Is it better to hand hold new players through a game tutorial to teach them all the mechanics and intricacies of a game, or is it better to let them figure things out on their own?

The "tutorial level" has become so ubiquitous in video game design that it seems really odd when a game does not go to painful lengths to make sure you get a slow, measured introduction to every single game mechanic, presumably so you don't burst into tears over confusion about what the Y button does. For example, I started playing the game FTL earlier this week, and while the game does offer a brief tutorial and many tooltips, it expects a fair amount from you in terms of learning how to play the game on your own. My first half hour with the game consisted mainly of a steady stream of expletives and mutterings like "Why would I ever spend money on door upgrades?" and "Wait, why are all these rooms turning pink?" and "OH GOD! WHY IS THAT ON FIRE? WHAT FIRE? HOW FIRE? ... WHAT DO YOU MEAN GAME OVER?"

Eventually, though, I got into the groove and realized that for a game like FTL, part of the experience should be experimenting with new things, paying attention, and learning how to maximize your chances of survival on your own. It's not dissimilar to systems-driven sandbox games like Minecraft or Terraria in that way: They just dump you into a system and tell you that figuring it out is half the fun (the other half is feeling superior to people who complain about it not being spoon fed to them).

FTL may stand for "Forget Tutorial Levels"

This all reminded me about another psychology experiment I learned about from Jonah Lehrer's recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. In a 2011 paper impressively entitled "The Double-Edged Sword of Pedagogy: Instruction Limits Spontaneous Exploration and Discovery" Elizabeth Bonawitz and her colleagues set out to examine how different modes of instruction affect how creative people get in their exploration of a new system. And by "people" I mean "toddlers." Yes, toddlers are people; I looked it up. And also by "system" I mean "toy." Work with me here.

The researchers invited kids visiting a science museum to check out a new toy, except not in that creepy way that you hear about on prime time news shows. The toy was a crazy homemade contraption consisting of tubes that did different things like squeaking, lighting up, and playing music. It's important that these functions were not obvious and required some experimentation to discover. For some children, the experimenter took out the toy and said something like "Woah, look my badass new toy! Check it out!" Then she yanked on a tube to demonstrate how to make it squeak and finished up with "See that? This is how my toy works!" For other children, the experimenter took out the toy, acted like she was seeing it for the first time then pretended to accidentally make it squeak. She then feigned surprise (children are very gullible, it turns out) and said something like "OMGWTF? Did you see that? Let me try to do that!" then made it squeak again. For kids in all conditions, the experimenter gave the toy to the kid and finished by saying "Wow, isn't that cool? I'm going to let you play and see if you can figure out how the toy works."

Picture of the toy, taken from Bonawitz et al. (2011)

So, the key points here are that the toy did multiple things, but only one thing (the squeaking) was revealed. For some kids it was explicitly demonstrated and for others it was serendipitously discovered.

What the researchers found was that relative to those in other conditions, children who were given instructions on how to make the toy squeak played with it for shorter amounts of time, did fewer unique actions with it, and discovered fewer of the toy's other functions.

Now, I understand that most of you reading this are not toddlers, but I think this has clear implications for video games. Because when we are given a thing and told "here is how it works" that presentation tends to constrain the list of things that we consider doing with it. We explore less and are less creative. Our brains tend to take the paths of least resistance, and heavy handed demonstrations create a nice easy rut for our thoughts to follow.

Sometimes this is great, as with simple games designed around mastery of a few skills. But for games dependent on the interaction of multiple systems, options, strategies, or approaches, detailed tutorials may hurt the player and their long-term experience with the game. Booting up a game like Minecraft for the first time, blinking a few times, and then saying "Okay, what happens if I do ... this?" is a great experience and facilitating that approach is central to the appeal of the game. Like the kids who were told "this is a squeaky toy, here's how to make it squeak," players who get their hands held through an hour of tutorials are being mentally primed to consider only what they're shown. Accident, serendipity, and—let's be honest—an occasional bit of rudderless flailing about are sometimes necessary for creativity and exploration.


Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine: How Creativity Works. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Bonawitz, E., Shafto, P. Gweon, H. Goodman, N., Spelke, E. & Schulz, L. (2011). The Double-Edged Sword of Pedagogy: Instruction Limits Spontaneous Exploration and Discovery. Cognition 120, 422-430.

About the Author

Jamie Madigan, Ph.D.

Jamie Madigan, Ph.D. is an industrial-organizational psychologist, writer, and life-long video game enthusiast.

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