In this part, we’ll discuss what some common pitfalls can be in teaching games. It won’t be comprehensive, by any means, and it may not even have a recognizable order. I’m doing this for me right now, with the goal of helping others after I get my thoughts out. Some would argue that you should never start a premise (how to teach games) with the negative side (how not to do it), but I feel like I have to nail down what I see as not working before I get to what we all can do to fix it.
Some of these may surprise the reader. If any of these surprise you, consider spending more time gaming with strangers. You see all of these pitfalls when you see as wide of an array of gamers as possible. Of course, you can make your own decisions and I don’t blame you if you would choose to simply not expose yourself to players like this. As adults, we have the freedom to choose our circles of friends, and there is no reason to torture yourself attempting to “fix” people that you can’t fix. We all deserve happiness. Sometimes, though, as gamers, and especially at Cons, we find ourselves exposed to all of these pitfalls.
Pitfall Number One – You’re Trying To Teach Someone a Game That They Aren’t Interested In
Sometimes its hard for gamers to imagine that someone isn’t as “in love” with their passion as they are. This relates to our capacity for empathy, and I’m going to discuss that in its own post later on. Empathy is a central concept of playing games, and gamers not having it, or having it but not wanting to put in the effort to use it, is at the root of a lot of game teaching failures.
The first level of the “Disinterest Barrier” is a disinterest in games in general. Your selected gaming “buddy” may simply not be interested in games at all. Period. A myriad of reasons can exist for this.
Many people aren’t interested in the same challenges that gamers crave. They may prefer tactile challenges, or vocal challenges or musical challenges. Or, they may simply not like being challenged at all. People often have bad experiences with someone using a game as a “cognitive weapon” against them in the past to make them feel stupid. Sometimes people have an aversion to competition, or are so competitive themselves that they don’t want to have unfamiliarity with something “exposed” for others to see. It can be cultural. Let’s be honest, although geekdom has been on a meteoric rise in popular culture as an “acceptable” social affiliation, it still suffers from old school societal ridicule and nowadays often is exposed to disingenuous “fadism”. Many don’t want to be associated with something that they view as the domain of “nerds”.
Ultimately, their reasons are personal, and for them. A lot of gamers waste a lot of energy attempting to convert the not easily converted. You can lead a horse to water…
Then there is a segment of people who you might think will be easy to teach and are not: gamers themselves. We use the term “gamer” very generally within the community sometimes, and to some extent this makes sense because we do all have a lot in common. There are general things in the world of pop culture and games that we can all relate to easily. However, we all are also HIGHLY specialized. We like what we like. A brief profile of me as a gamer can help to illustrate this.
There is a segment of games that I really enjoy. I love tactical, positioning-based games with a grid or hexes. I love anything that includes “number mining” and customization. I want it in my electronic RPGs and I want it far away from my tabletop RPGs. If we’re honest, electronic RPGs have more in common with tactical board games than they do with tabletop RPGs. They have a canned story and are about number customization. In tabletop RPGs, you write the story and make the characters come alive according to your choices. Ok, there’s a post right there. I love puzzle games, but I prefer visual or over number matching in those. I’ve gotten into motor skill-based games a little bit over the last few years, but by and large I avoid them. I’ll play Kid Icarus Uprising and Mario Golf, but I’m not interested in fighting games or racing games or FPS at all. They’re too fast for me. I prefer games that play “slow” and give plenty of time to think through moves. Gradually making tough decisions appeal to me.
My Con choices betray where my heart really lays. I go to Tacticon in Denver to role-play and do tactical tabletop games. I prefer small Cons with friends. I’ll go to Gen Con if I can afford it. If the opportunity arises to go to E3 or Comic Con or PAX, I’d go, but none of those cons really emphasize my interests. I’m into the back story and iconism of comic book characters, but I’m not so interested that I’d attend a Con just to look at merch. I don’t care for anime. I love board games, but since I can’t really afford them en masse, I play whatever others have available. If a friend owns the game, I want to try it or play it. If I have to spend money, I’m less interested. I have a mortgage and five furry children (three dogs and two cats) and a wife to provide for. I don’t have a lot of time or a group of friends to play board games with too, so it could just be wasted money for me. The same holds true for PC games. There are all sorts if hardcore games I’m interested in (Sins of a Solar Empire, Civilization, etc), but I just don’t have the time to play them because I’d rather spend that time doing things in person with my friends.
See how varied my tastes are? I don’t think that’s uncommon. And when you’re trying to teach someone a game, you have to gauge their true interest, not what you wish their interest was. Now, I’m not advising that people give up. The pendulum swings the other way. A lot of times, people will be interested in hanging out with you, no matter what the goal. They’ll play or get into a game just because you are into it and they are willing to sacrifice their base desires to have a meeting of the minds with you. So, the pitfall is really to not investigate where someone’s interest lays. There are many people in the world that cannot be converted. There are many people who prefer to stick to their genres.
Consider the other person’s thoughts and attitudes and how that could influence the efficacy of you teaching a specific game.
Pitfall Number 2 – You’re “Win At All Costs”
Competition can be healthy and fun. It can also be just about the most off-putting thing for some people. It isn’t their fault.
I’ve encountered a plethora of gamers over my time that get a Pavlovian high from winning a game. There isn’t anything wrong with that, so long as it doesn’t intrude on the social well-being of the group. The Win At All Costs player puts the W above everything else around them and it can manifest itself in several ways.
One of these ways is teaching mechanics but not tactics or strategy. Sometimes this is purposeful and sometimes its not. When someone is learning a game for the first time, depending upon their strengths and desires, they may very well suck at the game. Since we all get a little high from finding success in our endeavors, new players of games don’t just want to know the steps of game. They want to know the over-arching tactics, tricks, and strategies of how the game really “works” on a higher level of thinking and analysis. Now, the problem for Win At All Costs here is that every bit of knowledge that they give to a new player is knowledge that can be used against them. And since the “W high” is the reason why they’re playing the game in the first place, teaching “too much” jeopardizes their ability to win. Most Win At All Cost Gamers do this subconsciously. Other gamers discussed below do it purposefully. No matter the reason, it is a barrier to teaching players games.
A variant of Win At All Costs is the well-meaning variety who takes the “its healthy to fail” moniker in life a little too literally and seriously. They think they are helping and they often imagine that they are effective teachers of games. The way the logic goes is: ” You have to fail at something to succeed. Nobody helped me when I first started playing this game and it worked out for me, so it will be in the best interest of this newbie as well if I grind them into the dirt every time they play.” Well meaning, yes. Well, kind of. Effective? Its not fair to generalize our own experience as being “the” solution to the growth of others. We should want new players to experience success, and that means giving them the possibility of success from the outset. It means not ruthlessly slaughtering them the first time that they play in the name of teaching them through “harsh reality”. You can challenge someone without pounding them into the dirt. A lot of gamers don’t know how to teach adaptively like this. If you make the person hate the game, it doesn’t matter how effective your methods are and it doesn’t matter that they worked for you. There is a whole field of educational research on the lack of effectiveness of punishment-based “hard knuckle” teaching and how it shatters student’s dispositions. It is even more controversial in education and is a big focus of the graduate assessment class that I teach. Teachers have to confront this issue to be effective and I think Win At All Costs gamers do too, if they want to recruit new players.
Coming full circle, many gamers are simply not willing to sacrifice a W in the name of teaching games. The W is too valuable to them to give up, even in the face of a prospective new group member. Its a signal of an internal selfish weakness that many people are all too often happy to ignore because confronting it is difficult. When it comes to brass tacks, if you alienate a new player just to get your precious W, you’ve given up dozens of future potential Ws. Now, Ws aren’t my thing. But even the selfish argument has a logical side.
Pitfall Number 3 – You’re Pretending Like A Game Has Only One Level Of Competition
One of the first things that competitive game players tend to do when they become competitive is to forget what it was like to be a new player. And when you forget what its like to be a new player, you become hopelessly ineffective at teaching new players.
Competitive gaming is cognitively quick. The metagame of competitive games gets rapidly established and players get used to falling into the “rut” of how a game is most efficiently played at that level. This is bad for the learner, because the competitive player will tend to play the game at a pace that does not include explaining what they are doing to the other player. They just want to do their competitive thing. The moves are played out in their head twelve steps in advance. They know the subtle nuances of the rules and all the wrinkles and don’t want to waste time teaching those wrinkles. Not thinking, this player, who doesn’t necessarily mean harm, is so wrapped up in the competitive “cadence”, that they sit across from a new player, set up their strategy, execute it like a robot, and leave the new player completely baffled. Magic: The Gathering suffers from this in the player base extensively, but I think its true of any competitive game, especially CCGs. “Tap three, annihilate, judgment, Tap two and two, reciprocate Gravedigger, incinerate Divine Angel, your turn”, all delivered within five seconds is an example. That gobbledy-gook doesn’t use the right terms, I realize, but it is a typical response of a competitive game player who is so engrossed in “being competitive”, that they are incapable of speaking like a typically adjusted person to a new player.
Number 4 – You’re “The Ego Trip”
The Ego Trip gamer is not mutually exclusive from Win At All Costs. I’d define the distinction as ignorance of self and others versus malice and selfishness. The Ego Trip is a more extreme variant of Win At All Costs that does what they do to actively satisfy their own feelings, regardless of the feelings of others.
Ego Trip thrives on a cognitive superiority complex. They play games because they have some cognitive skills and it makes them feel smart. The dark side of this is that for these players it is not only a thrill to feel smart but doubly wonderful to make your opponent feel stupid. Their measure of themselves is efficiently making someone else, even if a new player, feel stupid. They have perfected what I call the “Stare”, in which they spout off their “brilliantly” arranged move (that may very well be a known exploit that they didn’t even develop) and then say rather curtly “Go”, followed by a stare down of their opponent as if to say “See what I just did? What are you gonna do? I dare you to try.” They love to prey on new players because they know they are easy targets.
New players pose a severe threat to the Ego Trip. Every rule, tactic or strategy they share with a new player is something that player could “use against them” in the future. They avoid this through deliberate omission of information and I’ve seen them straight up lying to someone’s face. They don’t last long against well meaning people that play the game on a high level who know the rules inside and out. This is where the competitive player can be an ally to the new player. Although the competitive player may make mistakes and may not be the perfect teacher, they mean well for the new player and they can serve as a good protection.
The Ego Trip can also be a problem because their focus is often simply on getting their “way”. A lot of people play games to escape life problems. Some terrible stuff has happened to them and they hide behind the game. That often means that the Ego Trip, who may not know the rules well at all, will argue calls in games even if they have no intellectual footing. They have quite unique and illogical interpretations of the rules that only benefit them. Much of the time they will actively lie or cheat their way to giving themselves an advantage. They need to be “correct” and their attitudes towards games are often not mutually exclusive from Win At All Costs.
Number 5 – You Don’t Know The Rules
You can’t teach a game that you don’t know. I made the boneheaded mistake a few years back of wanting to play Battletech so badly that I jumped into the “teaching” role on this one a little too soon. The tournament rules for Battletech were extensive and I’m ashamed to say that I spent a little too much time with my face in the book to be a good teacher. A good rule to follow is that if you don’t know the rules enough to effectively teach the game without the rulebook, you probably don’t know the rules well enough to teach it. All games have little nuances and you would, of course, want a rulebook around. But if you can’t teach the game without the rulebook, you probably aren’t ready.
An extension of this is that players tend to not trust individuals who don’t know the rules. trust me, they can tell. The other side of this coin is that the better understanding of the rules you have, the more new players are liable to trust you because you can very rapidly and confidently answer their questions. A gamer has been playing a game for a long time and can tell when another gamer is full of crap. We don’t appreciate them wasting our time by making the game harder than it needs to be.
Number 6 – You’re Slow And Unorganized
This can go hand in hand with not knowing the rules. They are bedfellows. However, sometimes people really do know the rules really well but have never spent any amount of time thinking about explaining it to someone else. If a new teacher doesn’t know how to organize a series of ideas into a cognitively palatable first, second and third course they learn it mighty fast on the job. To some extent I can give you tips on organizing your game instruction, but you also need to find how you “roll” in the teaching department. Different people have very different styles and that is ok. But you need a style. You need a method.
Any method has to start with thinking about what the base knowledge is that someone needs to understand and a rough order that you want to use to help them understand. Now, every learner is different too. Different orders work differently for different people. Teaching isn’t so “easy” now, is it? You need to tell them goal of the game, the basics of how the game “works” (the mechanics or things you “do” in the game), and some tips on how to do that best. Depending upon the game, you may start with the victory conditions, or you may start with how the game transpires. Here’s an example of a rough little “basic strategy and tactics of Battletech” that I recently composed for a group that I was teaching Battletech. each line is a tactic, and together they form the overall strategy. maybe you can do this in your head. Maybe you can’t. Its harder to do when you are stressed and there is a lot going on. Your mileage depends upon considering all of these factors.
In games with a sequential turn structure tools like this can be great. It allows new players to learn small snippets of information without requiring that they slog through the overwhelming walls of text present in rulebooks.
In addition to being unorganized, the slower you get them the basics the less fun they are going to have. A gamer will be more patient with your suckitude than the average person, but they will still not appreciate the longer it takes for the instructions to turn into playing. That may be the best advice: Just start playing. Teach them as you go. We learn best by doing. And if your response to that is that it “won’t be a fair game” because “that isn’t normally how the first few turns go”, then congratulations, this thinking is part of why you are struggling. Practice games are important. If you are in such a rush to play that you won’t allow for the necessary practice games to help everyone feel confident, then you are thinking more about yourself than your audience.
Number 7 – You’re Stressed Out And It Shows
People can read other people like they read a book. Few people like to hang out with people who are stressed out. It isn’t my job to tell you how to feel or carry yourself. If you want to be an effective teacher of games, you have to dedicate some time to composing yourself. If you’re stressed out, new players will see this and instantly be set on edge. You can’t have fun when your guide is hyper-ventilating. Imagine an African Safari where the guide is freaking out. I don’t care how many giraffes you see, your guide isn’t going to instill in you a sense of safety about the lions.
Sometimes we’re stressed out because we care. We’re freaking out because we want our players to have a good experience and we perceive that something isn’t going right. You’re about to make any problem you see worse by getting upset. If I’m patronizing the reader here, I apologize, but the reality is that I see this that it is a concern for many a prospective game teacher, whether that applies to you or not.
Composure is very important in teaching. Your demeanor and feelings will be absorbed by this around you and will influence their mood.
Number 8 – The Environment Is Not Conducive To Learning
Just like in schools, the environment in which we teach games has a tremendous impact on our success. The white elephant in the room for a lot of gaming communities is personal hygiene. If you think I’m being cruel to geeks here and that this is just a “stereotype”, clearly you aren’t getting out enough and aren’t playing with the general public or strangers. It’s a very real problem. There are plenty of nice smelling gamers. I have never been to a Con or FLGS that doesn’t have nice smelling people. Excellent! I have also never been to a Con or FLGS and not smelled some sort of funk. It’s a running “joke” amongst gamers because it’s brutally real.
Whether you are gaming at an FLGS, or a school, or your home or a Con, the space in which you game will make a difference for a lot of people. You have the best game teaching techniques in the book but you are teaching games amidst the roaches. Consider a change of venue, cleaning up the place, or talking to the management about the state of the store. You may be doing them a huge favor because the status of their gaming area may be scaring people away. People have to buy things for a store to make money. I know, crazy concept.
So, I’m going to reserve the right to add to this post as I think of other pitfalls central to game teaching non-success. Feel free to drop suggestions in a comment. Future articles will focus on techniques that gamers can use to help teach new players. I have lots of ideas for tips and tactics that I’ve learned in conjunction with my professional job that could really help people be more effective teachers of games.