Instruction: How Games Teach Us and How We Learn

In recent years I’ve noticed something curious about contemporary games. Only recently have I discovered it, but others have seemed to catch on sooner. I’m talking about the absence of instruction manuals and their replacement with in-game tutorials. In this brief article I’ll detail what I think is one unfortunate consequence of in-game tutorials; namely, its impact on how people learn.

Instruction Booklet Zelda

Some years ago, when my grandparents gifted me with my first console and games, I noticed at least two things about the game before I started playing it. First, I noticed the cartridge or disc. The colors, or lack thereof, intrigued me. If the disc had scratches on it, I didn’t mind; I saw it as a testament to its history as a game lovingly abused. Second, I noticed the instruction booklet.

Now, the instruction booklet contained a wealth of information about the game. It even had a table of contents! Some games’ instruction booklets would have around twenty pages detailing what the game was, how to play it, backstory, character biographies, and more. But this was all meant to instruct the player on what it is they were about to play. If they were unsure of a maneuver, they could consult the booklet. And if they forgot an important element in the story, they could consult the booklet.

Instruction Booklet Nintendo Switch

Over the years, however, instruction booklets have dwindled in size and presence. At this point, they’ve almost withered away. What could have been a miniature resource to optimize the players’ gaming experience became a two-page pamphlet explaining legal agreements and safety procedures. In short, it became the worst written booklet in history.

Nowadays, the instruction booklet, as I have said, is virtually nonexistent, which is just to say that it’s now merely virtually existent. It’s all on-screen and in-game now. For the most part, first levels in some games thrust the player into the action right away and explain the mechanics as they go. The tutorial, the instruction, has been embedded in the game’s code, and the player must play in order to learn. There’s no time to explain, just play and learn as you go.

I find this a curious development in gaming history. Before in-game tutorials, many games came with a literary companion, explaining the game’s essential features and inputs. Learning was an exercise in consultation with something outside of the game. Players were expected to learn how to play before they played. With in-game tutorials, though, players are simply playing and learning as they go. In a way, it’s like learning chess without learning the rules first. So, the game must stop and explain itself along the way.

Instruction Manuals Impatience

So, what caused this change in gaming pedagogy? Why the shift from booklets to pamphlets to code? Some suggest it’s because of ecological reasons. Gaming companies wish to save money by saving trees. Others, like myself, are more inclined to think it’s due to impatience. What is the source of this impatience is beyond the scope of this article, but the exponential growth of technology and its overall convenience in daily life do contribute to it.

Hopefully, this article detailed a somewhat interesting, if sloppy and irresponsible, history of it. What do you think, reader? Do you think the transition to in-game tutorials has affected how people learn? If so, do you think the effect is positive or negative? And why? Let us know in the comments below!

Ryan Shields

Ryan Shields

A young, thoughtful, amateur ludologist, who enjoys philosophy and what philosophy can teach us about gaming. Whether it's Aristotle and the latest RPG release or Lyotard and the future of VR, I'm eager to see how and what video games today assist us into living well together.

So what do you think?

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