There used to be an experience of buying a new game - the anticipation of going to the store, picking up the boxed game, and then unpacking it at home to take out the cassette and the more-often-than not book-sized manual. Even when buying 'budget' Commodore 64 cassettes, there would still be a very thick inlay with all the instructions and a guide to the game.
I would start reading the manual while still on the shopping trip, usually while sat in a cafe waiting for lunch and in the car on the way home. I would continue reading while waiting for the game to load up and then refer back to the manual whenever I got stuck.
Even once I had learned the game, the manual would still be crucial, often containing codes or information that you would need to proceed with the game (an early attempt to counter piracy). The original version of Civilization was a great example of this - every so often, a citizen would call you out as a usurper and demand you prove your worthiness to rule by answering a question, which you would need the manual to do.
The manuals are still there, usually in pdf format as part of the download or through links provided in the start menu but they seem to be ignored. This has been one thing that has bothered me about the way my young students approach games - they jump straight in and start to play but then run into all kinds of unnecessary problems as a result.
I have seen this time and time again in different contexts. A couple of years ago, I used SimCityEDU with some students in Turkey and they couldn't do the first mission at all. The reason was that they had not bothered to read the mission instructions (they were supposed to place bus stops strategically to allow kids to get to school on time) and were therefore lost in the game. It took an intervention from me to get them to restart the level, read the instructions and then successfully complete the mission.
On this ocassion, I resisted the temptation to intervene and left them to it. Eventually, they worked it out and started to walk, not run.
The initial feeling was one of frustration - why were my learners doing this? However, I soon started to ask myself that question differently - what was I missing? Why were they approaching the games in this way and was it actually a problem at all?
As I pondered and read around this area, I found an answer in a video extract of a talk by James Paul Gee, who has done a lot of academic research into game-based learning. He described how he tried to get to grips with a game by first reading the manual. However, it made little sense to him as he tried to play. It was only after hours of play and immersion in the game world that he was able to read the instructions and understand them. The manual was written in 'the language of the game' and he needed to know the world of the game to understand it.
James Paul Gee's words also spoke to the language teacher in me. Context is really crucial to forging understanding. The learners need to experience the subject in action and context to understand what it is about. There is little point on giving beginner level language learners grammar explanations before showing them the actual language. They need to see and hear the language in use before stepping back to analyse the grammar and the functional side of it later.
There were two other realisations I had from reflecting on these moments. First of all, if you noticed, in the three examples quoted above, the first two games were 'edu' versions of popular titles. In an attempt to adapt the game to a learning scenario, changes had been made and the need to read first and then play had been imposed. This created a problem, however. The basic game mechanics had been altered and the playing experience had changed as a result. Once beyond these tutorial levels, both 'edu' games start to resemble the real thing more closely but I believe they would benefit from less teaching to allow more learning.
Secondly, there was the question of my intervention. The first two times, as teacher, I showed my learners what they were doing wrong and got them to try again having received my feedback. With The Long Dark, I decided to wait and see what would happen. After a few failed attempts, they were able to make it through twenty-four hours of game time successfully. They got to learn from their own failures, reflect and try again based on their own experience and ultimately succeed.
So, it is not the reading or lack of it that we should concern ourselves with, nor the immediate understanding. We should concern ourselves with making sure the game plays like a game and that the context and environment is rich enough for the earners to be able to fail, reflect, retry, develop and move forward.