What Games Don’t Teach pt II: Controller Woes

When Matt and I first started talking about videogames and education, one of the things that came up most prominently on his side was the idea of instructor illiteracy. Even if you can sell an instructor on the value of videogames for their teaching, there’s still the pragmatic obstacle posed by how foreign the medium is to many. Yes, teaching is a learning process for both students and instructors, admitting novice status can be a learning moment, etc etc. At the end of the day, teaching something you aren’t comfortable with yourself is much harder, and much less appealing a use of personal resources, than something you are. Such lesson units are challenges we actively set out to overcome, rather than accessible entry points for busy instructors on the fence.

I proposed a panel recently about this topic – how to present videogames to instructors (specifically in composition) as an effective learning tool for their classrooms. In putting it together, I thought a lot about this question of what these obstacles to videogame pedagogy might be for these instructors.

Being new to videogames brings a lot of stuff to learn, some of which I discussed in my last post: inventory management, puzzle-solving strategies (try everything with everything!), conventions for moving the plot along (talk to everyone you know!). But I think some of these new skills pose higher barriers for bringing videogames into the classroom than others. Adapting to the ways games signal narrative significance, for example, is a learning process we’re used to; we’re practiced at picking conceptual patterns out of the noise. It’s the backbone of most of our training, both pedagogically and within our specific subjects. Not to suggest it’s a piece of cake picking up these tropes. But they are, I would argue, relatively easy for even a new-to-gaming instructor to recognize. And that recognition, when combined with a little faith that there’s something to this “games for education” stuff, can lower the access barrier enough to jump in.

But learning to deal with a modern controller? Oh hell no.

Physically mastering a controller has proven, for me, to be by far the most frustrating aspect of learning to game. Learning to drive an *actual* car feels like it was easier than learning to drive in LA Noire. It’s not intuitive at all! So many buttons! At this point, I’ve essentially given up.  This difficulty mastering (or even adequate-ing) something that literally millions of people can do effortlessly is frustrating and embarrassing. So I can’t solve this puzzle – big deal. That’s what puzzles are for. The fact that manual un-dexerity prevents me from solving this puzzle despite knowing what to do, on the other hand – that’s so frustrating it almost cancels out the pleasure of play.

This is pretty much how I feel about controllers.
This is pretty much how I feel about controllers.

Learning to use a controller is not part of the fun and engaged learning that makes videogames so appealing to scholars and educators. It’s more like being presented with chopsticks for the first time when you are very very hungry, and the meal in front of you looks so good: you just have to master this one little set of movements to start enjoying yourself, but the stakes for that learning are high – your shirtfront; your character’s life. (Now granted, I can’t really use chopsticks well either so, you know, make of that what you will.)

My point here, though, is to ask how the physical difficulty of learning to play videogames might affect their adoption by instructors, especially those who are newer to digital teaching practices overall. This isn’t one of the obstacles I considered when writing my proposal, and that oversight seems so glaring now. The first time you pick up a controller or set your hands on AWSD is inevitably awkward and distracting. That memory is very fresh for me, in a way I’d cautiously guess it is not for many of videogame pedagogy’s advocates. Fumbling to navigate a digital world obscures its potential for both enjoyment and learning; it replaces immersion with self-consciousness. If this is all you experience of videogames, their pedagogy is going to be a hard sell.

I watched this self-consciousness play out during #eng177’s lectures on Braid this spring. Jim brought the game up on the main screen a few times for live playthroughs of the sections we were discussing, by either himself or a volunteer student. While both he and the student who took over did an admirable job staying cool and navigating through the levels, it was obviously a bit nerve-wracking for both of them. Even for experienced players, controlling a game is a delicate process, one that’s quick to be thrown off by outside factors like the pressure of an audience or the need to narrate your actions as you go. Only two students were willing to step up at all, with one of them shouldering most of the playing throughout the unit. Doing anything in front of 120 peers/students is nerve-wracking, of course – but this experienced suggested this is particularly true of liveplaying.

Game controls have a steep learning curve: they’re  foreign and challenging at first, but you catch on quickly. The trouble with steep learning curves for those long past them is that because they happens so quickly, it’s easy to forget how hard the initial experience can be. This probably doesn’t matter so much for teaching your mom or your Amish buddy to play Assassin’s Creed –  but for the instructor testing out a potential teaching tool, that learning curve matters. The resemblance of digital tools like blogging to practices we’re already comfortable with gives them a relatively shallow learning curve by comparison. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is an obstacle to encouraging wider experimentation in composition with videogame pedagogy.

Those of us who believe in videogames’ potential for composition instruction need to keep this curve in mind when we evangelize. To remember to acknowledge, when we talk to curious newcomers, the initial awkwardness of the physical learning process as well as the great potential of the intellectual one. To let them know, if only in passing, that the frustration passes quickly, and when it does – that’s when things get cool. And maybe steer them away from consoles.

 

[In-post image: IncarnateFilms]