4 min read

Things I've Learned About Game Design From Teenagers

Accessibility is not about keeping it simple.

The single best thing about being a generalist is that I don’t need to stick with any particular job, or even occupation. I’m free to do something I actually enjoy. Right now, the bulk of my income comes from teaching Math and English language to teenagers.

The kind of in home, face to face tutoring I provide bears a surprisingly close resemblance to game design. You want your player / student to enjoy the process. You want them to master an arbitrary skill set. There is a strong sense of progression to it. You also want to make their skills persistent, meaning that there is a fair amount of repetition and exercise. Last but not least, you need to monitor their progress, that is: put their skills to test. Learning is a challenge.

So is teaching. An info dump (a.k.a. lecture) won’t work. Neither will giving your pupil a textbook (a.k.a. manual) and letting them loose. Teenagers can be very smart and learn very fast, but nothing – and I mean nothing – is obvious to them. They are not a hardcore audience.

In other words, game design and teaching Math (or languages) both have the same accessibility problem. However, both the actual challenge behind it and the way to solve it proved to be different from what common knowledge suggests.

The most counter-intuitive lesson is that complex topics are actually better than simple ones. Students don’t want to talk about things they already understand. What they enjoy most are those little yet unexpected realisations that only a complex topic can induce. You want them to go “ah-ha!”.

But the most basic lesson is that games often try to appeal to players by giving answers to the wrong kind of question. They tell you “why”, but they don’t tell you “what for”. I mean, saving the world is fine, but how is learning to shoot enemy and take cover better than watching the game’s ending on Youtube?

Learning needs to make sense right away. Neither “you’ll appreciate it when you grow up” nor “you’ll like it once you’ve gotten into it” is a valid excuse. Forget about “take my word for it”. There is nothing wrong with your beautiful chest-high walls, but do bother to explain how taking cover is better than sitting duck.

Don’t impose your personal values upon player / student. Seek to understand and appeal to their own values instead. One of my students is good at English for her age, but she wants to learn more because of the kind of career she wants to have in the future. Another student, aged fifteen, hates Math – but she has actually demanded to be taught on a number of topics, from trigonometry to integrals, because a teacher at school told her she’s too young to learn about these.

Once they can see a point to it, they will pursue new skills actively. People actually want to learn new stuff, they just need to feel it’s worth learning.

Real world knowledge is like a tree in that complex things rest upon simple ones. Math and English can be taught in small steps – you start with basics and then work your way up to calculus and phrasal verbs. Make sure your game’s design is also like a tree, i.e. its components can be derived from each other. Don't try to make it look like a grass field, i.e. lots of unrelated bits of trivia. When introducing a new principle, get to the gist of it quickly, but skip the details. Once they understand the general principle, you can add details to it.

Whether they win or lose doesn’t matter to them nearly as much as whether they feel they are making progress. Make sure they understand why they’re not winning and what they can do about it. Challenge is but the means to an end. If there is no learning experience to it, winning becomes repetitive and losing just feels like being pushed around.

Of all the things that students can teach their teachers, the one I like best is this: anything can be taught, if it’s taught in sufficiently small steps. Accessibility is not about making stuff simple. Accessibility is about making simple transitions.

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