro argues that this delay gives the player “time to structure an error correction strategy.” In my case, it meant I considered the structure more closely, ultimately deciding that I needed my bird to dive-bomb into the middle of things.

It didn’t take much for me to try a new strategy and I was certainly capable of finding a solution, but it took longer to pass this level than any of the others in that first episode. Success was well within my regime of competence, but the game was forcing me to experiment until I was willing to shift my previous assumption that there was one “best” way to bring down a structure.


Rewards are a crucial part of motivating players to practice skills within a game and to continue playing the game when they are brought to the edge of their regime of competence. Games also cater to players with various skill sets, which is precisely what Gee’s “Achievement Principle” is about: from the beginning, there must be intrinsic rewards for all learners, and the rewards should be customized to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery (64).

Angry Birds most prominently accomplishes this through points and through the three-star system. The points are important because even if you don’t hit the pigs (or cages in Rio), you can still earn an incredible amount of points by hitting the structures and making things explode, which makes the levels satisfying even if you don’t win.

When you do win, you pass the level with one, two, or three stars, thus allowing players of various skills to play through the entire game. Interestingly, the points and stars are separate reward systems—as you’ll notice below, I earned almost the same amount of points for a one-star win as I did for a three-star win on another level.

So what makes players go for three stars? In the case of Angry Birds Rio, the answer is bonus levels. After I completed the first 15 levels, I had earned 26 stars; bonus levels were available for 30, 50, and 70 stars. 

Immediately, I replayed a couple of levels and earned four more stars. A better player might have been closer to the 50- or 70-star levels, and probably would have felt the same nudge to go ahead and get those few remaining stars required to claim the reward. I should also note that I didn’t feel bad for being at the lowest level—I was pleased to be able to unlock a bonus at all.
For the players who easily collect stars for level completion, Angry Birds offers additional challenges—players can hunt through the levels and collect special rewards that are tracked in the Awards Room. 

Closing Thoughts

Angry Birds is a lot of fun to play, and Gee’s principles show that what makes it fun is that it both requires learning and rewards learners at various skill levels. I find this interesting in part because I don’t think many people would call what they do when they play Angry Birds learning. But what’s even more interesting is that I could have done this analysis on any game. These principles aren’t specific to Angry Birds or to first-person-shooters or to video games; they are generalizations about the way humans learn, generalizations that prove that learning even the most menial task can be quite fun if it’s framed with ample rewards and an appropriate balance of instruction and discovery that pushes learners to the edge of their individual competence levels.

Unfortunately, Gee argues, in school, “many so-called advantaged learners rarely get to operate at the edge of their regime of competence … [and] less advantaged learners are repeatedly asked to operate outside their regime of competence” (68). The solution is not to create an Angry Birds-type game that teaches math or grammar. The solution is to apply Gee’s principles to school learning; one way to start is to create a reward system that acknowledges and incentivizes learners at various skill levels.


  1. Haven't read this book but your summary is intriguing. (This is heather, btw.) Can't help but think how Gee's argument about the need for all learners to "operate at the edge of their regime of competence" invokes Vygotsky's ideas about development, learning, and instruction in the "Zone of Proximal Development," where learning (and subsequently development) happens when instruction is geared towards potential development, or that which has not yet fully matured. Do these sound like one and the same "edge" to you? I'd write more but I need to return to grading. *Le Sigh*

  2. Hi Heather,

    Gee's theories absolutely fit with and draw from Vygotsky, though in this case I think the more-capable-peer is built into the structure of the video game, and is sometimes a "mentor" character in the game.

    Good luck grading!