Monday, October 06, 2008

Gaming for Non-Gamers

Not surprisingly, I’ve been writing a lot of gaming related posts lately. If you’re one of the people who normally turns up here, says “Not another bloody gaming post!” then leaves…don’t…at least not this time.

This is a gaming post, but it’s one written specifically for non-gamers.

I got the idea for this post when I was first trying out the new 360 when my parents were here. My Mum watched for a few minutes and asked:

“So…what exactly are you doing?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. It was all there on the screen. I was controlling Darth Vader and killing Wookies with a Lightsaber and very large rocks.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well…are you steering that guy or is he just following a path?”

I instantly had a flashback to the early 90’s when my Mum was telling my to let my four year old cousin play X-wing on the PC. I tried to explain that it was a complicated game that would be too difficult for him…and she answered “Don’t be stupid, just tell him which button to press!”

I tried to explain that it wasn’t as simple as that. For X-wing, 90% of the keys on the keyboard did something, not to mention the five separate buttons and the throttle on the joystick…but my mum had it firmly lodged in her head that all videogames basically boil down to pushing a button at the right time.

I think this is the number one reason there aren’t more games consoles in homes. Non-gamers have one of two reactions:

1) They look at a controller with it’s two thumb-sticks, D-Pad and twelve buttons and decide instantly that it’s way to complicated and not worth the effort.

2) More commonly, they assume that all games are incredibly simple exercises in pushing buttons that are boring no matter how pretty the eye candy.

From that, I can understand why a lot of people don’t play games. If they truly were that complicated, I wouldn’t bother…and if all games where as simple as just pushing buttons, they wouldn’t hold my interest either.

Let me talk about ‘learning to game’ for a few minutes, then I’ll go on to why you’d actually want to.

Here’s the deal. If you can drive a car, use a phone or work a TV remote, you can learn to play a videogame. The problem is that when you look at a controller with all those buttons, you’re not seeing them ‘in context’, meaning it looks far more intimidating and complicated than it really is.

Think of it this way. The average controller has a couple of thumb-sticks, a D-Pad and anywhere from six to eight buttons. That’s a lot right? Well, yes…but not compared to the average TV remote.

My TV remote has exactly 46 buttons on it. I also have a separate remote for the DVD recorder and another one for the surround sound system. In other words, if you have a TV you use a controller with around five times the buttons of a control pad…yet you don’t find it intimidating.

Long story short, I’m not saying it’s super-easy, but if you pick a game a persevere for an hour or so, while you won’t suddenly be an expert gamer, you’ll be comfortable with the controls…and everything you learn in one game translates to most others.

The other thing to point out is that while controllers have all those buttons, not every game actually uses all of them. While there are some complicated games out there, there are also plenty that are nice and simple that anyone can just pick up and play.

So now we’ve talked about the mechanics of it, why would you want to game?

The problem here is that most non-gamers seem to be stuck in the 80’s when it comes to their ideas aboutgaming technology. They assume all games are about as deep as Space Invaders or Pac-Man.

While there still are a good few simplistic, button-mashers out there, with today’s technology and production values. it’s better to think of it not so much as buying a ‘game’ as buying an ‘experience’.

Games like Bioshock, Mass Effect, Half-Life and Oblivion are incredibly well written, atmospheric experiences that would be just as at home on the Silver Screen or at the top of the New York Times Best-Seller list as they are on a games console.

If the last game you played was Pac-Man, it might be difficult to think of videogames in these kinds of terms, but think of them as movies or novels that you play the leading role in. They’re worlds that you not only get to play in, but worlds youbecome part of and emotionally invested in.

Again, it can be difficult to imagine getting ‘emotionally invested’ in a videogame if your only gaming experience is Pac-Man…but it’s no different than becoming emotionally invested in a good book or movie

For example, Bioshock has an absolutely astounding plot-twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan crap his pants and feel like a complete amateur. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who’s not played it yet…but it made my jaw hit the floor and I shouted ‘NO FUCKING WAY!!!’ with my Mother-In-Law in the room.

Then, when Alyx Vance got seriously wounded in Half-Life Episode 2, it came as a real shock…and not because I thought a major character might get killed off, but because the game had made me care about Alyx and what happens to her.

Of course, the other major problem right now is the sheer number of fame-hungry morons who are using videogames as a nice soft target to attack in the name of ‘morality’ and ‘protecting the children’ in order to get on TV or secure support from uninformed voters.

I could go into this myself, but I’ve done that ad nauseum in the past, and the whole point of this post was summed up perfectly by Wil Wheaton in his PAX keynote speech. So to end today, here’s an excerpt:

(Talking about his Son’s experience with Grand Theft Auto 3)

“…he did, however, get emotionally invested in the characters and their stories. He was sad when the game was over and felt a sense of loss because he wouldn’t get to spend any more time with them.

I had an identical reaction when I finished San Andreas. I knew these characters, I cared about these characters and I was genuinely sad when their stories came to an end.

I frequently feel this way when I finish a long novel and occasionally when I come to the end of a movie trilogy…but never so acutely as I did after about a hundred and fifty hours of San Andreas.

So whenever I hear one of these aforementioned douchebags pontificate about how dangerous and anti-social and devoid of redemming quialities videogames are, I get a little stabby, because these games that we love to play so much are way, way more than the simplistic bloodbaths mass-media likes to portray them as during sweeps.

Just as the multiplayer games are social activities, so are the single player games narrative works of art, and they deserve to be treated that way.”

So, in conclusion, if you’re not a gamer, find someone who is and ask them to show you the ropes. If you don’t, you’re just cheating yourself out of an awesome experience.

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