The Mindset of Teaching Games: Ego Vs. Learning

Jun 06, 2014 No Comments by

“C’mon, help me out over here!” My throat was sore, my hands were tense, and nobody was having fun. “I don’t know where you are!” my friend hollered back. I’d imagined co-op play in Quake 2 to be a lot more, well, fun, but somewhere along the way, it turned into a game of yelling, cat-herding, and looking over at each other’s screen, with a super shotgun in there somewhere.

Needless to say, neither of us enjoyed it, and we moved on to something else. Years later, I still think back to this. I play tons of co-op and team games with friends less experienced than me, and I haven’t had a time nearly that bad since then. What happened, and what changed since then? p2coop

Part Teammate, Part Teacher

My first mistake was going in and assuming we would be equals – him, having never played it before, and me, having gone through the campaign and a fair bit of multiplayer. It was a ridiculous assumption, but I didn’t think about it at the time. I just wanted to go in and have fun with a friend, and when I was confronted with the disparity in our skill and practice, I rejected it. I didn’t want to have to teach – I just wanted to play.

It was an immature mindset that I’ve thankfully moved past, but I keep meeting people who’ve faced the toxic effects of that attitude. They have no confidence that they can play games, that they can be a part of a team without being yelled at, and that they won’t ruin it for everyone else. It breaks my heart to see, both because of its effects and how it reminds me of myself, years ago. Maybe the game’s complex. Maybe they’re not too experienced. Either way, you cannot expect people to pick up every game without any guidance. You’re only setting yourself up for frustration if you do so.

There’s nothing wrong with just wanting to play a game, but that’s simply not tenable for many games and many players. You might be able to play Mario Kart at a party without any prior play, but it’s crazy to drop four unfamiliar friends into Dota 2 and expect them to understand what you mean when you yell at them for pushing the creep wave. Be understanding and compassionate, and your friends will thank you for it. speluncoopsmall

Victory Beyond Winning

My second mistake was a consequence of the first. I focused on success at the cost of our fun, thinking that they were one in the same. Choosing to teach someone doesn’t have to be a painful slog – it’s satisfying to help a friend learn to love something you’re passionate about. However, you need to shift your priorities to get the most out of it. The top priority is learning, not winning. You’ll never beat your high scores without throwing your beginner teammates by the wayside, but you can enjoy watching them grow more skilled and confident.

Recently, I played Sonic 3 & Knuckles with a good friend of mine. She’d played it in her childhood, but she hadn’t touched it – or any other game – in over a decade. I knew we could blaze through the game in a couple sessions if I played Sonic, but I knew that wouldn’t be any fun for her (and, by proxy, it would probably be pretty boring for me.) I instead let her take Sonic, while I manned Tails. I’m glad I elected to be a helping hand for her, instead of the main character. She had a blast running through some 16-bit nostalgia, while I was happy supporting her with the platforming and bosses. Watching her play and learn was much more gratifying than relegating her to an assisting role I could’ve done without.

Some games are better for this than others. Defeat in Dota 2 is often dull and drawn out, but screwing up in Spelunky is half of the fun: death is frequent, funny, and of little consequence. Don’t dwell on the fact that it took half an hour to make it out of the mines. Learn to laugh at your failures and revel in the progress you do make. Thanks to Yhrite for the image!

Even the Odds

Teaching competitive multiplayer games might seem like a completely different beast, but all of the same principles apply: don’t expect them to do well out the gate, and focus on learning, not winning. Just because you can commit the competitive equivalent of seal clubbing doesn’t mean you should. While fighting superior players is a great way to learn, suffering crushing defeat after crushing defeat is a great way to make your friend never want to play that game with you again.

In a lot of games, you can take yourself out of your comfort zone by choosing an unfamiliar character or loadout to try and level the playing field. However, most competitive games have a handicap system of some sort. In Street Fighter 4 and Quake Live, you can reduce your maximum health to give your opponent a leg up. Out of all of the potential methods for handicapping one’s self, this is my personal favorite. You can play at your very best with any character you like, and it makes things challenging for both players. Plus, there’s a very tangible sense of progress when they improve enough to warrant lightening the handicap.

People I’ve discussed this with in the past have said they wouldn’t want to patronize their opponent, and while that’s a fair point, what are your options? Don’t handicap yourself and play to your best, rendering your inexperienced opponent powerless? If the other player can’t accept the fact that they’re not as good, just do something else. Curb-stomping your friends for fear of hurting their feelings is self-defeating and narrow-sighted.


Focus on Fun!

Unless you’re being paid $50/hour to train them for the next big tournament, remember that the end goal is having a good time. Make sure you’re both enjoying yourselves. Just because you’re the teacher doesn’t mean you should be bored – if you get tired of it, do something else.

Similarly, if your partner’s not having fun, take a break, or put it aside for the day. It’s counterproductive to keep them playing longer than they’d like – much as they may improve, it won’t make up for their unhappiness.

Before, I thought having to teach my friends how to play games would be an absolute bear, but I’ve come to appreciate it as one of the best things in gaming for me. Having the opportunity to build bonds, share something I love, and play games at the same time has been one of the most meaningful experiences in gaming for me. I hope others can get as much out of it as I have.


Special thanks to Yhrite for the third image!


About the author

Amateur games journalist looking to expand his portfolio. When I'm not writing for Super Combo, I'm editing articles for others or goofing around in Dota 2. If you enjoyed the article, let me know! I always appreciate feedback. You can learn more about me at
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