By Frederick Poole
I have been a gamer for most of my life. I got started on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, then got a Gameboy followed by almost every Nintendo system through the years. I occasionally strayed (e.g. Sega Genesis, and Xbox) but for the most part I was either playing on a Nintendo system or a PC. Typically, I stuck to single player games with a preference for RPGs; the Zelda and Megaman series were among my favorites. Though I would also play and I really enjoyed some of the first-person shooters (e.g. Perfect Dark 64, Halo, Half-Life) and EA sports games (e.g. Madden).
My first experience with an online multi-player game was Rogue Spear online. The five-on-five matches were unlike any previous gaming experience that I had had. With the online ranking system and an active online forum to discuss strategy and gameplay, I was completely immersed in the community. I would sneak out of bed once my parents went to sleep and play the game till 3 or 4 a.m. almost every night, and then get up three hours later to get ready for school. After a few months of this, my clan reached a top 5 ranking, a few months later my parents found out and my gaming days were temporarily halted. At the university I was introduced to World of Warcraft… this quickly became my new obsession much like Rogue Spear, it was the community more than anything that brought me in. After playing for a couple of weeks I started to recognize familiar names and I started building relationships with people that I’d never met in person. Alas, much like Rogue Spear there came a point when my obsession and time spent with the game became too much and started to affect other parts of my life.
After World of Warcraft I still played other games, but I was weary of the online multiplayer games as I knew firsthand how easy it was to get sucked-in. This was partly because I didn’t want to return to the days of 10-hours straight gaming, and partly because I was growing up and couldn’t devote the same amount of time even if I had wanted to. At the time I was starting my first job and I had a serious girlfriend.
Ten years later much has changed in my life, but time is still very much limited. I now have a job, a wife, kids, school… realistically I can spend about an hour a night gaming. However, recently, as a graduate student I did a research project on a collegiate e-sports team that played League of Legends. I explored how the team used their own gameplay data to inform practice sessions and changes in gameplay. As part of this project, I needed to learn the ins-and-outs of League of Legends, so I started playing. Needless to say, I quickly became addicted again…luckily (or maybe unluckily) the League of Legends community is extremely toxic and once my project finished, I was able to drop my addiction fairly easily.
This is where Arena of Valor (AoV) comes in. AoV is an adaptation of the Chinese Game Kings of Glory, and has had several different English names before arriving at AoV. It is a Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game and so it is much like, and actually it is an imitation of, League of Legends or DOTA with a few important exceptions that I will get to. In the game players queue up for either a casual or a ranked game. Once 10 players with similar rankings (if playing a ranked game) have signed up, players are directed to a character selection screen. Characters loosely fall into one of five categories: Tank, Mage, Warrior, Ranged Damage Dealer, support. All characters have a primary role and a secondary role; thus, some players may be Tank/Mage or Warrior/Assassin and so on. Generally, teams strive for a balance of characters by having two damage dealers, a tank, a warrior, and a mage or support. Though team makeup can vary greatly. Once teams have been established, five players on a team battle in an arena and try to take down the other team’s base. Although the arena never varies, the makeup of one’s team and that of the opponent can change drastically every match.
In AoV (like many MOBA games) there are three primary lanes that are connected with a center lane that separates the two teams’ territories. In between the lanes are open areas called jungles. The lanes are protected by towers which are generally used for defensive positions. In addition to the five characters selected by players, each team as continuous stream of ‘minions’ that attack the towers. As the game progresses in time, the minions get stronger. The game ends when one team destroys the final tower. Players can gain strength by killing minions, towers, other players, and several other NPCs found in the jungles. Finally, it’s important to mention that while characters can respawn when killed, dying does reward the other team with more gold/experience thus making them stronger and so there is a penalty for dying.
This leads to some of the primary differences between AoV and League of Legends. First, because of differences in the amount of damage done by towers and minions, as well as differences in skill progression, a match in AoV generally lasts only 20 minutes. Even epic matches rarely reach 30 minutes. Compared to matches in League of Legends that can easily go for an hour at a time. Second, because AoV is played on either Nintendo Switch or mobile phone, the chat system is not as accessible as it would be on a PC. Given the fast pace of the game it is generally unwise to type more than one word at a time if at all. This naturally leads to less toxicity in the game. These two differences are largely why I prefer AoV. In my hour of gaming I can usually get in three matches, and without the toxicity I can play a few games without getting reamed for poor play (if I happen to have an off night).
Now onto the purpose of this blog: what have I learned while playing AoV? While all games can be educational, I will stick to learning that has specifically happened within AoV. First, and probably most obvious, is hive mind or group mind perspective. While I have long understood the concept, and I’ve understood how it could be beneficial for learning and progress in general, I’ve never really been engaged in a system that relies so heavily on it. Well, there’s always the internet, but given the sheer mass of the internet one’s contribution to the ‘hive’ feels so insignificant. Within AoV, particularly at the higher-level matches, one must always be in tune with what one’s teammates are doing. It is not enough to simply win your own battle, you must understand how all other four members of your team members are moving (e.g. towards each other, separating, forming small groups), and with what intent they move (e.g. to retreat, attack, towards a team objective). Those who ignore this will often leave their team to a 4v5 battle or will find themselves being outnumbered in a quick defeat. This feeling of belonging to a hive mind is further amplified in AoV because you play without the use of any form of verbal communication. Sure, there are quick alert calls… but these alerts can be vague thus still leaving the team room for interpretation. I have long noticed that teams that I win regularly with have a strong sense of congruence and unspoken understanding. Players on these teams seem to understand their role and when and how to push their strength in accordance with their team strengths.
In line with my first lesson learned, the second thing I learned was how to accept my role on the team. Probably like most people, I enjoy being a damage dealer. I like seeing my kills/assisted kill scores rack up. Games with a 20 Kill, 0 death, 10 assists were extremely satisfying. However, there were times when the team already had two damage dealers… if I forced the issue and picked my own damage dealer… it usually meant certain defeat. There is only so much damage one can do if no one is providing a shield for you to do it. Further, in some cases it wasn’t as easy as simply being a tank, in some matches my character had to play the role of minion killer… this involves running from tower to tower (avoiding the enemy) and wiping out the enemy minions so that our minions could continue to advance and apply pressure on the enemy. This is not terribly exciting, nor is it rewarding… but it results in victories which is generally more fun than defeats. Learning my role and place on each team was difficult largely because some roles were no fun, but also because the teams change so often that it is not always clear what one’s role on the team is. I have gotten much better at this, but alas I am still a work in progress.
This leads to my last lesson learned. How to lose gracefully. Generally, speaking in AoV a win percentage over 50% is pretty good. I’ve had stretches where my total win percentage reaches 60% but never more than that. This means that even if you are winning ‘most’ of your games, you are still losing a fair portion. Losses can be because of one’s own poor play, or because of teammates play, or because the team makeup just simply did not match up well with the oppositions team makeup… losses can also occur because of just sheer bad luck. With so many ways to lose a match, learning how to lose ‘gracefully’ comes easy, even for someone as competitive as myself.
I’m not sure how much longer I will play AoV, but for now it continues to challenge me and provide a brief moment where all the concerns and responsibilities of everyday life disappear… if only for 20 minutes.
Frederick Poole is a PhD candidate in the Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences department at Utah State University. In the last 15 years, he has taught in four different countries, in three different languages and students from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds. In these contexts, he has worked with language learners ranging from pre-k to university-level. Currently, he teaches graduate-level courses on the use of games in education and mobile app development for learning. His research explores how games can be used to not only promote meaningful interaction between learners but to also capture learning via stealth assessments that are embedded in the game tasks. Frederick Poole also has a Masters in Second Language Teaching. For more information about him please visit: fredpoole.github.io