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Active Learning: The Pedagogy of the Game Tutorial

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Wednesday, Sep 16, 2009
I launched a campaign, took one look at the board, and having no idea where to begin with the hieroglyphic of controls that I had just “learned about” promptly turned the game off and forgot about it.

Some of us old gaming fogeys sometimes like to gripe and groan about the current state of the game manual.  Video games for the most part now come with these flimsy little pamphlets that they call a “manual” that might contain a schematic of your controller that indicates what the buttons do and not much else.  Of course, “back in our day”, floppy disks came packed in a mammoth sized box with a bunch of nifty extras like maps of the game world alongside a 300-page manual that described not only how to play your game from load screen to the penultimate moments of gameplay but probably the entire history of the Roman Empire that would serve as a little flavor for the game that you were about to undertake.


As unwieldy as these tomes were, they often did add that bit of flavor to the proceedings, and they were ultimately necessary components to gaming since most games really provided no in-game tutorial of any sort to guide the player in learning the game.  Consider the horrifying implications in 1985 of Hacker‘s claim that a screen reading “‘LOGON PLEASE’: is all you get to start with.”  A game that gave you nothing to read to get started with?  That might ask you to learn the game by playing around with it?


Of course, “playing around with it” is largely the pedagogy of contemporary games albeit in a guided manner as opposed to the pure “sink or swim” approach of Hacker.  Rather than having to guess at how to control a game character or mash some buttons to see what they might be capable of doing, most games have some sort of tutorial, usually built right into the opening segments of the storyline, that instructs you on how to move around, open a door, or throw a punch.  In addition to telling you how to do it, the game also asks you to “play around” with these controls.  Not only do you learn that you need to “Press A to jump,” but you are instructed to do so yourself after reading or hearing that instruction, a good example of active learning. As Wikipedia notes, this pedagogy popularized by Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison in their 1991 book, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom can be basically boiled down to the concept that “practice after initial learning” is a good way to reinforce a new skill.  The dominant notion in this pedagogy is that pure exposition is generally an insufficient way to acquire new knowledge and that active reinforcements of knowledge benefit those trying to learn new information or how to do something new.


I was reminded of the more traditional expository method of conveying information that game manuals used to provide gamers a few weeks ago when I tried booting up a copy of the World War II simulation, Hearts of Iron 3.  Not only is Hearts of Iron 3 a game that is built in a retro style with pared down visuals of maps and charts rather than fancy battlefield graphics, but it depends on a retro style of tutorial.  While an in-game tutorial exists for this political and military sim, the tutorial is presented as a series of lengthy texts overlaid over the user interface that explain how to build troops, a national economy, participate in diplomatic efforts, etc.  Because of the World War II setting and the fact that you are going to take on the role of a singular authority over a nation, the text is “spiced up” with a kind of narrative component that suggests that Hitler himself is narrating these instructions to the player who will soon be taking on the role of dictator.  While the game attempts to inject humor into what is otherwise a fairly didactic description of gameplay, the “humor” is more groan inducing than funny and also serves to distract from what is a labyrinthine set of rules, guidelines, and symbols that make up the game. 


Since this is all expository, and there are a whole lot of rules to learn, the “tutorial” of Hearts of Iron 3 becomes an exercise in sophistry as the game lectures you on how to perform diplomacy, espionage, and combat in slide after slide of words that vaguely relate to the graphs and charts of the game that you are looking at.  It tells you how to play but doesn’t at this point allow you to get your hands dirty in any of it.  All in all, it takes about ten or twenty minutes to read and scratch your head about the relationship between what you are reading and the UI that you are looking at.  By the time that I was done, I had managed to forget every single thing that I had just read and felt utterly clueless about how to play the game.  I launched a campaign, took one look at the board, and having no idea where to begin with the hieroglyphic of controls that I had just “learned about” promptly turned the game off and forgot about it.


While my response to Hearts of Iron 3‘s pedantic approach might imply that us old fogeys should shut the hell up and join the rest of the world in the 21st century where games teach the player through the more effective pedagogy of active learning, one might consider that the value of active learning has been challenged as well.  For example in a 2006 study, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching”, Paul A. Kirschner reviewed the shortfalls of a number of efforts to put active learning to work in practical settings.  While not all of Kirschner’s criticisms of active learning may be applicable to video game tutorials, some of them are interesting in regards to the problems that some games have in providing only “minimal guidance” when actively training players.


For example, Kirschner notes that novice learners have some troubling results when trying to understand a new concept or how to perform a new activity by actively engaging with it when that activity may require more prior knowledge about it than a beginner may be reasonably expected to possess.  Pressing A to jump is a relatively simple task and then being asked to perform that task by, say, jumping up on a table in game world seems like a relatively innocuous task.  While I might never have played the game that requires me to do so, I possess enough gaming experience to know that I need to press a thumb stick towards the table as I press the button to jump.  I am not a novice when it comes to the general concept of jumping via button pressing in video games.  After all, I played Donkey Kong back in 1981.  However, despite my years of gaming experience I have never played any games in the Tony Hawk series. This is largely because I never picked up a Tony Hawk game until it was well into its bazillionith iteration.  Whichever sequel I tried picking up at some point, had an in game tutorial that I simply couldn’t fathom, asking me to do things and string together combos when I didn’t even really understand the concept of stringing together tricks at all and could barely pull off an ollie.  Like my experience with Hearts of Iron 3, I gave up before the game started with a similar feeling that the controls were a kind of untranslatable hieroglyphic created to confound rather than illuminate.  Rather than being overwhelmed by too much information, I suffered from far too little before I was asked to actually accomplish something.  Ever tried to jump into a DDR sequel having not played the first few versions of that dancing game?  That tutorial will kick your ass.


In addition to the problem of minimal guidance for active learning, there also remains a question of the repetition of learned skills.  Many tutorials ask the player to perform a new task multiple times (three seems the magic number that active learning experts advocate), like, while fighting a thug, perform the X, Y, X combo three times.  While a sensible approach to active learning—trying to remember some complicated pattern only one time while having other additional instructions tossed at you shortly thereafter isn’t conducive to conditioning a good reflexive response—sometimes even three times really isn’t enough if it isn’t an action that will be reinforced regularly.  My experience with 2007’s Conan immediately comes to mind. While I am quite sure that I was taught to block during the tutorial sequence, I spent the entire game not even considering the necessity of a defensive move at all (barbarians don’t really play defense so much do they?).  Thus, the final boss battle in the game was a pretty big shock and ultimately an aggravation to me, since the ability to block is utterly necessary in defeating that one villain.  Initially, I found the battle hopeless.  Paging through the two pages of the manual in the hopes of understanding what I was missing about Conan’s abilities didn’t help much.  A trip to the more expository world of Gamefaqs.com was my only relief as someone on the boards there explained in detail a blocking strategy, which I then had to teach myself by getting killed over and over and over again.  Repetition helps teach a lesson I guess.


Which I suppose is my point, that I am neither opposed to exposition or active learning, nor am I sold on either one as a proper pedagogy for video games.  Quite honestly, I want a good and reasonable amount of both in my game tutorials as they each have there use in learning a game.  However, don’t overwhelm me with a novel length description of play before letting me try out a few basics.  Likewise, don’t assume that I already know enough or that I have used all of the skills available in a game enough before letting me sink rather than swim into action. 


Oh, and for the love of all that is good, allow me the option to skip it altogether if I really, really want to.  Everybody knows that school sucks.

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