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Video Game Tutorials: How Do They Teach?

The following is a condensed form of my master’s project, investigating early game levels/tutorials in video games to identify how to teach effectively. Analyzing participant response data to understand what affects player learning experiences.

The subject of my study was looking into learning in games, specifically the ability of a game to teach the necessary information about itself and to keep players engaged to continue with interest. I initially investigated the task of a designer, the issues with players and design of tutorials which led to George Fan’s GDC 2012 talk about his game, Plants vs Zombies.

Fan provided a great insight to the development of his game, focusing on his aims of making it accessible to play for all people, ‘casual’ audiences and notably his own mother. Fan’s presentation brought up 10 key points he suggested which could help improve game tutorials, but they lacked a psychological perspective, the behaviour and response of learners.

Querying Fan’s presentation, the master’s focus was refined, the project was set to research player experiences, investigate and identify the issues behind negative thoughts about game tutorials and early game levels and in comparison to identify why ‘good’ tutorials are successful.
By gathering data from a number of participants their answers can help identify reasons behind positive and negative experiences by looking through a psychological lens, uncovering how they are affected when being taught new information in a game.

The master’s project conducted a qualitative semi-structured interview process to help elicit the information required whilst taking steps to eliminate bias. The benefit of doing an interview was the ability to record the audio of the interviews, with the task of transcribing quotes and notes for the purpose of analyzing later on.

The following is the later part of the master’s in a condensed form, analysing the data received from the interviews.



Analysing the data

10 participants named ‘Participant A-J’ were successfully recorded in interviews answering 10 questions that would require them to provide games with early game levels/tutorials that they approved of and disapproved of, then to specify why.

Other questions were open ‘point of interest’ questions to help identify the participant’s personal preferences when learning in games; how much guidance, what causes disruption, how much to read...
With the data prepared, the analysis was started.

Following a 6 phase plan devised by Braun and Clarke, the method of thematic analysis was used to identify detailed descriptions with the data, which would then be used to help provide a clearer understanding for why people view certain tutorials positively and negatively.

“Thematic analysis is a method for identifying, analysing, and reporting patterns (themes) within data. It minimally organises and describes your data set in (rich) detail.

…Thematic analysis differs from other analytic methods that seek to describe patterns across qualitative data – such as „thematic‟ discourse analysis, thematic decomposition analysis, IPA and grounded theory.”  (Braun & Clarke, Using thematic analysis in psychology., 2006)

The process led to finding 26 initial codes in the participant response data, to start with they were seperated into 3 groups;

Positive Patterns

  • Doesn’t feel like a tutorial
  • Doesn’t disrupt game flow
  • Low chance of failing
  • Tutorial Boss
  • Preparedness
  • Ability to skip a tutorial
  • Freedom to experiment
  • Focus on unique mechanics

Negative Patterns

  • Hand - Holding
  • Not Skippable
  • Patronizing
  • Forced Videos/Cut scenes
  • Overload of information
  • Ruins game flow
  • Irrelevant Information
  • Failed to provide necessary information
  • Constant Pauses/Stops
  • Too long

These following patterns appeared in only the ‘point of interest questions’ data (Questions which were not specifically about positive and negative experiences).

  • Pop up messages
  • Unable to Skip Messages
  • Forced into games pace
  • Advanced information availability
  • Repetitive
  • Range of teaching levels
  • Short message preference
  • Tutorials are necessary

These codes are labels of themes that are prominent in the participant response data; the initial generation of identified codes would require a further identification, which led to a process of visualizing the codes.
The application of ‘game flow’ as a core code to represent the player was incorporated where some codes signified the players learning experience, but it lacked the process of how a tutorial is conducted by a player.

Game flow being a loose term to explain psychologically how fully immersed a person is with a video game, for instance good immersion (good game flow) would lead to a loss of time perception and self-awareness because of the concentration with playing the game.

“It is easy to enter flow in games such as chess, tennis, or poker, because they have goals and rules that make it possible for the player to act without questioning what should be done, and how. For the duration of the game the player lives in a self-contained universe where everything is black and white.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997)

However this leads to a theory with ‘preparedness’, if a game tutorial has provided a good teaching experience which doesn’t disrupt game flow, then the player would be prepared to play the game and in contrast if their game flow was disrupted, they will unlikely be prepared.
The ‘Preparedness’ label was taken from a code (which was changed to ‘Situations & Scenarios’) and promoted into a code to be treated as an end state for players in the learning process, leading to whether a player is prepared or not.

Other changes to the codes occurred during the analysis process; when reviewing the codes and their themes it was clear some codes were too similar to each other and were merged or dissolved to form more prominent codes.

The codes were appropriately forming into separate groups which developed a better understanding about the process of learning for a player, the justifications for each code by the participants were also providing a list of games.


After redefining themes and merging codes a final visualization diagram was produced, a flow chart diagram to showcase how the process of game flow work. When a player starts the game to engaging early game level/tutorials whilst dealing with ‘Distractions’.

All this leads to the ‘Preparedness’ of the player by the end of the tutorial/early levels, the amount they have learned and understand about the game will influence how prepared to properly engage the game they are playing.

‘Tutorials are necessary’ is a sub theme, a realization by participants who came to accept that some aspects of the game they played were necessarily required to have a tutorial to help explain specific information. Whilst it doesn’t always apply, the fact that it is always possible to happen justifies to keep its presence.


Psychological Lens

Following the analysis of the participant response data, five final themes of ‘Good game flow’ remained after reviewing, dissolving and merging codes. Per the findings of the analysis, ‘Good game flow’ provides the optimal learning experience so as long as distractions are prevented from intruding and are controlled.

The final focus is to now perform a final analysis of each of these ‘Good game flow’ themes through a psychological lens, to explain the process in these supported themes of good game flow and the reasons why ‘Distractions’ can ruin the learning experience.


Short message preference

This theme generated from one of the questions in the interview process, ‘When learning in games, how much do you prefer to read?’

This question was conceived from George Fan presentation (Fan, 2012) tip called ‘Use Fewer Words’, it was first queried back in CT7PCODE when trying to understand the basis behind what Fan was trying to explain.

Fan simply explained his rule for using no more than 8 words a sentence, to improve people’s ability to understand what’s being said. A look into explanations of brevity and readability formula only provided evidence to prove whether a written piece of text is difficult to read or not.

This led to including the previously mentioned question into the interview, the aim to acquire the insight of participants and what they preferred. The results proved the most prominent answer was short messages, participants expressed that they prefer, for instance what Participant C said about instructions;

“Initially needs to be short, concise and give a general idea of what needs to be done in the level and allow the player to experiment... “

This example perfectly portrays the overall popular answer given by the participants; players want information given to them in an effective and efficient manner. In contrast reasons that affected their learning experience was also similar, Participant F explained their preferences and reasons;

“A detailed paragraph in the case of a new item because a sentence or 2 may be not enough but the whole text on a screen may be too much for you to digest and understand what’s been required then, so I’d say a detailed paragraph to explain the uses of something so then they got a good idea of how it works and you could potentially use it.”

This can relate to focus and attention, wherein a person is processing information in a task.

Not everyone is freely capable to read large blocks of text without the issue of losing focus,

Participant I made note of this by saying, “Large chunks of text ‘takes you out of the moment’”.

A bombardment of information, this can use quite a lot of cognitive effort for people, making them anxious or distracted and ruining their learning experience. Worse yet the participants mentioned their dislike for the inability to skip messages, so if a game badly presents new information that they may not need, the player will be forced to read it or lose focus in the game.


Daniel Kahneman theorized a very relevant scenario when elaborating his explanation of attention and effort;

“…the schoolboy who pays attention is not merely wide awake, activated by his teacher's voice. He is performing work, expending his limited resources, and the more attention he pays, the harder he works. The example suggests that the intensive aspect of attention corresponds to effort rather than to mere wakefulness. In its physiological manifestations effort is a special case of arousal, but there is a difference between effort and other varieties of arousal, such as those produced by drugs or by loud noises: the effort that a subject invests at anyone time corresponds to what he is doing, rather than to what is happening to him” (Kahneman, 1973)

To listen and perform is work for a learner and this specifically will occur during early games levels/tutorials that are aiming to teach them, so they must be carefully designed in providing this new information to them. Word amount must be used efficiently to help maintain a player’s attention and word usage being respectful to the player to prevent irrelevant information from patronizing or misinforming them.

Attention is what allows us the ability to selectively process but people are still susceptible to distraction by other forms, this alludes to working memory load; for example games provide many sensory stimuli both visually and audibly;

“Moreover, in a dual-task setting, high working memory load sometimes makes a separate, concurrent task more susceptible to distraction from irrelevant information and sometimes less susceptible depending on the relation between the task material and distracting material.” (Sörqvist, Stenfelt, & Rönnberg, 2012)

Therefore after assessing what the participant data provided, reviewing their preferences and the issues they had, a conclusion can be understood behind Fan’s ‘Use Fewer Words’ tip.

By properly maintaining the presentation of written information player attention won’t falter. Certain factors such as effort required in reading and understanding the terminology will have to be reviewed, considering target audience should be its biggest influence but with newcomers in mind as well.

One notable example of a game that manages to provide the optimal method in providing written information to players was Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (Nintendo EAD, 2002). Suggested by Participant A, throughout the game it provides written information about interactivity, new items and weapons in a discreet manner.



Nothing forces the player to interact with items early on; the game provides unobtrusive prompts throughout to help inform the player what button to press to engage with items it they get up close.

Participant A made a note that when a player retrieves a new item.

‘Where when an item is found it will give a brief explanation for what it does and that’s it, from that basic instruction it’s up to the player to figure out the rest. Quick, easy to read, skippable text.’


Aiming to improve player enjoyment should bring the benefit of improved attention; this was mentioned by literacy and learning researcher, James Paul Gee. He was inspired by helping his six year old son with a game Gee started an analysis and created a list of learning principles from good games; In relevance was one of the principles from his analysis -  Information ‘On Demand’ and ‘Just in Time’.

“Principle: Human beings are quite poor at using verbal information (i.e. words) when given lots of it out of context and before they can see how it applies in actual situations. They use verbal information best when it is given ‘just in time’ (when they can put it to use) and ‘on demand’ (when they feel they need it).” (Gee, Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning and Literacy, 2007)

Short message preference contributes to the optimal learning experience by preventing; large blocks of text from interfering in a player’s attention,  maintaining visuals and auditory stimuli to prevent loss of focus and granting the player the ability to skip text. Therefore, the effectiveness of Fan’s 8 word rule can be understood with the context of how reading affects a player and why early levels/tutorials should accommodate.



Doesn’t feel like a tutorial

One of the key points suggested during the research corpus in CT7PCODE was a designer’s dilemma.

The issue being that the game necessarily needs to teach players about what it is, how to play it and preparing them for the actual game, in parallel the process needs to keep the players invested and engaged.

Participants expressed their positivity about being taught about the game, but not with the sense of knowing they were being taught, for example Participant J’s response in regards to the start of Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011);

“It throws you straight into the action so that you’re not stuck in a condescending train exercises, you are faced straight up with a dragon and you are taught via one person who gives you dialogue as opposed to/ as well as on screen pop ups, so if you missed the dialogue you can still read ‘press A to do this’, ‘press trigger to shoot with a bow‘.


Learning under direct instruction can be an issue to control, although Participant J clearly describes how it can be performed appropriately. Specifically with Skyrim, the dialogue coincides when engaging action in real time, by searching for loot, equipping armour and weapons and engaging in combat – all in the aim of getting the player accustomed to the gameplay.

Does that mean the learning process happens through an experience?

A look into the behavioural perspective should provide some insight;

“According to the behaviorists, learning can be defined as the relatively permanent change in behavior brought about as a result of experience or practice…

The focus of the behavioral approach is on how the environment impacts overt behaviour”. (Huitt & Hummel, 2006)

Behavioural learning theories categorize differently but here is a general observation;

Early game levels/tutorials can provide stimulating experiences with action based events, much like what happened with the Skyrim experience.

The events that take place will ‘condition’ the player, they will learn from their own actions (overt behaviour) and apply that to future events within the game.

There can potentially be other ways in understanding how a game can teach; implicit learning was queried back in CT7PCODE as a potential answer behind learning, in a manner of non-intentional learning - compared to instructional external learning ;

“…the ability to adapt to environmental constraints–to learn–in the absence of any knowledge about how the adaptation is achieved. Implicit learning–laxly defined as learning without awareness–is seemingly ubiquitous in everyday life.” (Frensch & Rünger, 2003)

Whilst there are similarities to behavioural learning theories, implicit learning branches from cognitive psychology, the rational thinking and mental processes of the human mind.

 “…implicit learning is taken to be an elementary ability of cognitive systems to extract the structure existing in the environment, regardless of their intention to do so.” (Jiménez, 2003)

However, during the analysis of this project participants have expressed the problems they have with games that teach in this manner, specifically such issues as halting of progress which consists of several negative distractions.

It is based on 4 preliminarily themes;

  • Pop up messages
  • Unable to Skip Messages
  • Constant Pauses/Stops
  • Forced Videos/Cut scenes

Participants expressed their annoyance with these specific themes would disrupt the flow of their game, ultimately ‘halting their progress’, Participant I provided a well-rounded explanation;

“If they go on for too long or the main one for me is ‘very stop-starty’ where they will tell you that you need to do something and then when you do it will immediately stop and then bring up another bunch of text saying ‘well done here’s the next thing’ and then put you back into the game, just let it flow.”


This process occurs in another manner, the distraction theme defined as ‘Hand-Holding’, but to explain what this phenomenon is would require several instances of what the participants have said. It was mentioned numerous times in the interview process, when most participants would happily use the term ‘Hand-Holding’ as it was a general term, so with use of follow up questions they were asked to provide their definitions.

Participant E held a negative opinion in regards to hand-holding and how they were treated;

“It’s when a game barely gives you any time to move or explore in your own leisure to find out things and forces you to do it one way.”

Participant G gave a more literal explanation as to what hand-holding is;

“Where a game takes control away from the player in order to teach them something, so it will disable all the other buttons except the one you’re meant to press at that moment.”

Furthermore, there was a lengthy response by Participant A when describing the reasons behind their choice of level ‘1-1’ in Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo R&D4, 1985) as a positive experience. They outright provide an interesting personal analysis, potentially revealing how this game provides one of the greatest examples of ‘Doesn’t feel like a tutorial’, but then also provided their analysis of ‘hand-holding’ when queried with a follow up question.

“The fact that it didn’t feel like a tutorial. The fact that it didn’t give you any ‘hand holding’ instructions such as a message popping up on the screen telling ‘you must press the A button to jump’. Instead the game lets you figure that out for yourself by putting you in a situation where you are in no harm if you try to experiment with the controls.”

Follow-up question: What do you consider ‘Hand holding’?

“A position where the game puts you in a no fail state in order for you to specifically learn the controls, it’s sort of in a limbo from the rest of the game, where you have the game and it takes you away into this ‘little arena’ or a ‘bubble’. Where it’s just ‘Ok now we’re going to teach you how to play the game’, whereas you could have just dropped me in the beginning area and let me figure it out myself as I go along. So in that way people who already know the controls can just get on with it, as opposed to being forced into a mandatory tutorial.“

The designers of the game, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka participated in an interview about the creation of the first level, Miyamoto explained that;

“…we wanted the player to gradually and naturally understand what they&

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