Manual Instruction: Two Types of Learning in Game TutorialsS

Who reads instruction manuals any more? These days even the most complex console game arrives with just a 16-page booklet. Increasingly, we rely on in-game tutorials, and the two modes of learning they promote both have their benefits - and drawbacks.

Tutorials common to the early days of PC gaming followed an expository model of learning that bordered on information overload, writes G. Christopher Williams at PopMatters. Williams was reminded of this when he played Hearts of Iron 3, a military/diplomacy simulation set in World War II. It gave a decidedly old-school tutorial, barraging him with instructions but at no point allowing any practice of them. Williams gave up in frustration.

Contrast that with the active learning model of many game tutorials, especially for console titles. Tutorial or early levels commonly take a player through the control and combo schemes, identifying them and then asking the player to repeat them in practice. But by itself, the same as exposition without practice, it too is not a perfect form of pedagogy, Williams says.

Active Learning: The Pedagogy of the Game Tutorial [PopMatters, Sept. 16, 2009.] 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.

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.

[...] 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.- G. Christopher Williams

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Saturdays at noon. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.