If at first you don’t succeed

……try and try again. That’s what my mama told me, and it’s also the lesson that one gets from playing video games. The frustration that one gets from trying and failing in a video game can make you so mad you want to spit fire, but the elation and sense of satisfaction that one gets after accomplishing a goal or completing a level is an awesome experience. And in this process of trial and error, the shift from failure to success, the player learns a little something about the game and about themselves. Can we harness this power of video games and apply it to library tutorials or other learning resources? Can such an experience be transferred from an entertainment medium to a real-world learning application? In this post, I’ll attempt to talk about what makes a great game, and how we can borrow from games to make engaging library tutorials.

I’ve recently experienced this frustration and elation with a game that I am currently playing called Resident Evil 4. Resident Evil 4 is like the other Resident Evil games in which you basically play as a character who has to kill a bunch of zombies. The story and gameplay of Resident Evil 4 is a little more complex than that, but killing bad zombie-like folks and monstrous creatures is the main idea of the game. Until very recently, I had not played the game very much. I found the game to be terribly frustrating and put the game away without even having cleared the first level. In the first level of the game, before you really get comfortable with the controls, your character, Leon, must kill a mob of about 20 zombies. Each zombie wields an axe, sickle, pitchfork, or other weapon that can slice and dice Leon. There are even a couple of zombies who come after you with chainsaws! The zombies are smart, and will attempt to surround you in the middle of the village. If you run away, they throw their pitchforks at you. When I first got the game, I tried and died, tried and died, and tried and died. I eventually got fed up with seeing the “You are dead” screen, so I put the game on the bookshelf where it collected dust for a few months.

One evening this week I tried the game again, and guess what? Of course, I died again several more times. Each time poor old Leon’s death seemed to get a little more gruesome. Finally, I sought help from a GameFAQ Walkthrough, which suggested that my gung-ho way of marching to the center of the village to kill zombies would most likely continue to lead to Leon’s demise. Instead, the FAQ advised that Leon should get the attention of the angry mob, and then run into the nearest house. By doing this, Leon can avoid being surrounded, and he can fend off the zombies individually as they attempt to enter the house. I tried this, and of course, I let Leon down again. However, after a few more attempts, I managed to defeat the mob, even after running out of bullets and exhausting almost all of Leon’s health. Nevertheless, I finally defeated the mob, and Leon hobbled on to the next level. I saved the game, and I never have to play that level again if I don’t want to.

Now why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to this kind of frustration? Why would anyone play a videogame that required seeking help from an online FAQ? What is it about a video game that keeps players coming back? How can we incorporate some of these things into library tutorials or instruction? My best attempt at answering these questions is below.

I think the story is one of the most important elements of any game. Others will argue that graphics and gameplay are more important, but I think it really depends on the style of game. The plot is what grabs your attention from the beginning and keeps you playing to find out more. These days games are a lot more story intensive than the Atari 2600 games of old. With Resident Evil 4, the game unfolds as you progress. I’m not very far into the game, but I keep wondering what is going to happen next. I’m also wondering when I will find out why all of these zombie-like villagers keep trying to pierce Leon with pitchforks.

It’s the story that keeps things interesting, and it also helps to immerse the player into the game. With library tutorials, having a story can help to keep the learner engaged. Now library tutorials don’t necessarily need a complicated plot with twists and turns, but the user needs to know up front what he or she will get out of the tutorial and how the information is relevant to what he or she is doing. You might call the storyline in a tutorial “learning outcomes” or “goals,” but whatever you call them, they need to be clear from the start. In other words, what will the user be able to do once they finish the tutorial’s story?

Graphics can do a lot in making the player feel more a part of the game. The graphics of current and next-gen video games are becoming more true-to-life, allowing for an even more immersive experience. Now there’s only so much one can do with a web tutorial regardless of whether it is static html pages or Flash driven content. I’m no graphic artist, so there is no way that I can make a tutorial that has truly beautiful images. What I can do however, is to give my best effort in choosing and using the best images for the story of the tutorial. In other words, the screen capture or video or whatever needs to be relevant to the learning outcomes of the tutorial. For web-based tutorials, extra graphics or slides can add to the download time. If it is not relevant, it’s just in the way.

Controlling the Game
Gameplay control obviously contributes a great deal to the experience of a video game. One can go on and on about what makes a great playing game, and this will vary for the individual gamer and by the type of game. The gameplay controls for a sports game like Madden will be very different than an action-adventure game like Resident Evil. In general, the controls of quality games will be fairly intuitive and consistent. Resident Evil is not a terribly complex game, but the player will use about 5 different buttons while battling off an angry mob. The controls are fairly easy to grasp and are consistent to use. Most games of this genre will have an action button (in this case, the X button on the PS2) that does a variety of actions. Depending on the situation, this button can be used to pick up objects, shoot Leon’s gun, slash with his knife, jump out windows, and even sprint away from a giant rolling boulder. The developers of the game could have chosen to use a different button for each tack (much like Madden), but fortunately, Resident Evil (thus far) controls in a very consistent manner. Likewise, our library tutorials need to have consistent controls. Granted, controlling a tutorial is not as complex as playing a fast-moving video game, but consistency of control can make the learning experience a lot better. An example of this is using different colored text or arrows to tell the user when they are supposed to listen (or read) versus when they are supposed to complete an action. If a red arrow means an action is required, a user will expect that some sort of input is needed in order to advance.

Variety of Gameplay
Another feature that makes for a good game is the variety of gameplay. While the main task of Resident Evil is to kill the bad villagers, the game does contain submissions. (I’m not far enough into the game to go into details here). Even a game like Madden, which is solely focused on football, has a variety of gameplay options. One can play franchise, own a team, do drills in the off season, build a stadium, and even build a player. Even with the variety of gameplay, the controls remain consistent. Likewise, tutorials need to have a variety of options for the user. A good tutorial will incorporate both demonstration and interactive elements, and it should be easy for the user to tell whether he or she is to do something or just listen. Software like Captivate and Camtasia make it fairly easy for librarians to create demonstrations, but it does take a good deal of thought and planning to make an interactive learning experience.

Sense of Challenge
Good games are challenging, but not too challenging. Resident Evil thus far has been pretty challenging, and I’m only a couple of hours into it. I did get frustrated with the game, but if I had kept at it (rather than acting like a big baby and ignoring it), I would have eventually beaten the level and overcome that frustration. If a game is too easy, it gets boring after a while. A game that is too easy can be a chore to play, as often if just feels like you’re watching the game go through the motions. Likewise, a tutorial needs to be challenging, but not so difficult that it causes the user to be frustrated. At the same time, the game needs to let the user know why he or she is facing the challenges. The challenges, for example, a quiz question, needs to address the plot of the tutorial (or the learning outcomes, if you will). In other words, don’t have a quiz question in there just because you can. Any challenge that the user faces needs to relate to the overall learning objectives of the tutorial.

Satisfaction of Success
Finally, good games make the player feel like the have really accomplished something after completing a level or defeating a boss. The player has overcome the challenges of part of the game, dealt with his or her frustration, and learned how to accomplish a goal through trial and error. This can really make the gamer come back for more action. After I got past the level that I was stuck on, I wanted to play the game all night long. However, with a two-year-old and a two-month-old, I knew that is was in my best interest to go to bed at my bedtime. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the next time I’ve got a few minutes to play and meet the next challenge (or pitchfork) those villagers can throw at me.

Do our tutorials have the same appeal as video games? After completing the tutorial for Academic Search Premier, will a student long for the tutorial on Lexis Nexis or the catalog? I highly doubt it, and I doubt that our tutorials can elicit the same response that a video game can. However, I do think that by playing video games, librarians and instructional designers can learn a great deal from them. In studying these games, we can become better at creating interactive and engaging instructional content that will help our users learn. We may not be able to create a video game about library research (at least not yet), we can still borrow from video games and produce better tutorials.

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