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Things I've Learned About Game Design From Teenagers
by Jacek Wesolowski on 03/08/11 08:05:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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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Shelby Smith
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Loving this. As a student in high school I can say that you hit the nail on the head. There's nothing I hate more than not having hands-on experiences while learning. Games, one of the only art mediums that can provide it, don't do it often enough.

Joe McGinn
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>> Accessibility is not about making stuff simple. Accessibility is about making simple transitions. <<

Great line. I'm going to use it (with attribution, if you don't mind?) in a level design workshop I'm doing next week. Your principle explains why Nintendo games like Mario are popular with an incredible age range, from 6-year-old kids to grown up hardcore games. They don't simplify. But the transitions are (the point where you have to combine your previous knowledge or ability with a new move, or a new trap, or some other gameplay mechanic). They combine the "simple transitions" with their open world reward mechanic: collect stars any way you want, and you only need half of them to beat the game. Together it's an unbeatable combination for access to a wide audience who will all enjoy the game.

Stephen Chin
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Agreed; I think some tend to see 'accessibility' and automatically take it to mean simple (as in, people are dumb so for everyone to enjoy it, it must be dumb too) rather than as Jacek said, accessibility meaning about making the transitions simple and introducing things not as arbitrary "You must know this because I told you to" but giving them the context and reasoning behind it.

The major thing is that the self-identified gamer at this point tends to forget that they've had years of experience (social, play, and what have you) to develop a mastery of gaming. Those newer haven't yet that mastery to even begin to do something. It's like someone who has been building race cars for 50 years; they're simply going to be at a different level of knowledge than most people and probably not always be aware that they're thinking at that level.

Wylie Garvin
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There's also the "other" kind of accessibility: accomodating gamers with various disabilities. Sometimes even small changes can make a difference for many players. For example, something like 8% of males have some form of color blindness, so indicating some status to the player using JUST the color of text or icon, is usually a bad idea. Different text can help, but you can also use sound cues, flashing effects, etc. to convey different states (think of your player's shield/health thing in the Halo games, when the bar is drained it flashes and there is audible feedback too).