Tutorials: Digital and Tabletop game design perspectives


1. Introduction

In his book “What digital games have to teach us about literacy and learning” James Paul Gee spends a fair amount of time discussing the need for tutorials in digital games. Without restating entirely his insight, Gee mentions that vernacular games in capitalistic societies are motivated in the most need-based, goal-oriented way possible to teach their players how to play the game effectively.

And this is a challenge. In tabletop settings, generally a more experienced player will guide the others through the rules and play of a game that is new to them. The experienced player is able to answer individual-specific questions in a dynamic way that fit the exact needs of the new player. Digital-games on the other hand, don’t have (or don’t always have) that social experience. The game designer can’t depend on a more experienced player sitting next to the new player, guiding them through the game. Instead, the game designer must develop a tutorial within the game design itself that will guide the new player through the mechanics and story of the game without any appeal to outside help.

For language learners however, both tabletop and digital game tutorials may be difficult to fully understand or internalize. Perhaps for linguistic or genre-based reasons, learners may not have sufficient help to gain control over the required game mechanics and goals (i.e. the tutorial may be outside the learners ZPD). There are many ways to go about bridging this divide as a teacher, but here I want to explore some of the ways that games, both digital and tabletop, go about tutorializing. And from there, examine the affordances that those tutorials create for language learning.

First we’ll look at digital-based game tutorial design and then use that framework to compare with tabletop games.

2. Digital Game Tutorials

In this section, I want to set up and describe a few tutorials in digital games that I think are both very effective and common to a certain degree. I won’t be comprehensive here. Digital game tutorials, as described above, have one very big hurdle to jump that makes them a good place to start when thinking about how to teach players (and also students) a game.

In general, digital-game tutorials are tasked-based, or, they teach the player by letting the play do, not listen. Generally, like in Hyper-light Drifter, Digital games throw the player into the game directly (with or perhaps without an opening cinematic hook) and let them run through a Bridging Activities Cycle: 1) explore the (relatively) safe tutorial space where they can use the primary mechanics of the game 2) examine specific puzzles that require one of the mechanics to solve a simple puzzle and 3) extend that knowledge into more complex puzzles.

I’ll describe these task-based tutorials from a couple of angles, using games like Call of Duty, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and a favorite of mine Firewatch.

2.1 The FPS – Call of Duty model


First person shooters (FPS) like HaloCall of Duty and many others try to simulate the feel of the game within its narrative context. So, in Halo, you start out waking up in your combat suit and your first tasks are to make sure the suit is working well for some scientists and engineers. They ask you to perform simple movement tasks. there is no time-limit or stress, the player either successfully does the movement task, or the game waits. Once the player learns the movement controls, some narrative event occurs (a disater or emergency usually), which forces the player to learn the other mechanical controls (jump, sprint, duck shoot etc), also usually in an environment without a fail state.

The player then enters a real game situation, performing all the basic tasks they will need for the rest of the game in an environment that can fail, but which is not at the same difficulty level as the rest of the game.

Developers, it seems, try hard to create plausible narrative contexts in which they tutor the player in the beginning of the game. One of the best examples of this, I think, is Call of Duty (at least the earlier games). Before going off to war, the player has to complete basic training. The player runs obstacle courses, does live fire training on a range and so on. Once the player proves they are capable, the game starts after shipping the player off to their theater of war. In this way, there is some narrative or understandable reason for why the game is easier in the beginning.

2.1. Flipping the FPS model – Star Wars: The Force Unleashed


More recently, some FPS games like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed amongst others, have taken the simplified tutorial and flipped it around. Instead of starting the player off with the most basic skills in a simplified environment, SW:TFU starts the player off as the fully-developed, final form of their player-avatar. In other words, all the end-game abilities are available to the player and they are left to discover the awesomeness of that character, which maybe won’t be available to them when they start the game proper. By over-powering the player in the tutorial, the game doesn’t need to provide baby-steps or worry too much about the player succeeding. Their overpowered character and abilities will be enough. Additionally, the gives the player a taste of what’s to come and a feeling to chase while they play the game from the early levels.

2.2 Text-heavy – Firewatch


One option that some narrative-based games like Firewatch take, is a text or story-heavy tutorial. This borrows from the more classic tabletop experience where players sit together to read over the rules and mechanics of the game. Most new games avoid this style anymore, but as Firewatch shows, it can still be put to some use. Which I hope to show.

Firewatch, as we’ve detailed before, is a narrative-heavy game in which one of the primary mechanics is listening to a character talk to you over a hand-held radio (i.e. no visual cues). This conversation mechanic works by having the player 1) listen 2) choose a response and 3) listen to the result. From this the player derives clues and story from the game world. Importantly however, the player only has a certain amount of time in which to respond, much like a real conversation, before the game closes the option to respond. It’s a neat little conversation-simulator.

The tutorial, then, needs to emphasize in some way the conversation aspect of one of the main mechanics, in a way that isn’t too punishing. Firewatch does this by providing the backstory to the player-avatar through a simple text quest. The game provides simple exposition, and the player then chooses between 2 or 3 options. This works for a couple of reasons. First, it introduces the player to the game, characters and story. Second, it gives the player a sense of ownership over the main character by giving them agency in deciding who the player-avatar is. And third, it present a primary mechanic of the game in a simplified form.

3. Tabletop Game Tutorials

As I hope to show, tabletop tutorials are in some ways very different than digital-games, and may require different approaches when used for language learning. As a caveat, I’ll note that I’m not making categorical judgments when I describe a specific game and provide a “tutorial activity” recommendation. Of course, the approach taken at the level of specific activities should be motivated by theoretical considerations (here we are assuming a socio-cultural theoretic approach through the Bridging Activities Model) and the practical considerations of things like: age of learners, experience in gaming, number of students, access to the internet and so on.

With that, I’m going to talk about three broad categories of tabletop games in regard to the tutorial process: simple, complex and digital-like

3.1 Simple – Sushi Go


Some games, many of which are designed for children, require very little tutorializing in order to begin playing the game at the intended level. A great game that I have used with very young (1st and 2nd graders) elementary school students is Sushi Go!. In this game, players are at a sushi restaurant that uses a conveyor belt to present delicious sushi dishes to you. But of course, everyone else at the restaurant wants to have the most delicious sushi dinner possible too! You are then in competition with everyone else at the “restaurant” to eat the best sushi.

Sushi Go‘s primary mechanics beautifully match this narrative: players have three simple tasks: 1) hold a hand of cards 2) choose one to play in front of you 3) pass your hand of cards to the person beside you and repeat. The playing of the game is, then, very simple and it can basically be taught to very young children in a step-by-step process that involves all players at the same time and doesn’t require that the players necessarily strategize the first time they play. It’s very possible to simply choose a card blindly without any idea why.

At the end of the game, the cards you have in front of you combine in certain ways that will score you points. Good combinations are worth more points, and the person who scores the most points has eaten the most delicious sushi dinner. The game plays fast such that losing the first game does not feel like a waste of time and once you see the points add up at the end of the game, the second game can be played more strategically.

Sushi Go allows players to just jump into the playing of the game, even if you are not a gamer yourself or do not have any experience playing card games. Instead of listening to someone read out the rules, or expound on game mechanics and strategy, it is perhaps even better to just start playing the game from the very start.

3.2 Complex – Coup


But this “just jump in” method may not work for all games. In particular, games that require holding more than one rule in your mind at a time or knowing how two or more rules interact at a time may be frustrating to simply jump into for new gamers or people without much experience playing the genre of the game.

Coup is a game I think might fit this description. Coup is a semi-complex game, but one that can be quickly played and doesn’t have a huge list of rules. Young children can learn the rules fairly quickly without too much explaination (see here for an example). In Coup, each player is a oligarch in a dystopian near-future earth where corporations run the governments on earth. As a powerful oligarch in this world, you want to overthrow or defeat your oligarch-rivals (the other players). Of course, you don’t do this through battle or war; instead, you use characters that are loyal to you to diminish the influence of your rivals.

These characters are represented through five different character cards, of which, you can have influence over two at any given time. The catch of course, is that nobody except you knows which two characters you influence at that time, meaning you can lie about your influence. The game goes in a turn-based rotation. Each turn you have a list of possible actions that you can do from the very beginning of the game. In addition, some of the actions can be counteracted by other players.

This turn-based feature, for new gamers, or unfamiliar gamers, can be overwhelming when the game starts and it is your turn. What do you do? Why? For second-language learners, this could be too overwhelming and may ruin your experience of the game. If, when in front of your entire class of peers, you don’t know what to do.

One solution around this problem is to just watch the game be played (or at least just a few turns of the game) by others. This is, in fact, how many people learn about new games all the time. Youtube channels like “Tabletop” do playthroughs of interesting games and a huge audience of people watch every game. This community activity can be brought into the classroom through a task-based activity to help students learn the game very quickly. One reason this is possible is that Coup is a very quick game. It is more than possible to watch the beginning of a game, set up a game and play a game within an hour.

3.3 A hybrid-approach: One Night Werewolf


Complexity, however, is not simply a reason to avoid going step-by-step or just “jumping into” the game. And games like One Night Werewolf are I think, a good opportunity, given the correct class orientation.

One Night Werewolf is a quick game that requires all players to know basically what goes on in the game and requires an English Langauge learner to be able to respond to specific instructions in a fairly quick time period. However, not all players are required to know all the rules the first time they play through it. Let’s explain:

ONW works like Mafia or Werewolf, in that it is a social deduction game that is split into two phases, day and night. The difference, made obivious from the title, is that ONW only has a single night and day phase. Like the traditional games, in the beginning, every player is given a specific role and team. Some characters have specific roles and actions that can be played in the game and some do not. At night, each character “wakes up” individually while the rest of the players “sleep” or keep their eyes closed. The woken player then does some action in the game (like trading two other players cards) and then goes to sleep. After ever character with a night role is finished, all players wake up and try to discover who the werewolves are. See here for an example:

The game is complex and has a lot of moving parts, but part of the fun is actually learning what happens when character roles interact. So, in the beginning, players can learn one role and perform that, without needing to know too much about the rest of the game.

When teaching students how to play ONW then, if they seem well oriented to playing the game and ready to go, it makes plenty of sense to simply deal out the cards to each player and explain the game. I would probably also let the players hear the night directions (which are played on a smart phone) once before and then, before the students actually play, the teacher can let any players, if they need to, read through the character rule sheet one more time.

This opportunity to read a short paragraph is one of the most effective reading and learning activities I’ve ever witnessed. Students are highly motivated to 1) read with intention and 2) read with understanding. They truly want to know what each word means and how it relates to their action at night.

Once everyone is ready, the game starts. One great part of ONW is that most of the roles involve a “may” and not a “must” command, meaning that if you’re the robber, and you miss your turn, that is ok. You can say, “oh, I just decided not to switch”. Or you can lie that you did and see what happens. From the tutorial perspective though, unsuccessful night-play is almost as fun as successful-night play. In that, the point of the game is to figure out just what exactly happened, whether or not it conforms to the expected rules or not.

After playing a game or two, it would be great to then show what a community-created playthrough looks like and examine it for useful language to use during the day-phase.

3.4 Digital-like – Legacy games: Charterstone


Tabletop tutorials then, can be a bit more tricky than digital-game tutorials, where the game design itself is guiding you through the learning process. However, some tabletop games are beginning to incorporate more digital-game-like methods in teaching players how to play. One such game is Charterstone, a new worker-placement legacy game.

Legacy tabletop games bring variety and newness to a game medium that traditionally relies on a repeatable story and mechanics. In legacy tabletop games, each play through by players fundamentally changes the game. In Pandemic: Legacy for example, where you play as a group of world health professionals, fighting off a global disease epidemic, if a player-character is in a city where an epidemic outbreaks, they receive a “scar”, which adds some extra, usually bad, effect to your player. If a single player character receives three scars… they actually die and the game rules state that you should literally, physically, tear that card up.

These things happen over several game-plays and occur emergently through player-game interaction, meaning what happens with your playgroup won’t likely happen anywhere else, in any other play through.

Charterstone, takes the emergent gameplay of a legacy game like Pandemic, but reveals even the mechanics of the game slowly, over the course of the 12 games it takes to complete the narrative. In this way Charterstone reveals new mechanics and game rules slowly but also in a way that has a meaningful impact on the game. What was important in one game will be fundamentally changed in the next game.

This type of rule and mechanic revealing is, for language teaching, digital-like. Charterstone is a complex and competitive game, but players shouldn’t have an expert playing the game with them, as that would be fundamentally unfair to the newer players. The game-design itself intends to guide the players through the game step-by-step, much like digital-games.


Some have complained that the rules are unclear game to game, but that, also, this seems to be by design. This vagueness or lack of clarity makes its similar to games like ONW, where playing the game even without understanding it is ok. Charterstone asks players to start the game without complete understanding as a game-design choice, which is a good lesson for all language learners and an interesting mechanic itself.

4. Conclusion


Digital and tabletop games, as different as they are, have learned a lot from each other in terms of game design and content. Though the way they tutorialize presents interesting challenges for each medium that I think teachers should be aware of and, importantly, take advantage of when they use them for L2TL.

James Paul Gee says in the beginning of his book on digital games that he isn’t interested in games in-themselves as pinnacles of teaching and learning. Instead, his idea is much bigger. Games have solved, or seem to solve, a very difficult puzzle. Namely, how to teach people something without making that learning boring, repetitious or infuriating. A task many schools, simply, fail at. For James Paul Gee then, the reason to investigate (and to use) games in learning is not that games are simply the best way to learn, but that by their design they have found a way to teach players their mechanics and the way to beat it.

Teachers, then, can learn a lot about teaching from game-design, whether or not they use a game to teach.

In the same way, the way games tutorialize can have a big impact in the way we as teachers introduce new ideas to students. In particular, and in contrast to much teaching method, the best game tutorials present the player with the completed form of the task from the beginning and they provide specific instances to use the specific mechanics without forcing the player to do one thing or another, but instead let the player explore the game world until they accomplish the specific task in front of them.

Failure also, in the best game tutorials, is part of the fun of the experience and actually encourages the player to try it again, instead of demotivating them. Discovering the how game mechanics or the story emerges from interaction is itself a design principle. All of which have implications for the way we teach or introduce topics to our students, regardless of whether or not we are playing games.

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