Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lessons in Video Games

I've been playing video games for most of my life. A few weeks ago, I was struck by the similarities between a good video game tutorial and good lesson planning. Obviously, I was quite happy when I got an assignment to go check out video games and relate them to teaching. I thought about all the video games I could look at but kept coming back to those tutorials. What made them good or terrible? Bad tutorials are usually cheesy and annoying with some guide giving you cookie-cutter directions (Hey, listen!). Good tutorials though, just sort of blend into the game. You learn to play the game by exploring and testing new skills as you learn them. Sound familiar? Tutorials are essentially lessons for gameplay so I’ll be exploring how good tutorials are built and that might relate to good lesson design.
For tips, I have turned to the always excellent team behind Extra Credits, a video game design vlog. Check out their tutorials 101 video:
So what are the rules for good tutorials?
1.       Less text
When players are confronted by walls of text, they tend to tune out. Not surprisingly, so do students. In good tutorials and lessons, text is broken up with images and action.
2.       No front loading
Video game designers sometimes feel like they have to teach the player how to do EVERYTHING at once. Teachers can often make the same mistake. Both students and players get confused and have trouble with remembering all of the details. Teach students what they need to know to be able to do the next step and save the rest for later.
3.       Make it fun
Um, duh. Video games are played for fun but often the first thing players encounter, the tutorial, is booooooring. In teaching, “make it fun” is a cliché but we all got into our content area for a reason. For me, I love the mystery of history and the puzzle of fitting together different factors in history to figure out why things happened. Even if I can’t convince students that history is super awesome and fun (which it totally is), I can pass along a little enthusiasm. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional game in the classroom.
4.       Reinforce learning through play
This relates to #2. When players learn new skills, they need a chance to try it out. Let’s be honest, if I just found out that I can blow things up with my mind in a game, I want to go blow something up, not listen to five more minutes of explanation. The same thing applies to students. If they just learned how to do something new, then they need a chance to apply it.
5.       Listen to your players
I’m going to steal a line from Extra Credits: What is obvious to you (designers who have been working on a game for a long time) isn’t always obvious to them (brand new players). Likewise, what is obvious to me as a history teacher who has spent countless hours poring through primary texts and writing literally hundreds of pages of research, is not obvious to a high school freshman taking his or her first history class. Check in with them and find out what they are and aren’t understanding. That’s the point of assessment.

So it turns out that video game makers are running into the same issues as teachers and looking out how they successfully solve those issues can help teachers solve those same basic issues. Plus it gives me an excuse to play video games during grad school. 


  1. Liz you had many great points. Now that I think about it a good game really does have many similarities with a good lesson plan. Both have to be strategic. For a teacher the strategy of the lesson plans should be developed to produce effective learning. With a game, students should learn to strategic ways to win this means by abiding by the rules and creating predictions or evaluations. I really like that you stated that because I actually did not put two and two together! Great insight!

  2. Liz, I really enjoyed your post! Instead of posting about the possible uses of just one video game, I appreciated your broader analysis of what makes a video game engaging. I especially found your analogy between good tutorials and good lesson plans very helpful. I think I have subconsciously used this criteria to critique games and decide which ones I would allow in my classroom versus those that I deemed having no place there, but I was never consciously aware of why I was making these judgments. This post lays everything out for me and game me a more meta-cognitive perspective of how to select video games for the classroom and how they relate to lesson plans. Great job!