Thoughts on Learning and Teaching in Games

The aspect of guide writing that has continued to fascinate me is presenting information in a way that brand new players can digest it, and balancing that with providing a resource for experienced players.

As a someone who regularly attempts to teach herself many things, presenting information in an interesting and learnable state has become increasingly important to me, and I’d like to extend that courtesy to when I am trying to teach others. Here are the things I’ve learned.

Reference vs. Tutorial

In games, the tendency is to overload with information. Whenever I play a new MMO or start a new character, I often find a place like Icy-Veins with lots of information, but end up getting overwhelmed with facts when all I really want to know is how to get by, not how to go from 0 to 60. Information overload is what you want if you know what you’re doing already and just need to polish your skills or remind yourself of something, but it’s not ideal for everyone. Teaching guides require a different set up than Reference guides.

This is something I struggle with quite a bit. Where a beginner’s guide would need to brief in certain areas, a reference needs to include all available information. Where a beginner’s guide needs some extra explanation, a reference needs to be easily scannable.

Guides need to cover the basics, and not assume the reader already knows.

This is hard, especially in an environment that communicates so often via acronyms. I always try to use Wowhead links and completely spell out acronyms to help with this, but that’s not always basic enough.

As someone who’s been playing this game for eight years, it can be hard to remember what it was like to be completely new. Playing other MMOs sort of reminds me of the knowledge I take for granted, like movement, hit, dodge, crit, frontal parry, threat, vengeance, etc. There’s a lot of subtle stuff out there and not much that actually explains it.

Take small steps, both for attention and retention…

People have short attention spans. There’s no point in complaining about it, it’s just how our brains work. I try to break the Brewmaster rotation up into small steps, with hopes that someone new can read the beginner section in a minute or two, then go play around with it.

Attention ties closely with retention. We all remember (and largely ignored) the warnings in school not to cram before a test because you can’t remember as much. Ideally, information should be broken up in to small bites with plenty of natural stopping points.

…Followed by small application.

Learning happens through multiple avenues. Reading is important to build a foundation, but you’re only going to really “get” it after doing. Back to my original Brewmaster beginner’s guide, I recommended a “do” step after each section. That’s important (though I doubt people actually did it), because it breaks up the words and introduces safe places to practice.

Present the same thing multiple ways.

As for doing this in guides, it can be done by presenting information through different mediums. For example, a written medium, then picture or video, then… something else.

It can also include saying the same thing in different ways.

Practicing in multiple places/environments.

This is something I’m learning about dog training, and from what I’ve read about humans, we work in a similar way (but don’t like to acknowledge it). After all, if you’ve mastered tanking in PvE, it feels stupid to say you should practice the same exact thing in PvP. But our brains retain information only selectively and tend to struggle with applying identical information in different places.

Positive Reinforcement

Another place where humans and dogs learn similarly! This is the heart behind Gamification, the phenomenon of applying rewards to achievements in real life, no matter how small.

It seems so stupid, but things like a textual “Good job!” after completing a small step does a lot. Build those up, and you start to associate a good feeling with doing that task, and you start to like it.

Tasks need to be accomplishable.

This is related to information overload. If you just rolled a Brewmaster and are suddenly confronted with all the intricacies of Stagger, it’s going to be difficult to understand. If it’s too much, that ends up being discouraging and you might just stop there.

Simplification and the Spherical horse

Some skills aren’t necessary for beginners. Often the best way to teach something is to start out with a simplified model and build off it it. Usually, that means the beginner model isn’t exactly proper, but in situations where the proper model is overwhelming, it’s necessary. For example, beginners just don’t need to worry about Stagger and Purifying Brew, and it is something they can safely ignore while learning, even though the mechanic is really important later on.

In physics classes, there was a joke about assuming all equations involved a spherical horse. That’s an unrealistic assumption, but the simplified model is necessary if you want freshman students to grasp basic concepts, without bringing in high level concepts years beyond their expertise.

Simplified view is all that most people need.

To take it a step further, most people don’t need to min-max in WoW. They want to do well, but the difference between doing 90% maximum potential and 100% maximum potential is small in practice. Not everyone cares to know the amount of dodge you get per point, or how passive damage reduction bonuses stack. And that’s perfectly acceptable.


Presentation is important to maintain interest. This can include many things, like use of pictures and white space to break up material. It’s only indirectly related to learning, but really important.

Lacking knowledge does not imply lacking intelligence.

There’s often a tendency to assume beginners are stupid. I often get frustrated when asked the same question over and over again, thinking “Why can’t people just read it on my blog”, but that’s not a good reaction. Imagine being a beginner, where you don’t even know where to find good information, the right keywords to google, or the terminology surrounding the question. What if you’re brand new to MMOs and the words “brewmaster rotation” don’t make sense to you? What if you think you understand the rotation, but missed out on a key lesson, such as the relative un-importance of Purifying Brew?

This is just a reminder (to myself) to begin with the assumption that the person you’re talking to cares and is eager to learn, but might need guidance. Sometimes that’s not true, but at least when it comes to teaching video game stuff, it’s a good place to start.