How Basic is Basic Gaming Literacy?

I’d like to start this entry with an anecdote, which outlines the basic issue I’m pondering far more effectively than an abstract discussion. A few years ago I found myself in the position of trying to teach someone who had never played a single video game in their life – and had extremely limited experience of board or card games – the very basics of video games. I chose Castle Crashers as an introductory game. I’m sure some of you will think that was a great choice for the reasons I did (fun, witty and amusing, easy to get into, not very challenging on the standard difficulty, simple mechanics), although I’m sure there are reasons why it would be a bad game compared to some others (if you had to choose a “first game”, which would you choose, and why?). Nevertheless: that was the one I went with, and even though something very strange happened, I remain fairly confident that it was a good choice.

So, maybe half an hour later and some way into the game, I noticed that my friend’s character was nearly dead. I said something along the lines of “You’re nearly dead, be careful, and I’ll finish off the enemies”, and they replied with “How can you tell?”. That surprised me just a little, but then I realized: ok, they haven’t connected the health bars at the top of the screen with their character’s status. Perfectly reasonable for a total video game novice. I said something like “Your health is at the top of the screen”, and they replied: “Ah, you mean that blue bar?”.


Here is a screenshot of Castle Crashers. As you can see, each player has a health bar and a magic bar.

Now, hold on! Stop there, and just think. You just read that previous sentence, and that all made sense to you, didn’t it? You didn’t need to ask “which is which?”. You glanced at the screenshot, and it was obvious from the get-go that the red bar will naturally be health, and the blue bar – since this is a game of swords and sorcery – must, therefore, be magic. Were it something like Deus Ex, for example, you’d have probably thought that bar was something like “Energy”, right? Nobody needs to be told that the red is health and the blue is magic… and yet my friend didn’t know this.

Now, the friend in question is no idiot: far from it. But when this happened, I wasn’t even sure what to say for a few moments, and it almost felt as if I’d been bodily removed from the situation: it was as if we’d been reading a book, and I’d said “hey, look at this scene where the heroes go to the shop”, and they’d said “which scene?” and I’d said “this scene”, and pointed to the appropriate paragraph, and they’d said “ah, you mean the scene where Bob steps into the shower”. It was, for a brief moment, just inconceivable; I even briefly entertained the notion that they were joking. Again, I must stress: I wasn’t trying to be rude at the time when I think I then uttered a puzzled “No, it’s the red bar…”, and I’m not trying to insult this person here recounting the story; I’m trying to focus on the shock of this comment, and the fact that this person’s comment about the blue bar was entirely honest, and innocent, and just thought the blue bar must be their bar of health since (presumably, though I don’t recall exactly) it must have been very low. Naturally, had there also been a green bar, we as experienced game-players would instantly know that has to be a “Stamina” bar (what else could be a green bar be?!), but perhaps that would have been mistaken for the health bar instead (an example of a classical three-bar system would be Oblivion, as shown below, where the nature of each bar seems “obvious” to us even if we’ve never played the game).


In a manner of speaking, this event has been a major influence on my entire academic research agenda. It got me thinking about so much: how much gaming literacy do we take for granted? Why do we take these for granted? How have we all learned these assumptions? How can someone learn them for the first time, and can these even be learned without being explicitly told?

In trying to answer these questions I first came to think about the different sources of cultural assumptions in games. There are some aspects of games which speak of other games, and only other games, and never speak of books or films. By this I mean: once we’ve seen dragons in cinema, and read about dragons in literature, we can reasonably know what a dragon looks like in a game, and come to some fair conclusions about what kind of powers and abilities that dragon might possess. By contrast, nothing in literature or cinema prepares us for the health bar. Shakespeare never said that Mercutio and Tybalt wisely checked their health bars during their duel and adjusted their tactics accordingly; Michael never checked the DPS of his pistol before executing Sollozzo and McCluskey in the restaurant in the original Godfather. Health bars are only in games, so you have to play games and use health bars in order to learn how to use health bars in games… as it were. These things are reciprocally defined through one’s use of them and one’s knowledge of that they are, and both the embodied everyday experience of use, and the knowledge of certain norms and standards and games, mutually inform one another.

I feel now it is impossible for me (or any other gamer) to unlearn the ability to “read” a game based on these “obvious” assumptions, every bit as much as it seems impossible for me to forget how to read the English language. We can vaguely understand what it might be like to be illiterate by glancing at a language we do not understand (and ideally one with a script which is completely alien to us, so Arabic or Mandarin rather than French or German, speaking as a native English speaker with no other language knowledge), but that doesn’t really do it: we (as literate people) still have a model in our heads of how one reads, and we can try to pick out the gaps in symbols and identify words and phrases, we might be able to identify common words, or important terms via their capitalization or placement in a sentence, and so on and so forth (something that, one assumes, an illiterate person would not be able to do, regardless of what language or script is placed in front of them). I can look at a language I know nothing of and still draw some vague conclusions about how it might be read or structured, even if I couldn’t decipher a single word of it.

Increasingly, I also find myself thinking of these questions in terms of eSports. Many in the competitive and professional gaming world are keen to see eSports expanding onto “mainstream” TV rather than or alongside Twitch, but there’s definitely a literacy issue here. Someone who has never seen Tennis, for instance, can watch a match of Tennis and, within perhaps a minute, have a reasonable appreciation of the rules – hit the ball back and forth, don’t miss it, don’t let it bounce twice, don’t hit the net. By contrast, consider someone inexperienced watching a MOBA game. I own several thousand games, have played most of them, and have been playing since I was a toddler, but I’ve never actually played a MOBA myself, and when I watch one, I can barely make any sense of what’s taking place on screen. This question of game literacy strikes me as a crucial barrier to the growth of eSports into this kind of domain, and although systems like “spectator modes” do much to ease the transition for the inexperienced spectator, they certainly don’t go far enough. But how else might we raise the game literacy of the average spectator, without making such games simpler? Is that even possible? Watching some eSports games (like Counter-Strike) are relatively clear even if one misses the tactical nuance, but MOBA games are profoundly visually indecipherable. Game literacy strikes me as a fascinating topic as a whole, but in eSports, in some ways it reaches both its most extreme form (given the complexity of some games), and in some ways its most politically important form, as concerned as many eSports actors are with the expansion of the medium.

To answer the initial question in the title of this entry, I think there are two elements of game literacy that demand our attention. Firstly, the question of basic game literacy in the sense of the colours of bars and other questions of that sort; absolute, almost unquestioned, almost axiomatic norms that pass across multiple games, multiple genres, multiple eras, and which have reached a point of being taken-for-granted by most players and designers that they are never even considered. How do people learn those absolute basics, and how does the assumption that everyone knows those basics shape the experiences of new players? The other aspect, however, is a question of how much game literacy is required to understand the entirety (or at least enough to appreciate it) of one game, rather than concepts and ideas that cut across multiple games. This is surely an integral part of game broadcast as a whole, but has found a new importance with the push in eSports toward “mainstream” television, and in many ways is question is harder to answer. How would one convey the information about a MOBA to someone who doesn’t play? Can enough information even be conveyed? Will viewers hang around for long enough to get that information? There’s a growing body of academic work on game literacy, and it’s a fascinating domain; in some ways, however, I think the absolute foundations of this question (for all games, for one game) are where we want to start, understanding the precise processes by which this kind of information is acquired and learned – or, possibly, not.

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37 thoughts on “How Basic is Basic Gaming Literacy?

  1. This is actually an interesting topic. I remember introducing a friend of mine who had little to no experience playing games to minecraft, and while i stayed calm and explained everything several tims, i was screaming inside when he was ignoring the target right before his eyes (like staring at a wall with iron chunks in it and asking me “where do i get iron”). I couldn’t understand for the life of mine how could anyone miss something so obvious.

    • Hahaha. Yes. I really think one could get some fascinating data on how basic game literacy functions by doing a research project with folk who are entirely non-game-players, and collating data on their interpretations of crucial game semiotic elements. I’ll have to add that to the future list…

  2. Now this is just silly, how is health bar just a game invention? Have you never seen a battery charge indicator? And even older examples are various fluid level indicators showing level in internals by connecting them to a visible tube.
    Thermometers and barometers also displayed their indications as bars before arrows or digital displays, and don’t forget the hourglass doing the same for time.

    • Oh, of course it’s not! I wasn’t saying that the health bar, or that kind of visual representation more broadly, was. My point was about the colouring of the bar and the assumptions we make about bars of different colours in a specific game context, with a particular focus on *colour*. It was the lack of immediate colour recognition – so obvious to me – which triggered the full train of thought.

  3. Firstly: “if you had to choose a “first game”, which would you choose, and why?”

    Probably not castle crashers. But then again, I’d be entering them into the game world for a different reason. Personally, I’d sit a person down with Towerfall Ascension and try to get them to experience the exhilaration games can provide over something really high octane revolving around so few mechanics. Or, in the case that I’m not present, Pokémon. Pokémon is a brilliant entry-level game. The very first battle will not explain to you what everything on the screen is, but by playing for half an hour, you’ll grasp pretty much everything.

    And on the topic of health bars, I’m quite certain that even if a person doesn’t know which bar is their health, most people will come to assume that decreasing bars is bad. Not due to people’s ability to pay attention, but that you grow up learning of dropping amounts being a “not good” thing (it’s not exactly bad, but it’s not better, either). Take, for instance, growing up and kids going “awww, I’ve got no more chips left” or “man, I’ve drank all my tea already?” and they ascertain this info via visual queues. Visual queues meaning, they looked at their mug or bag and it’s now no longer as full as it once was. So I think dropping bars are quite implied, even if they’re not obvious.


    I think DotA does this quite well already, for when there’s a TI they tend to host two streams (albeit the one I’m about to talk about only happens every so often at the time, maybe 1-2 games a day for the duration of the TI). One stream is your general hype casters and analysts, the latter is a different (but still well known) group of casters that explain what’s going on as it happens (as well as the after-game analysts). It tends to have Purge in it, who explains things as he goes. Yeah, though, TI only rolls around once per year, so it’s not exactly the easiest to get into on that front.

    Those streams do a lot for readability where it comes to the more nuanced style of ARTSs. Can’t say I’ve ever noticed them explicitly pointing out which bars are health/mana, but they tend to explain the difference and importance of reliable vs. unreliable gold and explain why a pro is doing what they’re doing. However, it’s tutorial is quite encompassing. They still tend to leave mana and health teaching down to experience though. They expect you to look around and ask things like “when I get hit, what goes down?” But that presumes you understand the concept of getting hurt in video games.

    That said though, you missed out on the biggest thing here: controls. I still play games today and because I think I know what I’m doing, will go through the entirety of a game and not know some of it’s best functions. I recently learned you can tag/spray-paint the floor in HotS for instance, and I have over 500 hours in it. I played through the entirety of Mass Effect: Andromeda before anyone told me I could fast travel to the drop pods. It took me two thirds of the game before I realised you could fast travel in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I played the entirety of Demon’s Souls the first time around without ever using lock-on.

    But that’s not all, coming at it from a noob point of view, it’s even more base than that. I remember being back in college and my dad coming into my room and asking what game I could spend so much time on. At the time I was MASSIVELY into CoD and played it upwards of 14 hours a day (yes, really) so I handed him the pad and asked if he wanted to give it a go. I didn’t expect him to take it, but he did, and do you know what his first question was? “How do I shoot?” Something so simple, so rudimentary, that I’d never actually thought of it before. Hell, I was playing it on the Xbox 360 and the buttons to aim and shoot are actually called “triggers” and feel reminiscent thereof. (Also, if you’ve never noticed, CoD doesn’t have a health bar, it’s represented in how bloody your screen is and how much of a hyper-ventilator your character is. So try teaching people the principles of health going into that, because they’ll come out not looking for bars, but other feedback to be representative of a scale.)

    On the term “MOBA”:

    I can’t stand the term MOBA, because it applies to literally every multi-player game where you fight out there. Every place you fight is a battle arena, and if it has multiple people in it, it’s a multi-player battle arena, and if you find those people online, it’s a multi-player online battle arena (or OMBA as it should be, because English has rules), the games are Action Real Time Strategy games at best. Just like how an ARPG is an RPG that’s free form and fluid in it’s gameplay and combat, with less stringent staccato rules like the old final fantasy games and such where you have attack time, an ARTS is an RTS that’s focused more on fluid battling and gameplay than the typical war games that RTS has come to represent (like SC2 and 40k and the like). The term “MOBA” is just wrong. Every single game that involves multiple players fighting in any form is a MOBA. It’s more of an umbrella term to reference a specific mode of playing, like Single Player and Multi Player are. You can go deeper and have MOBAs for battling and, I don’t know MOLS for Life Simulators and their ilk like Second Life or even Farming Simulator.

    • Also, on the topic of what green bars represent.

      Health. If a game has both a red bar and a green bar, then their location is what tells me which is which, as health tends to be on top. But coming from DotA (where I might have colourblind mode activated) my health bar is green and changes to red when I get low hp. As a lot of games do. Green means good, red means dead. You want to NOT be red generally. But I get you.

    • Great comment. That’s an interesting suggestion, and ditto re: Pokemon – I confess, I would have never thought of that as an entry-level game. I completely agree about decreasing bars; in a broader sense, I think our current consumerist social/cultural milieu will condition people pretty well to believe that accumulating (and implicitly, not losing) quantities or qualitites of things is surely a “good” move in a game context. Dota: interesting point, and I hadn’t considered that, though as you say it’s relatively rare. With THAT said, however, I have seen various events with “re-streams” designed to explain to the informed viewer what is taking place in various games, e.g. in speedrunning marathons. (Although those tend to have strong commentary anyway).

      Controls: great point. At a LAN party, at around 3am once everything had ended, I was half-awake half-asleep in a chair watching a good friend of mine playing TES:Oblivion on his 360, and he was very far through the game, at least 50 hours. And he was riding all the day from one city to the other. In my half-asleep state, I mumbled something about “huh, it’s interesting that you don’t fast travel – do you always do that to take in the scenery?”, and he rotated in his chair, stared at me, and said “Fast travel?”. There are definitely many times where one simply doesn’t try X and thereby never actually learns that X is possible within that game. You’re so right about triggers though – I wonder, have those kinds of buttons always been called triggers? I should look into that. MOBA: hah, yes, that’s a good point. Again, I’m not clear on the history of the term, but it is very all-encompassing; although, I think culturally, most game-players and game-viewers certainly still know a particular “style” of gameplay and particular sets of formal characteristics associated with the “MOBA”.

    • Coming *as soon as possible*. I’ve been inching towards burnout in the last few months getting my academic workload done, and I just *cannot* do the final bits of coding for 0.8 right now. I’m a total workaholic, but even I have limits. URR is not cancelled, or abandoned, or anything – it’s just on pause until I can get a bit of work-life balance back.

  4. Hi man, great read. I’m bookmarking you.

    I wanted to add that I think the color of the health/mana/other bars is a concept quickly understood and remembered once you see it for the first time, akin to a traffic light. You have the straightforward red for something bloody, blue for something spiritualy, then green or yellow for stamina because they are the remaining primary colors.

    Maybe the basic gaming literacy concept your friend was missing is something like ”I should be scanning the perimeter of the screen for info about my character, the enemies, the world, etc”

    • Thanks Vince! That’s an interesting notion; and thinking about it, yeah, maybe that is a leap to take – to looking outside the immediate physical constraints of the character (a human, a vehicle, a whatever) for information on one’s character which is not immediately, visually contained within the character itself. That’s quite an interesting framework, actually, and of course varies across games; different kinds of HUD, information in different places on the HUD, contexts where one can only gain some kind of information by doing specific things (pressing “Menu”), etc…

  5. Very interesting Story Mark, it remenber me the first time that i played a “True” Roguelike, Steamband(one of my favorites ’til today 🙂 ), i was entirely lost(maybe i tought that i would learn trying and failing) after some minutes trying to understand how to not die and how to attack, i read the game commands for the first time and i was surprised by the enormous variety of actions you can take on that game and slowly i understand how to “play” the game(But i still dying on level 1 =p), the Look command was the first and the most interesting to me on that time because the combat system was so complicated to me, i just keep ramming on the enemy and try to get a hit and then he dies(or me), that was what i tought when i notice that your character get new information about the enemy many times and that system impressed me because i never seen that on games before and after that i try another Roguelike the ToME(Troubles of Middle Earth i think) again i was lost in that game but i manage to understand quickly something that i learned on the previous game but somehow i notice that this game had some features that Steamband Hasn’t and after some hours on this game(i died a Lot) i first like ToME but i still with dificulty to get along the game(You just are put on a total, not so, unknow world and have a hugenourmous world with procedual generation and get fun, kill monsters, try to find and kill the Morgoth(?) simple ya?). Until i make some advance on the game i found another one, Angband, this one was simple and had a similar gameplay with Steamband(Hard to know where is the likeness no?) and after i get along with angband i discover that there are more games like Angband and Steamband and more, that angband was based on Rogue and that Rogue is the game that name the genre Roguelike(*M I N D B L O W*) and that time i found the Roguebasin where i get aknowlegde of many other Roguelikes/Angbandlike after some rolls on the site i decided to try an easy and faster to beat(i dont remenber which game was because i lost it when i format my computer last time =\) after i beat that i finnaly manage to get along with the others, especially on the factor “FARM TO UPGRADE”. Everything was fine ’til i found NetHack… ohh that game is very easy to understand the story and the quest than the others but… this game was impossible to me i just could play it better when i played Dungeons of dreadmor(but still hard to me), and was in nethack that i got the courage to play with a magic character(i “hate” magic because it’s a bit complicated for me…) and after i quit NetHack i found some games while i’m on google going to search something about Ultima series and i notice on search bar that an unsual name was suggested and wasn’t from any ultima series game, that was Ultima Ratio Regum, and soon i’ve been there downloading the game(took a few days to notice that the game was on Devlopment) i was so fascinated with the History and world generation that i forget entirely to play the game(at this point i was w/out internet for some months) and then google recommend me Unreal World and i notice that play it was easier for me but there was me, only trying to survive day by day… the old problem of get along on the game comes back. After that i saw that… i need to read the manual and commands before to play and maybe see some gameplay to learn somethings…

    • Thanks! Yeah, game literacy in roguelikes is a great topic. Forgive the shameless plug, but I wrote a ton more on it here if you haven’t seen this: Game literacy is a particularly complicated notion in classic roguelikes, I think, because so much is obscure, because of permadeath, because textual characters differ in meaning across roguelikes, and because *important* or relevant parts of the semiotic code differ so strongly. I’ve never actually put a lot of time into ADOM and Angband, although in my endeavours to prevent myself burning out on work right now I’m planning to actually get back into playing roguelikes in the near future; perhaps those should be my next port of call…

  6. I’d probably have chosen something like Kentucky Route Zero instead, that operated at the pace of the user, but perhaps that would equally reveal my assumptions.

    I do wonder if you’re underestimating the existing game literacy with tennis: playing with a ball may be fairly primal, but most people have years of experience with games with balls before they encounter tennis. If we played Starcraft from birth would a MOBA feel as overwhelming? (Probably, since it’s a complicated team sport. But more complicated than, say, Cricket? Or American Football?)

    But the health bar example is a good one. My personal theory is that many game abstractions start as an obvious metaphor. And then the next designer keeps the mechanic but drops the metaphor. And, most likely, builds a new metaphor on top of it. There’s probably hundreds of these concepts that we no longer think about but once required extensive explanations in the manual.

    Playing at the World, a very thorough book on the history of Dungeons and Dragons, traces the concept of hit points back to Reiswitz’s kriegsspiel in 1824 and then forward through naval wargames until it was repurposed for individual characters in roleplaying games (331-341). Hit points were the literal number of hits a ship could sustain before it sank, a commonplace concept now but novel then.

    Eric Zimmerman argued that game literacy will be needed to be literate in the 21st century, as the 20th century required media literacy in television and so on. That may be pushing it a bit, but the analogy to cinematic literacy is apt. Today’s rapid cutting would be fairly incomprehensible to an early film audience. The Hollywood studios settled on a system of continuity editing principles that acted as the basics of their cinematic language.

    Some of which we use today, some is discarded. For example, I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia be credited as one of the first film to use a sound cue across a scene change, where the warning bell sounded for an attack starts being heard at the end of the previous scene. To the best of my knowledge, this would be rather unthinkable in the early days of film, but not surprising today. Or, for that matter, Battleship Potemkin, which helped pioneer several things we take for granted, such as montages and repeat cuts.

    It’d be interesting to trace the chain of influences between games and see if my guess holds up.

    • Good point about “games with balls” more broadly. There are certainly some patterns we can draw out from games with balls; they need to maintained by a team, they need to send in a particular direction, they mustn’t touch parts of the pitch, they can be handled and not handled in various ways, and so forth. Playing at the World is amazing – only half-way through it, but wow, what a treasure trove of history. As you say, I think the cinema comparison is definitely apt; and that’s fascinating about Lawrence of Arabia, I didn’t konw that little fact; and as you say, it would be great to try tracing these kinds of influences in video games as Playing at the World does for board/tabletop games…

  7. I wonder how arcade and atari games from the 80s influenced me, as my first gaming introductions.

    I remember later getting an early Dos computer and playing text games – Tetris clone, Rogue, StarTrek, Zork (Well, Interstel’s Star Fleet), but I also remember being confused by an earlier TRS80 puzzle game, so being taught that and knowing arcade/console joystick games meant I was farther up the learning curve when DOS came.

    But early Arcade games in particular had to train people, and between limited hardware and expected game illiteracy, the first ones were both simple and easy to learn. And usually attract mode gave the watch-and-learn first lessons. Have we lost that? Of course we have, at least in many games, but also that illiteracy is much rarer.

    I can usually pick up a computer or console game these days and know what’s going on, but learning a board game without a knowledgeable friend to teach me – that’s also quite the challenge! Big gap between rulebook and reality of playing the game. (Youtube helps, of course!)

    And since someone mentioned it, I found Minecraft harder to learn than expected – the cues led me down the wrong path after a lifetime of Wolf3d and too many other references that I wasn’t supposed to chase.

    • Great thoughts – I also wonder similar, since although I’m still only just past my late twenties, I grew up on the Spectrum ZX, C64, Electron, Amstrad (I forget the model) and BBC Micro. And games there, very obviously, expected and demanded VERY different things from their players. And wow, I’m so glad you mentioned attract mode: I hadn’t even considered that! I’ll have to look into whether anyone has written a serious analysis of attract mode… and if not, I might have to do myself. I hadn’t even considered the older notion of running a demo when one leaves the game, whereas these days leaving a main menu either means nothing, or some kind of intro video of trailer (Bloodborne surprised me in this regard). Yeah, I’ll have to think more about Attract modes…

  8. I think at a certain point it’s not about “gaming illiteracy” so much as a crucial lack of critical thinking power.

    I don’t know how your friend got a full hour and a half into a game without even absorbing the most basic visual information. If he’s not dumb, as you insist, then he must be sorely lacking in observational skill, or he was voluntarily ignoring all the information the game was offering him the entire time because he didn’t care, in which case neither you nor the game owed him anything more than he was getting out of it.

    • Hmmm. I… honestly do see what you’re coming from, but personally, I don’t agree. Coming to a game from an utterly game-free background can, I think, be a profoundly bewildering experience. There are so many moving parts, so many things changing, a potential lack of clarity between button-presses and their effects on the gameworld, contexts where the same button-press has a different effect… and so on. I wouldn’t say the friend was lacking in observational skill or ignoring all the information; they had just literally never played, and effectively never even watched, a game before. I think I can understand the confusion.

        • Yeah, I think that’s fair to say; it’s not deliberate, but being plunged into a very new space can certainly lead to one focusing only on a small number of elements in that space, e.g. the ones that one *has* already figured out the meanings for, which give the player/reader/user/etc a sense of stability.

  9. I found your ideas on the growing publicity of eSports very interesting. I understand what you mean when you say that for a non-MOBA player jumping in to a MOBA match would be quite daunting. I do think that MOBA’s aren’t necessarily meant to be viewed by the public yet. The audience for eSprots is still relatively small in the grand scheme of things (like compared to regular sports for instance), and I fell like MOBA’s haven’t had the need to make their games more accessible to watch because there wouldn’t be that many more people who would watch it if they didn’t play the games themselves. Now, I think this will change dramatically in the near future. I think gaming literacy is a very real thing and is very important when it comes to the growth of eSports. If I think back to your analogy with real sports, I think physical sports has just as much literacy. As an American, I know very little about cricket, but I had watched sports for most of my life, so when I did watch a cricket game, I was able to understand the basics of what was going on. I could very easily see someone who never watched sports in their life be very confused when they watched their first cricket or football game I think the same thing goes for eSports. With the upcoming generations having played a lot more video games from earlier times in their lives, I think eSports will finally start to become a much larger entertainment network. Once the audience starts to grow, MOBA’s might be encouraged to make their games more viewable and if more people are game literate they will probably watch more of it. Great article, excited to hear more!

    • I think you’re completely right MOBAs aren’t “meant” to be played by the public yet. However, with that said, I’ve spent a lot of my time in the last year researching the esports world, and maybe people from many angles are trying to push the “mainstream TV” idea and the “sportification” (???) of esports. I completely agree that games and esports will slowly diffuse into becoming part of a larger entertainment network, though. However, I’m not convinced physical sports have “as much” gaming literacy (although how would one measure this?); I would suggest almost everything in a sport is diegetic, i.e. visible on the pitch, whilst games have a tremendous volume of HUDs and extraneous content required for understanding. I totally agree it’s not clear-cut, though. And thanks! I really appreciate the feedback!

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  11. I got some thoughts too!
    Well, I think that overhead abstractions – somewhat bad way to “connect” player and character, especially in roleplay. It’s absolutely normal in arcade or “esports” game (like CS). But in same time, in combat simulators (because it’s not enough realistic) and roleplay (because it’s not enough expressive) it’s breaking immersion.

    It will be better if we using some method to “augment” that system (but not discarding it) – in mechanics for simulators, in design for roleplay.

    In simulators, you don’t want to show players their HPs – you want to show the *effects*. As i know, in real combat people couldn’t recognize how serious wound might be (at least, in first minutes) because of shock, and maybe later (extensive pain can lead to feeling that every wound is mortal). Of course, also it takes more time to examine yourself.
    So, we only need to picture that effects like pain, shock, etc. in clear, obvious form. (totally not raspberry jam on the screen like in CoD series).

    In roleplay (RPG, yes) – our goal to tell players what their characters feeling now (or what they might feel). HP in form of number value, gauges, anything else – fine, but it must be secondary, non-mandatory.
    Every thing in character need to express that condition – animations (like Max become limping, when HP falls to critical, in first Max Payne), sounds and words (text too, like in Space Station 13) and so forth.

    Eh, that’s all.

    • All good thoughts – I’ve always thought games that use things like limb damage instead of hit points are very interesting, especially when we reach the “extreme” end of that kind of practice as epitomised by Dwarf Fortress. I do like the idea of focusing on effects too – again, some of these games of course have you limping, or your sword-swing is weaker, that type of thing. I thing there’s more to be done there, but on a very high level of abstraction, games are fundamentally quantitative not qualitative things, and I think it’s tricky to implement the qualitative nature of real-life into them, whilst still making sure they can be understood, they can be read, the player can make informed choices, etc etc…

  12. To reflect on consumer goods rather than simply video games I enjoyed the book “The Design of Everyday Things.”

    It talks about both good and poor design choices that provide hints on how to properly interact with. If you see a button, you know you can push it. So cell phone applications have button shapes and provide tactile feedback to tell you where to push and reward you.

    Consider a stove with 4 burners and 4 dials to control them, how do you know which dial controls what burner? How often do you make a mistake and turn on the wrong burner?

    It also talks about two kinds of mistakes, mistakes where you don’t understand the situation and perform a purposeful action that makes the situation worse. Or mistakes where you understand the situation but perform a different action from what you meant to, such as pressing the accelerator instead of the brake.

    Position, color, feedback, lots of ways to silently teach the player what is going on, in some games the healthbar will flash when taking damage or highlight a section of the bar and drain it in a manner designed to catch the player’s attention to connect the act of taking damage and the bar decreasing.

    Also to nitpick green is also common for health and yellow is also seen for stamina/energy. Several comments above have also covered this.

    In regards to DoTA / LoL MOBA games I’m sure your familarity with RPG and RTS games give you the same basic understanding that one team’s goal is to destroy the other team’s base while collecting more resources and XP/levels to gain the advantage. The confusing part is probably from the variety of characters and abilities which are seemingly random, I’d say it is like watching a chess game when you don’t understand how the pieces move. Why did that pawn jump two spaces then, but not later? Why did it move diagonal? The Rook just rammed right in. What the heck is the horse thing doing? That isn’t something you can easily learn without being taught or researching the rules yourself. You won’t know what a character in a MOBA can do without reviewing their stats and abilities in a detailed manner.

    • Design of Everyday Things is a great book. I only read it recently for a paper I was writing with a colleague (which has fizzled out – I should really chase that up), but it probably implicitly informed this entry a little bit. I thought the two mistakes you describe was one of the most important ideas in the work; and that’s very true about green/yellow etc! And yeah, health bar flashing is always a good connection to make, although far from all games do that. Re: MOBAs, yeah, I think that’s a fair comment; I understand the goals, but I don’t understand the process(es) by which those goals are accomplished, I suppose.

  13. Hi, this is my first comment but I’ve been eagerly following the blog for awhile, I really like your broad-spanning interest on videogame culture and always find it an enriching read. This time I felt compelled to reply because I think there’s a mistake in the way you’re approaching the problem.
    I understand why you were shocked when your friend didn’t get the bars right, but that isn’t actually uncommon. It’s got to do with gaming literacy, like you said, but also with information processing and learning: in your friend’s mind, the colored bars weren’t connected to any important information at all, so they got “automatically” ignored. And when their importance was pointed out, the connection didn’t come “by itself”. It was something that had to be learned first.
    For a quick simile, take a look at your cell phone screen: do you know what every and each small icon at the top mean? If you do, do you think you would be able to use your phone if you didn’t? If not, how do you operate your phone at all?
    You see, sometimes our senses actually get all the information but our brain voluntarily filters it out in order to free up “space”. That’s just how our brain works, and it goes on constantly. Of course we sometimes make mistakes about what is important or not, usually because of insufficient information. Like your friend, who didn’t know that the colored bars were actually related to a game mechanic.
    I think the comment about your friend not being bright enough or not paying enough attention makes a similar mistake. It’s wrong to assume somebody “lacks thinking power” or “observational skill” just because they didn’t draw the same conclusions that one did. That would ignore the fact that one might have previously learned a lot of small bits of information without even being aware of it, but the info is there nonetheless and makes a capital difference between understanding something or not. The foreign language literacy example is quite appropriate to highlight this.

    There’s also another problem: games will usually not tell you everything about their rules, graphical presentation, etc., because they assume some previous knowledge -or literacy- on the player’s part. Moreover, there’s a growing tendency in the industry to voluntarily hide some information and make the “finding out” experience part of the game – Minecraft being a prime example as was already pointed out. So when introducing a novice videogame player, you should search for a game that’s explicitly hand-holding or made for novices. As other user said, the original Pokemon is a good example, but perhaps most “edutainment” and early-era games are as well.

    That would be all, I think. Also, I’m really looking forward to 0.8, so keep it up!!

  14. Hey, and thanks! I *really* appreciate the kind words a lot. I think you’ve outlined some of the cognitive processes at play there very well, and the different between thinking something is “important” and what isn’t “important”; so game literacy entails both understanding what matters, and understanding its meaning. In a way, it feels like the Castle Crashers example is #1, and the MOBA example is perhaps more on the side of #2? The two are certainly interwoven, though. And also, as you say, games will not often tell you absolutely everything, and a lot of games these days often specifically don’t do that because they are trying to appeal to a more “hardcore” (whatever that means) gaming crowd. Although I appreciate those attempts, it certainly makes the ring of potential players smaller and smaller. Edutainment games is a great idea though! I hadn’t considered those, but played quite a few really strong ones when I was very, very young, and those had tremendously simple interfaces and were designed so that anything on screen which looked interesting could be clicked on, and that was the limit of the literacy required. And thanks! 0.8 *is* coming…

    • I’d agree with the two-way approach to gaming literacy, and the examples indeed clarify both aspects. Having re-read the article, I think that’s exactly my problem with MOBAs. You see, I’m not a great fan of multiplayer, but other online games, like MMORPGs, I understand – they mix CRPG mechanics with pen-and-paper RPG teamwork, both of which are things that I know, so no problem. But MOBAs are something else entirely, and although I understand the rules and all the basics, I can’t seem to get “into” them. So yes, I can point out what matters there, but I can’t get hold of what it really means.
      I’ve never thought of it that way before, but it makes sense. Of course it’s also got to do with the things that are pointed out in the two comments below: Dene talks about motivation and Daniel mentions the difficulties of learning a new system. Surely if I had a strong motivation to play a MOBA, or if it wasn’t *so* different from what I usually play, I would’ve learned it by now.
      I’m putting myself as an example here, but this can be generalized to any other player and any other genre/platform. I think it’s just the way we relate to these odd cultural artifacts called videogames.

      Oh, and don’t worry, I know 0.8 is coming. Like Winter 😉

  15. I think motivation also plays into cognition. If someone hasn’t played any games, and are being ‘forced’ to, they’re probably in ‘doing you a favour’ mode, which is *very* passive and very different from ‘interested and learning’ mode.

    I think you’d have gained more insight if you’d game-ified the process by adding a wager: “10 quid if we can clear two levels and you’re still alive” or “I’ll owe you dinner if you can tell me three main rules of this game after playing it for an hour.”

    But yes, UI is, by nature not implicitly understood, even on Apple devices. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to teach people how to make folders of apps on a iPhone.

  16. This is a regular theme that pops out over the years: The implicit skills necessary to play modern are still skills that must be learned. There’s nothing natural or innate about them. Often they were learned as children so we don’t recall learning them; this leads to a certain internal blindness about skill acquisition. As designers, we can’t afford to be blind.

    The bigger picture: There’s nothing intuitive in this world. Or another way of saying that is, all things we do in life are based off learned lessons. If you show any operation to a person who has not learned those lesson, they will be confused.

    So there’s nothing intuitive or natural about our current gaming standards. They are built upon a mostly arbitrary cultural foundation accumulated over years of pratice.

    There’s a bunch of outcomes to this
    – Most non-game players are not dumb. And game players are not smart. They are merely not trained or trained. A lot of gaming culture wrongly ascribes innate ability to something that is almost entirely contextual and historical.
    – People new to games that learn on a platform like mobile or casual titles almost never convert to ‘traditional’ video games. It isn’t a progression. It is a matter of learning French vs Russian. Why would you expect someone who learns French to automatically migrate to the ‘obviously superior’ Russian language?
    – Whenever there is a new platform (such as touch on mobile) existing players will think that the controls are dumb and non-intuitive. This is almost entirely due to them not being able to use their pre-existing skills. They need to learn. And players with a big investment hate to learn.
    – If you are building original games with new base verbs, you need to very carefully teach those verbs. 20 years of gaming gives almost no advantage to a player when they are learning a brand new system. The reason many new designers don’t run into this is because they are mostly just cargo-cult copying existing designs that are played by an existing audience. This shows poor knowledge of game design fundamentals.
    – All this is instantly apparent if you run usability studies with a broad range of potential players. If you haven’t seen these issues at some point in your career it is because you’ve been testing with a hyper narrow segment of humanity. As a result, you are probably also making games that target a tiny fraction of humanity. That’s fine, but realize that your observations aren’t actually truths about how humans broadly play games. Instead they are a specific social norm inside a niche echo chamber.

    • (I realized I used ‘you’ as a general audience pronoun. Definitely not intended to be directed as criticism of the author! ‘One’ or ‘we’ likely would make this sound less ranty. It isn’t intended that way!)

  17. One thing to keep in mind is that your friend was playing with you and thus probably wanted to minimize tutorial time and maximize hanging out with friends. I remember a couple of times where a friend would pull out a multiplayer game, and the rest of the group would only ask the bare minimum about the mechanics before starting. And of course, if we did hit an issue, we had the vocabulary to ask, “Hey, where’s my potion button?” or “How do I do that move?”, etc.

    Now as for the first game(s) to suggest, I’m going to steal from a previous comment and say Tetris or Pacman or similar. Games that have easy to understand loss conditions and focus on hand-eye coordination. And to cement the h.e.c. probably follow with a platformer like Super Mario World.

    After that, maybe do a point-and-click adventure type to teach reading environments for “interactables”. You know, the idea that if you see a table with a drawer, there’s always a key in it or similar. Maybe something like Hasbro’s Putt-Putt or Spy-Fox, though that won’t work for older people. I was originally going to suggest Machinarium, but I’ve been playing it with a friend and some parts aren’t well signposted unless you can already read a videogame scene.

    Then maybe do an FPS to learn a different control scheme, though I feel like there isn’t a huge leap between point-and-click to first-person mouse controls. I can’t think of a good entry point for it though.

    Anyway, good read. The amount of cultural osmosis that happens in videogames is really amazing. The knowledge required to play a 4X game or fighting game or an MMO doesn’t feel like much once you learn it, but watching someone try to start in those genres really drives the point home how much there actually is. As for MOBAs, even if you have played them, the amount of churn in the meta and rules still makes the eSports hard to follow, at least for me.

  18. Nice read! I inmediately thought about my father struggling to hold the NES pad to play Tetris. He loved the game, hated the controller.

    I chose Flower, Rock Band and The Witness to introduce games to my girlfriend, who never showed any interest in them and had ZERO experience in using a controller. I chose those games for quality and also for not having “threats” that need an active movement from the player.

    She grasped the mechanics in Flower inmediately, just like in Rockband (color of button means color on screen, music says when to push).

    But The witness… For her, the difficult part in The Witness in navigating to the next panel. WASD + mouse is a bizarre system when you’re not used to that.

    We take as granted some conventions when thinking of videogames, and I’m sure the next generation won’t need to answer this question at all. But in the meantime, yes, there’s a lot of people who struggles with the most basic conventions, due to lack of exposure.

    Not many poeople think of that.

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