Teach me to play
June 12, 2009
Games must be extraordinarily effective teachers. The learning window opens briefly. If the player cannot quickly grasp what the game expects or enables him to do, that window slams shut and it's game over. To a classroom teacher, that's an unreasonable condition. But to a game designer, it's just another day in the cubicle. If you fail to quickly reach that impatient player (age 8-80 in all possible demographic configurations) the fabulous curriculum you spent 3 years of your life building will be rejected by your student...and you're the one that gets the "F".
Lately, I find myself paying special attention to the teaching strategies game designers employ, particularly among recent games I've played. Clearly, game designers reject a one-size-fits-all approach, and that's because they understand the importance of pedagogy. That word may not get much play among designers, but it's a term teachers bandy about a lot. Terminology aside, we both make vital use of it.
Pedagogy is the teaching method chosen for the task at hand: teaching tailored to the subject and situation. Pedagogy is all about strategy, implementation, and assessment - make-or-break procedures that good teachers and game designers understand instinctively. The kid in the back of the room who hates science is no different, really, from the mom who loads the disc of a game she's never played into a console. You've got about 15 minutes to grab them and convince them they can succeed. You'd better make the most of it.
How do games teach us to play them? I won't try to account for every method; instead, I'll offer snapshots of 5 recent games, each utilizing a different strategy. I'm not suggesting one approach is superior to another, as they're all case-specific. But I do think some tutorials are more elegant or naturally embedded than others, and I'll try to explain why below.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 - The Lecturer
Annually-released sports games assume you already understand the sport, so teaching focuses on controls and new features from last year's edition. The Tiger Woods franchise has improved its teaching over the years (gone is the mandatory "this is how you swing" tutorial), but the game still relies on a primitive lecture/practice/exam pedagogy. Golf game veterans will require no help, but for those who have never played console golf, the game offers a series of video tutorials demonstrating how to swing, chip, putt, etc. The player is expected to passively watch and learn from these tutorials, then take those lessons to the practice range, and finally to the course. Classic old-school sender-receiver lecture, followed by studying and practicing for the final exam. For a long-running franchise like Tiger Woods, this may be good enough, but it's hardly what I'd call imaginative or user-friendly. Recent editions of Madden Football have been far more clever and innovative in this regard.
Punch-Out! - The Foreign Language Teacher
The new Punch-Out! (like its NES predecessor) teaches the player how to succeed without tutorials or how-to videos. Instead, you slowly and methodically proceed through a series of pattern-recognition challenges keyed by visual cues. When the pattern is deciphered, the puzzle is unlocked and victory assured. Each fight is its own unique ruleset. Thus, until he is understood, your opponent remains inscrutible, and try/fail/retry is your best teacher. In this way, Punch-Out! functions pedagogically like a language course. You begin with simple grammar and syntax and gradually move to tougher challenges, retaining what you've learned along the way. At its most difficult setting, Punch-Out! requires the precision and immediate responsiveness of a conversation with a native speaker. The rules you've learned are all there, but they're fluid, and you don't have time to stop and think about them.
InFamous - The Handholding Mentor
InFamous relies on a teaching strategy found in many recent games: embedding a "how to play this game" tutorial into the opening stage. Using a variety of techniques - on-screen visual prompts, camera swings to target destinations, voice-over instruction via handheld device, camera freezes to introduce enemies, sidekick-assigned information delivery, etc. - InFamous leverages all its resources to walk the player through its learning phase, attempting all the while to cover its tracks. Some elements work better than others in this regard. Cole zapping batteries on the roof or chasing Zeke through a poorly disguised city travelogue are less successful than learning to climb the tower to release food, for example. InFamous wants you to learn without making you too aware you're a student. It's awkward and heavy-handed at times, but it sure beats a "this is how you zap" tutorial.
If you want to see "Handholding Mentor" done to perfection, play Portal.
Zeno Clash - The Guru
I have more to say about this game, but for now I'll focus briefly on its teaching system. Like other first-person combat games (Zeno Clash is both brawler and shooter), the player is greeted by a sensai-like character charged with teaching you how to fight. These sequences are generally followed by tutorial battles in which each just-learned skill is put to the test. The guru is a tough taskmaster, insisting on judgment, precision, and timing. Mistakes are punished severely and the player sometimes berated for failure. Eventual success is deemed both a technical and spiritual victory. Much more can be said about Zeno Clash's unique take on The Guru, but to avoid spoilers I'll leave it at that.
Blueberry Garden - The Open Classroom
Blueberry Garden erases the boundaries separating play and teaching, discovery and learning. They all meld into one self-directed experience. The game offers no tutorial, no instructions, and no apparent objective. The purpose of the game and the mechanics enabling it must be discovered by the player. You must become your own teacher. While all this may seem a charming departure, do not mistake Blueberry Garden for an open-ended "zen game" because it isn't at all. It may cleverly deceive you into thinking otherwise, but trust me, the peaceful Open Classroom this garden represents has its own unique way of motivating its student. I'll return to Blueberry Garden in another post, but for now I'll simply urge you to hit Steam and plop down your $4.99 for this terrific indie game.
As I said, my list focuses on recent games I've played and is by no means comprehensive. I'm sure you've seen other teaching strategies used in many other games. If so, I'd love to hear about them.