Games

Active Learning: The Pedagogy of the Game Tutorial

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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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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