Best Practices in Action – Video Game Strategy Guides

The other day my 13-year old (Zeke) decided he was going to sit down and “beat” the game SuperMario 64 on the Nintendo 64. We’ve had the game since it first came out with the N64 (I think in ’96) and he played the game quite a bit over the years, but he had never beaten the game before. (In point of fact, he never expressed much interest in beating it and simply enjoyed playing it.)

If you’re not familiar with the game, it is like many others: Your character is on a mission to save the princess, and to do that you have to navigate a bunch of worlds on a bunch of levels and overcome the enemy to collect coins and stars. If you collect all 120 stars, you’ve beaten the game. Not only do you have to figure out how the character works (moves, jumps, etc), you have to figure out how to get around.

To help him in his quest, Zeke used the “official” strategy guide for SuperMario 64. The strategy guide is basically a beginning to end description of the game, including maps of the various worlds/levels, location of stars and other special items, and tips on how to overcome enemies, etc. An excellent example, in other words, of best practices in the form of explicit knowledge of the game.

If you’re not familiar with these types of strategy guides or you’re not a gamer, your first thought may be something along the lines of, “But that’s cheating, if you know where everything is and how to do it.” As we all know, however, just because you have the instructions for something doesn’t mean you have the ability to execute those instructions.

Out of curiosity, I convinced Zeke to let me try one of the more difficult levels towards the end of the game. Strategy guide in hand, Zeke watching and giving advice, it still took me many (many many) tries before I had accumulated the skill (tacit knowledge) to do what I needed to do.

What Zeke brought to the game that allowed him to beat the game relatively quickly (in an almost non-stop all day marathon) was his tacit knowledge of the game including such things as how to control the character, best ways to get around in the worlds, and hitting the jump and punch button at just the right time to get done what you need. He hadn’t played this game in years, but it all came back to him as if it had never left.

I guess the short point of this long story is this: Best practices are good, and sometimes essential, but you can’t always rely on them alone to achieve what you need to do.