Growth mindset explained with video games

or why Elder Scrolls is the better RPG series for your self-efficacy

I always admired The Elder Scrolls, Bethesda’s line of role-playing games that includes Skyrim, Oblivion, Morrowind, Daggerfall, and Arena.

The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, Bethesda Softworks, 1996
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda Game Studios, 2011

In most other RPGs, you get your experience points by killing things, which you can then use to improve completely unrelated skills such as lockpicking. How fighting goblings leads to picking locks eludes me to this day.

In The Elder Scrolls, if you swing a sword at a goblin, you get better at … swinging your sword. To get better at lockpicking you have to pick locks. It’s also why in Daggerfall I jump around all the time because that makes me a better jumper.

Tips to improve at Daggerfall (source). It basically says, if you do X you will get better at X. It works in real life too, except the only ones jumping around in real life are parkour people because fuck social norms.

To be fair, I also jump in Daggerfall because increasing your skills makes you level up, and when you level up you get to increase your attributes (strength, dexterity, intelligence …). Increasing your intelligence due to jumping is still far fetched, but the fact that you can increase your intelligence with practice at all (with casting spells, or alchemy), is what I want to talk about today.

Skills such as sword fighting, magic, and sneaking are always something you can improve in RPGs. When it comes to attributes, however, there are two general approaches. Dungeons & Dragons and games based upon it (Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights …) have fixed attributes that you roll at the start of the game and are stuck with them throughout the game.

Character generation in Baldur’s Gate. (source)

In The Elder Scrolls you instead start with attributes relatively low and grow them over time.

Leveling up in The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. (source)

It turns out these two different paradigms also divide us in real life. Some people think we are born with natural talents that determine which things we can do in life and which not (like D&D). Others believe we can improve anything with practice, it just takes time and effort (like TES).

When it comes to scientific research on intelligence, the first belief is called the fixed mindset, while the second is growth mindset, and they have vastly different effects on our self-efficacy (confidence in our abilities). Researcher Carol Dweck has shown again and again that people with a growth mindset outperform those with a fixed mindset. When they run into trouble, they increase their effort, because they know that by learning they can increase their INT and finally get it, while people with fixed mindset take it as an inherent limitation and they give up.

Don’t get me wrong, Baldur’s Gate is still one of my favorite RPGs. This article has nothing to do with its quality or how fun it is. Just know that when it comes to real life, intelligence works more like in Morrowind and Oblivion.

Leveling up in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (source) and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (source). Unlike Daggerfall, attributes could be increased more if you practiced skills based on them. Skyrim, however, completely changed the system and simplified attributes down to health, magica, and stamina.

In case you were wondering why I care about learning theory—I’m creating Pixel Art Academy, an adventure game for learning how to draw. It’s designed based on scientific research, so I spend plenty of time reading research articles, and I’m happy to share my findings along the way. Check out my Patreon blog for more learning with video games.

Happy leveling up!
 — Retro

This article was brought to you by patrons including Reuben Thiessen, Qinapses, Magnus Adamsson, Jeff Chang, … (dot dot dot), Robert ‘Pande’ Kapfenberger, and Lou Bagel.