Tower Defense & Executive Functioning

Some of the most important tasks the human brain performs are known as the executive functions.  According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, executive function is “a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action. People use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.”  As such, the executive functions are crucial to the learning process over the life cycle.

Like many phenomenon in mental health, executive functions were focused on initially in regards to populations that had some deficits in them.  With the advent and prevalence of the diagnosis of ADHD, as well as the study of learning and learning disabilities, educators and therapists began to become familiar with a concept that had previously been of most interest to neuroscientists. We still tend to think of executive functioning from a pathology-based approach, only paying attention to how they work when they don’t work.

The truth is everyone has executive functions, which are a combination of nature and nurture, and can develop well into adulthood.  They can also deteriorate for a variety of reasons, from traumatic brain injury to Alzheimer’s disease.  And there is a body of research which suggests that mental and physical exercise can help maintain, if not improve our executive functions as we age.  Not surprisingly, as the Baby Boomers age, interest and research grows in this area.  At both ends of the life cycle, our focus on the executive functions are widening beyond pathology to the optimal environments for human learning.  How might we get better at planning, attending, strategizing, and managing time and space?

My suggestion:  Start playing more tower defense games.

Tower defense is a particular genre of video games, one which in general focuses on on preventing the progress of an enemy army across a map.  This is done by the use of towers which have varying abilities, costs to build, and points earned from downing enemies.  You don’t necessarily need to have towers in the game:  Plants Vs. Zombies for example is an example of a tower defense game where the plants are the equivalent of towers, with special abilities used to defend against the march of those pesky undead across the lawn.

More recently I have been fascinated with one of the latest iterations of tower defense games on the iPad, Kingdom Rush.  You start out with a variety of maps and coins for building.  You can use one of 4 basic tower types.  There are barracks which have soldiers who can fight and slow down the invaders.  There are artillery towers which drop bobs for an area wide (AOE) damage.  There are marksman towers which target individuals and fire arrows or guns.  Finally, there are magician towers with wizards firing spells of various types.

Each invading monster has different strengths and vulnerabilities, which are discovered by trying out different towers and noting their effects.  As the invading army is always moving forward in waves, the time element requires you to plan which towers to build first, where to place them, and what upgrades to focus on.  To do this requires a tremendous amount of strategy, organization and time management.  You also need to make decisions, including how long to delay gratification.  The more powerful towers require you to save up many more coins to buy them.  Upgrades that you can select from a talent tree add another layer of choice and complexity.

In short, to succeed in Kingdom Rush you need to have good executive functions.  It isn’t enough to have good hand/eye coordination or reaction time.  You need to be able to learn from your past experiences, and often switch strategies midway through the game.  You need to recall which towers are best for different situations and monsters.  There is a map to be managed in space and a marching army and builders to manage in time.  You need to recognize both immediate feedback and notice trends.  And there are multiple towers and units to keep track of.

The more I play Kingdom Rush, the more struck I am by how many if not all of my executive functions are required to succeed.  I can see where using this game could be both a useful assessment tool and intervention for deficits in EF.  It also has reminded me how necessary executive functions are in terms of managing money as well.  The ability to recall prices, to budget and pace spending, and set up investments that accrue value over time–all these economic experiences are embodied in the game.

Speaking of economy, you can try this game for free if you have a computer in your office or classroom here.  And you can buy it for a whopping $2.99 for your iPad.  Check it out, and see if you agree that it might be a fun, feedback rich way to challenge your executive functions.


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Failing Better


Play is a vital part of being a person, and failure is a vital part of play. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the connection between autonomy and failure. When children, adolescents and adults for that matter play video games, they fail a lot. In fact, according to Nicole Lazzaro, 80% of the time we are playing video games we are failing. What other activities in our daily lives can we say that about?

Education, on the other hand, at least the traditional model, grades us on a 100% model very differently. If you get 70% of a test or a class material “correct” you get to pass it. If you get 69% it needs to be done over again, or you don’t get any credit at all. This system actually flies in the face of what educators and therapists know about learning, that it is a matter of trial, error, course correction, trial, error, course correction… and so on.

This in some ways answers a question I have often wondered about: Why are we willing to be failing 80% of the time in video games, and so reluctant to risk failure in “real life” even a fraction of the time? One answer the percentages above point to is that education often stacks the deck against us, effectively rendering any mastery of content below 70% as a failure. This failure has attached to it, shame, sense of time wasted, futility, and hopelessness.

But there is another aspect of failing in video games that I think we need to pay attention to, and that is the role of autonomy. In a 2009 study, Jesper Juul found that people prefer to play games where they feel responsible for failing. The majority of those surveyed didn’t want to attribute it to bad luck, but something the did or didn’t do. They wanted a sense of autonomy in their game play, not luck. Conversely, they didn’t want to feel victimhood either, but rather optimism.

I have been playing a game on the iPad called Incoboto which has given me pause to reflect on fun failure. (An aside for gamers who have also played this and Dark Souls, have you considered Incoboto as a cutified version of Dark Souls, trying to link the fire and bring light to a darkened solitary world? Just saying..) The game has a series of puzzles which one needs to solve in order to collect star pieces to feed to the kawaii sun Helios following your character around. There have been a few places where I got “stuck,” and spent in my opinion too much time having to throw something exactly the right way. This highlighted for me the subjective experience I had for the majority of gameplay, that I was being challenged but would eventually be able to overcome the unneccessary obstacle. On those occasions I called getting stuck, I began to experience feelings of victimization and externalize responsibility. The game was not “being fair,” it was too hard, there was a “bug” in it making the ball not land “right.”

What helped me persevere was both compelling graphics and gameplay, but also a sense of faith in the game. Ok, sometimes I cheated too, by looking up spoilers on the game forum. In those moments, you could say that I was giving up the voluntary attempt to overcome an unnecessary obstacle of the game. But, and this is what’s important, I was also ceding my sense of autonomy. It’s a weird balancing act, in one case I didn’t look at the cheat to find the solution as much as to get reassurance that what I was trying was the solution. But even though I was exercising my digital literacy here, I was also giving up for the moment my sense of autonomy, and agency.

Failure, and tolerance of failure is a subject thing, which is why Lazzaro’s presentations illustrate zones, not points, of fiero, frustration, relief, and bored. Everyone has variations in how they experience emotions, and failure in video games. And if I didn’t keep that in mind, I might feel very disheartened when I read this review of Incoboto:

“Great mix of platformer and puzzle game, very smooth learning/difficulty curve, and quite a nice gameplay experience too”

Now I am not going to get into a discussion on norms and trends and the importance of betas, because my point here is to compare and contrast the experiences of failure in video games and education.

Education in our country is trying to overcome some serious design flaws of its own. Children and adolescents are given tremendous responsibility for their performance without a commensurate amount of autonomy. This creates a culture of victimhood. Rather than noticing they got more than half of something right, we flunk them. Rather than setting meaningful individual goals, we create industrialized curriculum. And if we do give someone an individualized set of goals in the form of an IEP, we label them as learning disabled first to justify it!

We need to improve the quality and experience of failure in schools. Because video games don’t occur in a separate reality from the point of view of our minds. That mind/body split of Descartes has been debunked for ages, and yet we’re still talking about “real” life. The reality is that mastering challenges and fun failure creates a feeling of optimism, which neurologically and emotionally improves our ability to learn in the future. If we think we are capable of solving a problem, we will keep at it. Therefore, we need to foster a sense of autonomy in learning. The minute we start talking about “my special needs child,” we are taking away their autonomy.

Am I saying we should expect everyone to perform the same at school or other work? Not at all, I am saying we should be better curators of children in learning environments, and let them have less stigma around failure. In a real sense, every child should have an individualized education plan, because we are moving (hopefully) out of an industrial model of education.

As a therapist and educator who has worked in and with school systems and parents for nearly two decades, I have struggled with this frequently, both within myself and with my patients. The language of diagnoses and learning disabilities is a language I speak all too well, and I have unintentionally colluded at times with parents and systems who use it as shorthand for, “my kid can’t ___.” Maybe if failure was more tolerable and fun in school we wouldn’t be so quick to adopt these identities, and maybe if we curated environments that allowed for more autonomy we would notice different varieties of success as well.

The other night I was on a Minecraft server I participate in, founded by educators and edutechs for their children. Several of the kids were on and chatting when I logged in, and shortly thereafter this huge flame war erupted. Capital sentences of “I HATE YOU” flew across the screen. Kids stormed out of the chat room, returned, then logged off again. Some of the young moderators were instigating further conflict, while others were earnestly trying to figure out why people’s feelings had been hurt in the first place. From the therapeutic point of view, they were failing miserably, exhibiting poor social skills, dysregulated affect, and poor impulse control. It took a herculean act of will not to jump in and actively curate this group and allow them to exercise their autonomy.

They kept at the chatting, and over the next several minutes they began to collaborate on understanding what had happened. This did not have the grown up version of a happy ending where the aggrieved parties apologized and made up, so much as the group told one party that they appreciated the apology and weren’t ready to accept it then (my translation) told a second party to stop instigating in the guise of defending someone, and encouraged the third to come and build something to take his/her mind off of it.

In my mind, the fact that this took place in a game environment where failure is destigmatized and autonomy is presumed made it easier for people to keep at the challenge until it had been resolved “enough.” There was no adult who was forcing them to stay on and work at this, they were voluntarily engaged. There were several halting starts and stops of chat. But social emotional learning was occurring.

This in my opinion is an example of “failing better,” and I think this is a skill that not only can be translated from video game experience, but desperately needs to. The more we except failure as an essential part of learning and work, the less stigmatizing it will be. The less we stigmatize failure, the more we encourage autonomy and optimism. Autonomy and optimism make you a better learner, a better collaborator, and a better worker. Personally I think the world could use a lot more of that.

Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.