The Pedagogy of Video Game Tutorials

Who teaches more skills to children – teachers or the video game industry?

For those of us whose childhood game experience wasn’t much more complicated than the four blinking colors of Simon or the slowly creeping aliens of Space Invaders, the current childhood experience of video games is more than just alien, its inexplicable.  When I hear my four boys trading their gaming exploits like my friends used to talk about baseball, I can’t even follow what they are talking about.  Their games are vast, complex universes, overflowing with creatures and characters.  Each with its own layered narrative of challenges, embedded within the unique context unlimited by anything but the human imagination.  Which is by definition, unlimited.

Imagine a teacher designing lessons for 9th graders on the causes of the Civil War, and in the process having to teach close reading, synthesis of primary and secondary sources.  How should she approach that process if her students have to write a well-reasoned and organized essay that proves its thesis with adequate evidence?

Most of us wouldn’t have to think too long about that process before we find ourselves trapped in the world of traditional pedagogy, blending our own variations of plans and programs, or picking a flavor-of-the-month technique we saw at our last conference.  

Now imagine yourself in a back-office of the $40 billion a year behemoth of the video game industry, designing a series of tutorials and lessons that will not only introduce twelve year-olds to a vast, complex universe, but capture their interest in the narrative so well, that they commit themselves to hours of self-instruction to navigate their way through it.  

How are you going to tell them about the “laws of nature” in the world of the game?  How about the characters, their abilities, and their goals?  How about the inventory of “physical” objects in the game, what players have to get, how they keep track of it?  Not only do you have to teach your player-students the “soft” knowledge of the game’s world, but you also have to get them to master the “hard” skills of navigating the game’s countless screens, consoles, and button clicks.  

To keep the hypothetical in context, you have to also imagine that the company you work for already invested $30 million in game development and it’s success or failure rests on your shoulders alone.  By the way, you can’t really “teach” the lessons you design, you embed them in the game and walk away – they have to teach the players completely on their own. Your player-students must succeed in reaching the learning objectives without getting confused, bored or giving up.  They must be so enthralled with your teaching that they don’t even notice it because they’re so immersed in the game’s narrative. They have to leave your classroom triumphantly punching their fists in the air and begging their parents to buy your sequal. 

One last thing, the “school” you’re competing with, just sank $265 million into their “course”.  With a team of developers and an entire company-floor dedicated to player instruction and tutorial design, how can you expect to compete with them?

Well, that tired teacher trying to put together the Civil War lesson is competing with both of those companies and the entire video game industry at the same time.  Not to mention, facebook, YouTube, teenage angst and hormone infections.  Instead of overweighting her PD sessions with the edu-babble of our industry’s latest book-of-the-month, why don’t we show her how to break the shackles of traditional instruction and do it like the best in the business?

Do yourself a favor, and watch the 7 minutes of this tutorial development video. The professional development advice it provides to game developers designing player tutorials would serve teachers well.

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