Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Crafting Accessibility and Affinity Spaces, What I Learned by Playing Hearthstone

What are Play Journals?

As part of the Games and Learning course and study with University of Colorado Denver Information and Learning Technologies Master’s program, students will participate in both shared and individual play sessions. These play sessions are part of “learning by doing” and reflection necessary to understand what it means to be a learner through playing games. The play journals are a synthesis of scholarship and reflection on play per the chosen game.

Playing Hearthstone

Hearthstone is a single player, card, turned based, strategy game that can be played against an artificial intelligence (AI) opponent, in “Solo Adventures.” It can also be played against other players over the internet including friends on your Battlenet list. Hearthstone is available on a computer and most mobile devices making it very accessible, and it’s free to play! Playing the game in solo mode will initially unlock cards and other heroes. This serves as a sort of tutorial that must be completed to reach the full potential of play. The game is free to play, but to compete with other players you must unlock cards through purchased game adventures and expansions. These adventures include bosses in a dungeon like sequence that unlock cards for the player to own and use. These cards are added to your personal collection that can be used for crafting decks.

Of course, you could enjoy the game without playing dungeon adventures and try “Play” mode and daily quests to get new cards. For each daily quest and win the player earns in game currency that can be used to purchase packs. Once a player has a handle on how to achieve new cards, he or she must learn how to craft decks effectively to be competitive with other players online. Players who want to progress through matches to earn in game rewards typically seek out websites that include strategies, deck building tips, and complete decks. Ultimately, Hearthstone is a strategy game played individually but played well through the help of others online in hearthstone affinity groups. Because success in this game relies heavily on affinity spaces, and it’s available on many platforms (thus it is easily accessible) I chose to focus on Hearthstone because it relates to the topics of cycle 2 readings directly.

What I learned by playing Hearthstone

The “Solo Adventure” tutorials do a great job at teaching the player the mechanics of the game, like hero powers, the cards in your hand, mana crystals, minions, spells, and effects. The player learns about these things before they learn about deck crafting. Deck crafting can be learned more in depth by playing against bosses in adventure expansions or other players. The game is deceptively simple for anyone to play well enough to enjoy it for limited amounts of time. But to play it long term, competitively, players must learn how to combine play of cards and effects and manage usage of mana crystals. Great players will have knowledge of various types of decks and strategies to be able to predict other players moves and probable outcomes. Think chess with seemingly many, many more possible moves. This level of play requires calculating moves well in advance in order to win the game or achieve successful combinations. You can learn more about how to play the game here.

The brutality of competitive free to play. Pay or grind?

The most frustrating part of playing hearthstone is realizing the need for certain cards in order to win against another players or the AI as a boss in adventure mode. To achieve success one must then either pay for a bunch of packs that can be bought with real world currency, or play the game enough to earn in game currency to buy the packs and cards needed. Of course, this currency mechanic serves the creators of the game well. Blizzard needs money to continue to develop games. Although it’s clever that the game is “free” to play, in order to achieve sustained periods of progression, a player must buy something. This model works really well for many types of games and especially mobile games. But it can be aggravating to play, player after player, who owns every legendary card created. Here are a couple examples of the most annoying ones I’ve encountered: Alexstrasza, Ysera, Justicar Trueheart. The player starts to wonder how they can compete? Must I pay lots of money to open packs to get these cards? Or play many games to win currency to buy these cards? The success of the game hinges on whether the player can accept the possible answers to these questions in order to wish to continue playing competitively, or give up.

How what I learned by playing Hearthstone relates to course readings

There are several interesting components to playing Hearthstone that relate to cycle two readings. If I had to pick one connection to the readings, I would say affinity spaces are very important for prolonged, successful Hearthstone play. It’s very easy to get stumped on a boss or get frustrated playing other players with seemingly unbeatable decks. The ability to turn to websites dedicated to Hearthstone strategies and decks among many other helpful things allows people to continue to progress in the game. The affinity spaces for Hearthstone range in nurturing to hardcore, but mostly, these groups will feature content readily accessible to both newbies that require nurturing and hardcore players looking for professional decks and strategies. To name a few of these affinity spaces: HearthPwn and Icy Veins do particularly well and have a robust community of contributors. Because Hearthstone utilizes rich story developed over the life of Blizzard entertainment products, and it allows players to craft their own decks, there is rich metagame potential. I’m reminded of how simply it was put by J. Gee, in “Nurturing Affinity Spaces and Game Based Learning,”


“Of course, we will argue that a principle of good metagame design is involving players as designers. That is, most positive social engagement in and around games involves, in part, players acting and thinking like designers.”

We can see this come to life in HearthPwn and Icy Veins simply by scanning the landing page. There are forums for each class, recent discussions highlighted, top decks, contests, videos, and the like, all created around this deceptively simple game. This proves that people don’t necessarily need 3D worlds with multitudes of levels and systems to mod a game to engage people in the activities that Gee would call big “G” “Games” or “Games+”. Contrary to what we have learnt in cycle two readings regarding The Sims. The real key to success is just making games accessible on many platforms, easy to play, and easy to strategize or craft play experiences that can be played in 15 minutes or 3 hours. That’s what Blizzard proved to us extremely well with Hearthstone. I would definitely give it a “Games+” rating!

GEE, J. P. & HAYES E, Nurturing Affinity Spaces and Game-Based Learning