Learning from games for your classroom: “Last Day on Earth: Survival”

First off, I want to thank a past guest of the podcast, Master Heebs, Mr. Hebert or Scott Hebert depending on who’s calling, for saying that his current favorite game is Last Day on Earth: Survival. I say this because I want to dedicate this whole post to some lessons that can be reapplied to education after analyzing (and playing!) this mobile game. So let’s get to it!

I will quickly explain how the game works as I understand it so the rest of the post makes a bit more sense, if you’ve played the game or are familiar with it, you can safely jump this paragraph. In this game, the user plays as a survivor after a zombie apocalypse. The objective of the game is to survive as long as possible, although chances are you’ll die quite a few times. In this world most of the living (or nonliving) beings are either enemies or resources, so the first is mainly composed by zombies, aggressive wild animals and most survivors and the latter by plants, minerals and wild animals you can get something from but that will not try to eat or kill you. You have to build a home base, which grows with time as it is the place where you keep your belongings and workplaces. You have this home scenario, but you can leave after you’ve built a basic house to explore other scenarios. Traveling to these other scenarios requires energy, which is a relatively scarce resource, though you can also do the slow travel (case you have to wait until you arrive there and it typically involves over 10 minutes), so using energy to arrive in a few seconds is always tempting. Let’s dive now into the analysis and lessons.

The first thing I noticed, and this is something a lot of mobile and free-to-play games tend to do very well when successful, is how they always have a hook to get you to come back more than once a day if possible. That is unless you’re willing to spend some money and then you can simply go on and play a super long session instead of having breaks. This is achieved through energy bars, that get spent on actions in the game. These bars are eventually spent and you have two options, wait for them to fill back after some time or pay. This might not seem like very applicable to a classroom setting, however tweaking the idea a bit, this can become a “torture break” (as Yu-kai Chou defines it here). The idea behind this game technique is to put a limit on how much you can do, “forcing” you to take a break from the system. This provides motivation to want to do the action even more, and contrary to what you might initially believe, this can get the player to think about the system more often: “Can I go in again now? Uff, still 10 minutes more, ok, have patience… How about now? Still 8 minutes?”. You get the picture. What if we get learners glued to our learning subjects like this? Of course, in a classroom setting, I would dismiss the option of paying for more energy!

Something else I would take from this game is how it allows the players to strategize according to their preferences. Initially, as usual, it is more about introducing you to how the game works, what you can and can’t do, etc. This start is a lot more guided and has few elements of real choice. However, once you go through the basic actions and start to get the feel of it (in this case one of the first things is to build a house to use as the base), you are left with a pretty large array of options to pick. Because of the way I approach these games, I tend to accumulate the resources that I might be thinking of using in the future and use the little I have as tightly as possible so when “real need” comes I have them available. There are many other general approaches you can take, others might want to advance as quickly and aggressively as possible to progress in the game faster, taking a lot more risks. But even with similar strategies and approaches, you constantly face quite a few choices, so you are regularly making decisions that determine your advances. The motivator here is the user’s autonomy, their capacity to use their creativity to solve the problem of survival using their own means. This also pushes the sense of ownership of the player of his character, story and strategy, which in turns makes the player care about the future of those. Think about how this could be used in education. A bold idea would be to let students a greater degree of choice over their learning process. This doesn’t mean they will decide if literature is necessary for a communications degree, or if they should learn how to add before they can make equations, but it could mean that their approach to learning these can be different according to their preferences and style. Isn’t this what the world expects of us once we leave formal education? We encounter situations and must use our abilities, strategies, and resources to navigate that situation, to arrive at the expected destination.

The last concept I would like to explore before finishing this post is how you learn new abilities in the game. Since it is about surviving in a world full of zombies, animals that want a piece of you and other survivors that are as aggressive as the other two, the two ways to be better equipped for these combats are the weapons and the armors. What interests me for this argument is the armor, so I’ll quickly explain how I have seen its progress. The first piece of armor you are able to create for yourself is regular clothes, yes a shirt, pants, and shoes. This makes you slightly stronger when attacked. Next thing you can do is reinforce these clothes with leather, but that is also an ability. Of course, if you want those reinforced clothes, you need to have some regular clothes to reinforce! The point is, just like with adding and multiplying, you can’t have the second without the first. This connects pretty well with the previous point of allowing the players some level of choice. Choice doesn’t mean anarchy! As the teacher or professor, if you set the expectations and requirements to be met and not a mandatory order to commit to every task, you are allowing your players to have a certain amount of choice on how they will face the challenge, and they will respond accordingly if they are motivated. Just like in a game you can “do what you want” but, yes there is a but, you have certain constraints that don’t allow you certain actions without certain conditions being met, same could be applied for learning objectives you have for your class.

Thanks for reading, keep learning from games and use gamification in your class!

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