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Game Tutorials & How We Learn

General Articles By Carolyn Koh on May 19, 2010

Game Tutorials & How We Learn

Sheri Graner Ray is no stranger to the game industry or game designers. She has been making games since 1990, is the author of Gender Inclusive Game Design - Expanding the Market, a co-founder of the International Game Developer's Association and has been recognized for her work in gender and games. In her lecture, she spoke of the three different types of learners:

  • Visual learners - those who learn best by reading and visual aids
  • Audio learners - those who learn best by listening
  • Kinetic learners - these are those of us that can't sit still but have to move while learning

She then moved on to the two knowledge acquisition modes which were what the lecture was mostly about:


Explorative - or what is termed experiential. These learners try things out and take risks to learn and are predominantly male. This is the typical 14 year old boy given a token at the arcade. He picks a likely looking machine, puts the token in and starts punching buttons and slamming the stick around to learn the game.

Modeling - or what is termed projective. These learners want to know the who, what, why and the how. They want to know the risk and consequences and are predominantly female. This is the typical 14 year old girl given a token at the arcade. She watches her brother play first before she does the same.

Explorative learners don't mind breaking things in the course of their learning. Modeling learners do. That most game tutorials are explorative is one reason why there still are few female gamers. Early EverQuest players might remember clicking on their NPC guild masters and getting killed. Funny for an explorative learner, traumatic for a modeling learner.

Most game tutorials however, are designed for the explorative learner. From children's games to mature games, they expect the gamer to try things out for themselves, to learn as they go. This accounts for lack of adoption by women in the early days of computer games, and even to this day. Have you ever heard a woman - a friend, a mother or aunt saying "I'm afraid I'll break it" or something to that effect? That's because they are a modeling learner. They want to be aware of what they are doing and what will or will not happen when they do something.

Sheri was careful to stress that although there is a gender bias in each of the knowledge acquisition modes, that there are males that are modeling learners and females that are explorative. I was sitting at the lecture with two other female game journalists. We all happened to be explorative learners. Female gamers are rare enough, much less female game journalists, we were told, and little wonder we were also explorative learners. Despite being a hard-core gamer, Sheri describes herself as a modeling learner and illustrated her lecture with screenshots from her first World of Warcraft play session where exclamation mark icons ran across the bottom of her screen, unclicked.

"I wasn't going to click them! I didn't know what they did!" she said. "I wasn't going to madly just go about clicking things. What if they exploded or did something I didn't want to happen?"

And when she did click on something, the instructions went away when she clicked something else and she could not get them back! This step is something that modeling learners especially need; the ability to try something over again until they are comfortable.

The fault in many MMO tutorials are not only that they are geared toward the explorative learners, they often also place instructions in the wrong place and were excessively wordy. To illustrate, Sheri showed the wall of text for City of Heroes enhancements.

"Too long, didn't read," she quipped. It was also several levels too early and not easily accessible when she was of level to actually need the information.

Although MMO tutorials have improved greatly over the years, they still are often the red-headed step-children of game development. They can't be designed until the game itself is well along its way, and yet when they are finally ready to work on them, the developers are often times too close to the product and it gets farmed out to a junior programmer or worse, an intern because they have the freshest eyes on the project. Yet, tutorials are really one of the most important parts of an MMO as that is the player's first contact with a game. This is something that game studios do realize and the reason why tutorials keep getting improved upon after the game is launched.

Many game tutorials now do take into account the different learning acquisition modes and lack only a way for the modeling learners to repeat an action. They also do include "skip ahead" buttons for the explorative learners as well as those of us who may be modelers, but are familiar enough with the genre to be comfortable with less explanation.

We cannot assume that the next person to try your game is conversant with the jargon. Designers and writers need to concentrate on the "nouns and verbs" of the game. The nouns that affect player experience should be defined. Telling someone not conversant with industry jargon not to get into the aggro-radius of a mob will only confuse them. Verbs define the action of a game and players need to be taught how to move, shoot and communicate. What does WASD mean to a non-gamer or even a console gamer? Probably no more than letters of the alphabet.

Tutorials should concentrate on showing players how to play the game. That is to say, teach people how to use the program versus how to achieve the goal of the program. A tutorial in a language program should show the user how to access the lessons, not learn the language. Similarly, a tutorial in an MMO should show the user how to move, shoot and communicate, not gain experience. In doing the move, shoot and communicate, the player will gain experience and level his character.

Finally, don't you wish sometimes after you've been gone from a game a while that you could re-access that newbie tutorial without having to create a new character? Or maybe just the pertinent part of it? The concept of having a "Danger Room" in an MMO is a very attractive one. Say... where can I go to try out this new skill I learned without getting myself killed and losing xp?

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn has been writing for since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.