The Tree of Knowledge — AGES Design Principles Part I
Taking inspiration in mythology and gaming to transform education
By MARTIN REZNY
Our platform will serve as a learning hub and visual interface, so on the most basic level, it will be a tree diagram. One can think of it as a living tree, with qualifications for various types of careers or achievements being fruits that can be attained by following through various paths from the roots (basic capacities), through the trunk (core subjects) and large branches (secondary education), to various progressively more specialized smaller branches.
Although, its design won’t be based on just any tree — the primary source of inspiration will be the mythical Yggdrasil, or the Worldtree from Norse mythology. Given the specific function of this tree diagram, it’s likely there will also be some symbolic resonance with the mythologies of the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge.
There are a number of practical reasons for growing an educational interface out of mythological roots. On a general level, mythology as a genre or style is compelling because it works with classical, universally shared archetypes of human psyche. A tree diagram that’s just a tree diagram, devoid of any stylization or story, is less appealing, intuitive, and memorable. Myths tend to last for millennia, while modern instructional systems will be lucky to last for decades.
Such layer of mythology is a big part of the success of the fantasy genre as a whole in the modern era, as well as a big part of the success of its videogame iteration. Modernity and technology can be quite disenchanting, so if one wants to make a modern technological system more inspiring to people with ancient brains who are forced to live in a modern world, a little bit of ancient magic may be what’s needed.
After all, what are the preferred ways of spending free time of the modern youth? Playing games set in or otherwise enjoying worlds of speculative fiction. Or, in other words, immersing themselves in fantasy and science fiction. If you want evidence, consider that the most popular fictional property of the last several decades are the Harry Potter books, which are about going to a fantasy version of school. There’s every indication that re-enchantment is the way to go.
Beyond bringing magic back to education (without compromising any fundamental principles of science), the Worldtree metaphor also works on the level of direct functionality. As the name implies, the Worldtree connects different worlds, or realms. If done correctly, a worldtree diagram can contextualize for each student an otherwise disconnected patchwork of different educational systems of classification, progression, or certification.
The specific terminology used as part of this metaphor need not be literally taken from the Norse mythology or any other preexisting mythology, but the interface should feel like a map. Every distinct “realm” of education connected by our worldtree diagram should feel like a place, have an evocative, descriptive name. Not just a meaningless abbreviation or some other kind of bureaucratic descriptor. There should also be a natural way to give directions to it.
It probably won’t be possible to use literal geographic directions like north, south, east, or west, but there are other ways to intuitively describe topology. There could be concepts of above or below, before or after, or running in parallel, giving specific meaning to the diagram’s structure of roots and branches. “Direction” really is the key word here, or “vector” or “trajectory” in more technical terminology. Students need to know where they’re going.
The closest “instructional” system in existence to this arrangement are MMORPGs, or massive multiplayer online role-playing games. The original and most common genre of which is fantasy. The players in these games control characters or avatars that navigate not only physical-looking space within the game’s world, but also a character tree in order to “level up”. The players can often select their starting “class” and then chart their own path at their own pace.
If you simply choose to think of “players” as “students” in this model, and substitute real-world knowledge or skills for the fictional lore and simulated skills, you already have a functional educational system. The fluid interpretation of “class” between the traditional educational meaning and the traditional fantasy RPG meaning is particularly intriguing, if you think about it. “Class” as both a group of peers and the kind of person one wants to become makes a lot of sense.
Using a computer game system as a template for an educational system also shows that there is no need for the system to be rigid. Within computer games or computer systems in general, it has been the norm for quite a while to customize all interactions for each user on an individual basis. Each student’s version of the worldtree diagram can be unique, adapted to best suit their personal needs and preferences.
Of course, in any logical system of education, some parts of learning paths have to follow in a given sequence or can be mutually exclusive at times, that’s no different than how fantasy MMORPGs work. More advanced skills have prerequisites, some areas aren’t accessible at the beginning, and some specializations can’t be combined with other specializations. Still, MMORPG games typically don’t devolve into chaos, and most players can figure it out.
As most young people today are already familiar with RPG or MMORPG concepts and interfaces, the learning curve toward mastering our specific version of such a system should be quite manageable. There’s still a lot of debate to be had about the details, and we will get to that in a moment, but ultimately, the students will be expected to do the following:
- Register into our system
- Orient themselves within the worldtree diagram
- Select a class, meaning both a primary group of peers and a cluster of learning pathways
- Level up by progressing through the learning pathways
- Choose how to display their accomplishments
The debatable details mainly revolve around the precise structuring of both socialization and progression within the system. As with every other aspect of the system, inspiration should ideally be sought in effective mythology. For example, while “leveling up” is an established concept in gaming, perhaps there could be a more compelling way to think about one’s progression in life, one that’s less likely to involve “grinding”.
At its worst, gaming can get just as meaningless and repetitive, and therefore demotivating, as any modern instructional system. Within archetypal fantasy and mythology, the core driving idea is the quest. In fantasy RPGs, leveling up should be secondary to accomplishing quests. Quests also must not be pointless quests for the sake of questing, they need to involve an actual journey, character arc, or true seeking.
To serve as a framework for true questing, the worldtree system must be able to interact with the students in ways more substantial than “number go up”. The primary objectives arguably shouldn’t be presented in terms like getting to a higher level or doing actions a set number of times. They should be framed more meaningfully, more archetypally, as mysteries to solve, people in need of help, enemies to defeat, realms to save, and so on. This will require good writing.
As for the ideal framework for student socialization, there’s something to be said for the appeal of gaming guilds, or something like the student houses in the Harry Potter universe. While the specifics of how the students at Hogwarts are sorted into houses may be questionable, choosing one’s archetypal purpose in life (for which they feel they were fated) is a fairly powerful aspect of most hero’s journeys in most classical mythologies.
In fact, making the student guilds or houses purposely fictional may be a major positive feature. There’s a case to be made that if the Harry Potter houses were real, they would in fact be terrible, but since they are fictional, they do inspire both a sense of belonging and competitiveness that’s likely to lead to real benefits, but not to real harms. Mythologies can get out of hand if they’re taken absolutely seriously, but modern fantasy has just enough distance from reality.
Within our system, we could decide to offer our own specific, original mythology, our own structure of quests or guilds (or in other words, purpose), or we could enable the students to adapt any preexisting mythologies for their own purposes, or we could do both. This may involve some practical copyright issues, so perhaps it’s more of a legal question than anything else, but some archetypal framework of giving greater purpose to learning will be required.
Overall, the main piece of archetypal mythological wisdom to keep in mind while building a worldtree of knowledge is that magic is primarily defined as the ability to affect the world at will. Any educational system that has the empowerment of students as its primary objective therefore is fundamentally magical, as opposed to any educational system that instead aims to mold the students to fit the needs of the “real” world. Let’s make the students the heroes of their own story.