The thing about playing games that keeps it from being a mainstream thing is that there’s this layer of inaccessibility that often comes with it. It’s not like reading books or watching movies where anyone can do it. Especially with the kinds of games that I play, gaming requires a certain skillset and way of thinking in order to fully appreciate; otherwise you’re just not even going to be capable of experiencing it all. And contrary to what certain nerdy guys tend to think, you really can’t just get someone to appreciate games just by trying to drag them into it. It really tends to get on my nerves when I see that happening. You know, group of guys trying to make some girl play their favorite game. If she’s interested, sure. If she’s a gamer, sure. But otherwise, what makes you think that you can bridge that gap of experience and knowledge? Especially when you clearly don’t know how to teach someone inexperienced how to play the game?
There’s lots of interesting things we can try and look at when you look at the evolution of “discovery and learning” in video games. And by discovery I don’t mean discovering new places and worlds within games–I mean discovering the basic rules and abilities that make up the game itself. In modern commercial games you often see these big signs that attempt to hold your hand as much as possible when explaining things to you. Whereas in older games, the gameplay was either so inherently simple that it’s either assumed you can figure it out, or it’s made evident by smart level design. Or, the gameplay is complicated but you were expected to do things like read instruction manuals to figure it out (how else would you know how to do a Shoryuken in SF2 anyways?).
A big part of why gaming and engineering seem to correlate so well in our minds is because they involve so much of the same sorts of thinking. And this applies -regardless- of whether we’re playing some 8bit indie game where nothing is explained to you, or whether we’re playing some AAA game where there’s a lengthy tutorial that holds your hand by putting BIG OBNOXIOUS HELPFUL GUIDES TELLING YOU WHAT TO PUSH WHEN. Because even in those games, there’s an element of skill, timing, execution, -whatever- that requires some knowledge of the game’s system; its inner workings; its physics.
In order to really understand a game, you need to figure out how it works and what makes it tick. Unless you read a guide on it (which is -also- something “casual” gamers aren’t going to do), the only way to figure this stuff out is to play around with it and observe. And when us gamers/engineers first start up a game, we don’t notice it anymore but there’s this vibrant -explosion- of knowledge collection that goes on in our heads.
When we first start up a 2d platformer, for example, we:
-Have some expectations. From the plethora of platformers we’ve played before, we expect things to go left-to-right. We expect to be able to jump. We expect there to be things we have to avoid (enemies) and things we want to collect (coins, powerups). It gets even more complicated too. Based on the graphical layout of the level, we either assume that going off the bottom of the screen means death, or means traveling to another room.
-Test the controls. We want to know ALL of the controls in the game, not just the one that is currently relevant (walking to the right). So we test walking right. We test walking left. We test jumping. We test shooting. If it’s a PC game, we test all the keys that have been explained to us. If it’s a console game, we press EVERY BUTTON on the controller to see what each one does. And as we are doing each of these, we…
-Experiment, observe, and analyze. When I walk left and stop pressing left, do I stop immediately or is there inertia that causes me to slide a little bit? When I jump, is my jump height set or controllable? When I shoot, is there something on the screen indicating that my ammo went down, or do I have an unlimited supply?
All of this before we even exit the first room. And it’s funny–you can probably tell that someone’s a gamer if instead of just walking to the right to get to the next screen, they start jumping around and shooting and things. This is because A) they’ve played these sorts of games many times before, and they know that there’s nothing else to do while going to the right, so out of boredom they’ll just jump and stuff just “because they can”, and B) they want more data about the physics of the game. They need to get used to the acceleration of gravity, the movement speed, etc. because these factors will be important later.
Compare this to the “casual” (what that word means is something that is nebulous, changes on context, and is something I’d rather not define) gamer, who doesn’t really know ANYTHING about the game’s physics once they step out of the first room. So theoretically, in the second room, I could force you to make some jumps to avoid some enemies right away, and our “experimenting” gamer would probably be able to handle it just fine. On the other hand, our “casual” gamer still doesn’t remember which button makes their character jump.
And where does it go from here? Well, if the difference is great at the beginning of the game, it only gets bigger as the game goes on. This is because the engineer gamer is constantly refining his model of the world via observation->analysis. I once heard someone define “stupidity” as the act of trying the same thing twice and expecting a different result the second time. If that’s true, then no offense, but I have to say that countless people are “stupid” when they’re playing games.
2D platformers such as IWBTG are perfectly suited towards gamertypes like myself because they focus on this repetitive cycle of try->fail->observe->analyze->improve. In fact, =most= games implement this cycle, but games such as IWBTG are notable because they make this cycle extremely, extremely rapid and tight. When you’re stuck on some segment of IWBTG, the time between trying and failing can be as short as 5 seconds. Maybe even less. And because we’re engineers, we optimize–we press the restart button =as soon as we fail=. In effect, it becomes a conditioned response–as soon as I hear the death sound, I hit the R key. And in an instant, I have processed and analyzed my observations. I died because of the spikes on the left: that means I need to jump later. Or, this time I died because of the enemy above: that means I need to jump less high.
And this makes IWBTG wholly inaccessible to people who don’t have this kind of cycle going on in their minds. And I know that there are a lot of people who don’t have this cycle going on in their minds, because I’ve SEEN people playing games, and I see them trying things in exactly the same way, many many times, when it is not obvious that what they are doing will lead to success if repeated. So again, there’s this really big disconnect between the experiences that the two kinds of people have.
…Is all this really so exclusive to gaming, though? One could argue that it’s the same kind of thing for sports, other games, etc. Social dance for example, right? When we talk about things in social dance with our social dance friends, there’s a layer of inaccessibility because other people don’t have that sort of background knowledge. And yes, some people try to drag people into social dance against their will (i don’t approve), though some people also try to drag people into social dance with their consent (i approve). And the experience that you get is necessarily different.
You could even argue that reading and watching movies aren’t universally accessible things. I haven’t read the same books that you have, for example. I -won’t- read some of the same books that you have. And just like I probably can’t comprehend some of the cultural references and symbolism in the material that you read, you probably can’t comprehend a lot of the cultural references and symbolism in the material (*cough* like manga *cough*) that I read.
So I don’t think that games are inherently unique in that nothing else is the same way. However, I think it’s still fairly distinguished, both in terms of its nature of “you can’t even see everything in this game because you don’t have the prerequisite background and skills”, and in terms of the presiding cultural attitudes toward it. There’s this duality of being something that’s wholly and totally commonplace, yet something that’s not “mainstream”. Which is not to say that there are no games which aren’t just totally accessible to almost everyone (there definitely are, and more nowadays because the market is changing), but when we think about stereotypical “games” and “gamers”, we can envision some group of dudes playing halo modern warfare WHATEVER and despite the fact that this is a common occurrence, if you’re not “in”, then you don’t understand that world at all. In that sense, it’s like football in that there are people who don’t understand a single thing about football or how it works since it’s not obvious (the only thing that’s obvious is that there’s a ball and you try to move it and people pile up on top of each other), but you still see big game as this huge thing on campus.
Of course, the big nebulous question is, what -should- the presiding cultural attitudes be towards gaming? As gamers, do we want nothing more than to just have everyone be “in” and understand these things just like we do? Well…not necessarily. And we know that that’s not really what we should be aiming for either, because it’s unreasonable and not really “right”. So what should the attitude be? What should the stereotypes say? What would we like non-gamers to think about us?
I don’t think that question can really have an answer, because different people make out of it different things, and there will always be different types of gamers.
There will be the ones that Leigh Alexander always talks about who, upon finding out that she’s a girl who play games, will either exalt her as some sort of holy relic, or will instead challenge her to a game of halo modern warfare WHATEVER, or will start an argument with her about how halo modern warfare WHATEVER is the best game ever while she simply waves her hand and says “uhm, hello? SotN?” and the dude will go “symphony of the night? wtf is that?”
There will be the ones like me who you never even -see- as a gamer because it’s not a social activity for me despite being a large part of my life.
There will be the ones that like to talk to other people who have played the same game, and argue their own viewpoints on them. There will be the ones who say “NO ITEMS FOX ONLY FINAL DESTINATION” and there will be the ones who say “tourneyfags are retards” and there will be the ones who, upon hearing the words “super smash” will shudder in horror because they KNOW that the other person will be one of the above two.
There will be the ones who like to show off their knowledge about a game. There will be the ones who never like to hear about them from other people who they don’t know. Ever.
I guess maybe we should at least strive for an understanding of diversity. The non-gamers (who are quickly becoming gamers of a different breed now that they all have smartphones and have nothing better to do when you guys poop and ride trains and stuff. By the way, you guys are totally more than a decade late to the whole idea, since the Game Boy came out in 1989) should understand that every gamer is different, both in the way that they treat games and in the way that they might like to be treated (something which should be the same for any label, not just “gamer”). And us gamers in turn need to somehow not feel like there’s some label being slapped on us that includes some set of expectations, stereotypes, … And gamers also need to be respectful of -each other- in the same sort of way, because different people WILL look at things differently.
Sometimes it feels like being in some sort of minority. Depending on the type of gamer you are, you may even feel like a minority among minorities.