What Games Are Like For Someone Who Doesn’t Play Games

What Games Are Like For Someone Who Doesn’t Play Games


Last year, the lady I live with, also known
as my wife, asked if she could try out one of the games I’d been playing. She described it as the one with the cute
little ghost guy, and after scrolling through my entire library, I realized she was talking
about Hollow Knight. Given the fact that her experience with videogames
at that point consisted of the occasional race in Mario Kart and a smattering of Crash
Bandicoot levels from when she was a kid, I knew with fair confidence that her playing
Hollow Knight would go terribly. So, obviously I booted it up and set her into
the world of Hallownest. As she played, every moment, regardless of
how seemingly insignificant, had a strange sort of intensity. For example, in the tutorial there are a set
of platforms that the player needs to jump across. The only penalty for falling is a little bit
of time, and on my first playthrough I breezed past it and immediately forgot about it. For her, it was intense beyond belief. She wasn’t sure what the penalty for falling
would be, and she didn’t have a full grasp on how to adjust her jump height and distance. Each successful jump felt like a triumph,
and after landing, she’d look out at the next platform, searching for the nerve to
jump again. Watching her work through this early section
got me thinking a lot about the language of video games, and just how much a person’s
level of video game literacy affects their experience with any given title. I can’t really think of a time in my life
where I wasn’t interested in games, and because of that, there are certain aspects
about them that are almost instinctual to me now, and that is because a lot of games
use the same ideas and vocabulary in order to get information across to players as quickly
as possible. It’s why the color red is almost always
associated with health, why the A button is typically the command to jump , and why platformers,
more often than not, move from left to right. At this point, I’ve played enough games
where after five minutes of playing one, I almost always know what to expect, no matter
the kind of game, but that inherent understanding of how games work and what to expect from
them doesn’t exist for the lady I live with because she hasn’t spent the time learning
those things. This made me wonder how people learn the basics
of video games, so I decided to run an informal experiment where I’d have her play a handful
of titles and see how she approached figuring each of them out in the hopes of getting a
better understanding of how people learn the language of video games. In an effort to not influence how she approached
any given title, I didn’t give her any advice or instructions; I just watched, silently
judging. I had her play through the early sections
of 9 games: Super Mario Brothers, Shovel Knight, Celeste, Portal, DOOM, Skyrim, The Last of
Us, Uncharted 2, and so that I could really test the strength of our marriage, Dark Souls. I picked these titles because a) I felt they
would be a solid sampling of three major types of games that being 2D platformers, 3D platformers,
and first-person shooters/adventures, while also offering a diverse spread of genres and
gameplay mechanics and b) I like them. This is how it went. Just kidding, we’re still good. With each game, I noticed that there were
a vast amount of seemingly basic functions and mechanics that she either didn’t fully
grasp or know existed. This first came up with Mario 1-1. She figured out the jump easily enough, but
never realized she had the ability to dash, making her time with the level painfully hard
to watch. There are no in-game instructions on how to
dash or do anything else really, so players will only learn about it if they read the
instruction manual, figure it out through experimentation, or have another person tell
them how it works. As she didn’t even know it was something
she could do, she never figured it out. For me it has become second nature to try
to sprint in games, whether or not I know its an option. I just assume it will be and guess it is probably
the B button or its equivalent, but I only make that assumption because of years of being
conditioned to make it. Figuring out the controls for all of the games,
whether they were explicitly explained or implicitly taught through level design, was
a challenge for her. Part of this stems from her not being all
that comfortable with a controller. Anytime a game asked for her to press a certain
button, she’d look down at it to search for that button. One of the most instances of this came up
while playing The Last of Us. Early on there is a prompt on the screen to
press L3, which she could not find on the controller as there is no button labeled L3. She noticed it was shaped like a circle, so
she guessed it might be one of the joysticks. However, she didn’t know that it meant to
press down on it, so she just sort of moved back and forth until eventually figuring it
out. I’ve certainly played games that do a better
job of illustrating how L3 and R3 work, but it is interesting that there is pretty much
a hidden button on most controllers that new players will have no reason to know exists. I know that figuring out a game’s controls
sounds easy, but she essentially had to not only memorize which buttons did what, but
also which buttons were where, adding another layer of things to keep track of and making
the process a little bit more overwhelming. She typically faired better with games that
didn’t give too much information to remember. With Dark Souls, reading 15 or so messages
laying out the controls, she mentioned that it was way too much to remember in such a
short span of time. A lot of the things she learned, most notably
the lock-on feature, she forgot by the time they would actually be useful. On the other side of things, with Shovel Knight
she struggled to get through a few of the early sections because she didn’t understand
the full scope of her abilities or how to use them, but once she did start to figure
them out through pressing every button she could, she ended up remembering them better
because she witnessed first hand how useful they could be. Most of the games I had her play were with
a controller, but I did want her to have some experience with a mouse and keyboard, so I
had her try a few games with a first-person perspective. I figured Portal would be the best place to
start as it doesn’t call for quick reflexes, and it gives players time to figure things
out. Using the keyboard actually proved to be easier
for her than the controller as she uses a keyboard every day and knows where everything
is. However, if you’ve been paying attention
to the footage, you’ve probably noticed that she isn’t looking around at all, and
that is because she didn’t realize she was supposed to use the mouse. In fairness, the instructions at the start
explain how to move and how to pick things up, but they do assume that players will just
know to use the mouse to look around. As she doesn’t spend her free time watching
me play games on PC: why would she? I know that a lot of these little issues she
ran into in regards to controls and mechanics all seem easy to overcome, and in some ways
they are, but they do still act as small barriers to entry for new players. Even when games have detailed explanations
for things, it isn’t uncommon for people to skip over it accidentally or on purpose
because they don’t feel like reading a bunch of stuff when they just want to beat the shit
out of something. A lot of titles seem to assume that players
will have at least some familiarity with controls, so some of the more simple explanations are
kind of just left out. And I think the way most people end up learning
this basic things that they won’t figure out with out searching on their own is through
other people. For example, I don’t remember how I learned
to sprint in Super Mario Brothers, but there is a pretty decent chance that my brother
told me how to do it, and that one of his friends had told him and so on and so on. Furthermore, the only reason I understand
half of the things I do in Dark Souls is because I’ve scoured wikis and message boards on
how to git gud. Video games are best when they are a communal
experience, and a big part of that stems from the sharing of knowledge. Obviously, someone being a backseat gamer
can get annoying if they explain how to do everything, but getting assistance when it’s
needed most can make a game far more enjoyable. It bridges the gap between what games expect
players to already know and what they actually know. Most of the frustration that the lady I live
with had while playing boiled down to not being able to figure things out that she didn’t
know existed, which is something that would have been solved had I not just been a silent
observer. Given that I was though, she found herself
continuing to have problems, and one of those is summed up best by her most frequently asked
question: When it came to the 2D platformers, navigating
wasn’t especially difficult for her. Because the options were limited, it was pretty
easy for here to figure out that she needed to go right and sometimes up. Celeste and Shovel Knight do have a few optional
rooms players can go in, but for the most part, whenever she entered one, she could
tell it wasn’t the path she wanted to take. Although Shovel Knight does have a side room
in the tutorial that heads to the right and seems like the main path despite not being
it, and there was a fair amount of disappointment she realized she did all that work for nothing. Lady Buten: “Are you fucking kidding me?!” However, for all of the 3D games, navigating
proved far more difficult. She spent a lot of time wrestling with the
camera in third person games, and she wasn’t all that great at moving and looking around
at the same time in first person ones. Due to her not moving the camera around a
ton, she didn’t always get a great sense of her surroundings, so she struggled with
figuring out where she was and where to go. Like, in Skyrim she missed the jump from the
tower to the house during the tutorial, and it took awhile for her to realize that she
had fallen back to the spot where she started. Also, because she wasn’t good at focusing
her camera, she didn’t realize she was supposed to be following Hadvar, so she was sort of
just strolling along, trying to get out of the city in her own way. Once she did follow him and got into a building,
she was more interested in picking up everything she saw instead of moving forward, which actually
is fair and how most people I know play Skyrim. Either way, she wasn’t fully sure where
to go. Interestingly, after she finished the tutorial,
I brought up the footage and showed her the compass at the top of the screen, and she
said that she hadn’t noticed while playing as she was mostly just focused on what was
directly in front of her. The same thing happened with Doom’s compass
and even the health bars of enemies and Bosses in Dark Souls. She typically noticed waypoints on the screen
when they showed up, but as she didn’t know what they were for, so she just sort of ignored
them. Another thing that confused her was when progression
in a level wasn’t entirely linear, Like with Dark Souls, she got confused when level
looped back around on itself, and she made the assumption that she had messed up and
gone the wrong way. Most of the games she had played before Dark
Souls had typical progression, so finding herself back near where she started felt odd. Even the 3D games that seem like they’d
be more straightforward had a few things that ended up being a confusing for her.. For example, with Uncharted 2, what a player
can climb is indicated by being colored yellow, but that wasn’t obvious to her, so she constantly
tried to climb on things that just looked like something she could climb. She constantly questioned why she was taking
the longer, more roundabout path, when there were perfectly good handholds right above. A similar issue with signalling happened with
The Last of Us as well. There is a part where the player has to run
through the city to escape, and a gas station explodes causing street lamps and other things
to block the road ahead. My wife noticed a little gap on the sidewalk
that was untouched by fire, so she kept trying to run through that, but every time she did,
the infected came and killed her. This made her think that the issue wasn’t
with it being the wrong way to go, but rather with just not being fast enough, so she kept
trying that same path over and over before finally finding the right way. With game design, there is often a battle
between having a level look realistic and making it easy to navigate. In this example, Naughty Dog tried to make
the city feel more natural by not having every path be physically blocked off, and while
more experienced players would most likely see the explosion and assume they should go
a different way, the game falls short on helping players who don’t understand what they are
supposed to. By having the signal be the explosion, but
the consequence be an attack by the infected, she got the wrong idea of what she needed
to do. And this sort of thing ended up happening
to her a fair amount throughout this process, even with things that had nothing to do with
where to go. Sometimes she interpreted the information the game was giving her in the wrong way, and
she found herself… The idea that some games teach players how
to play simply through gameplay and level design is a pretty common talking point in
the video game community. I am a firm believer that a lot of titles
do this well, and watching her play reaffirmed that thought. For example, with DOOM, her initial instinct
was to stay as far away from enemies as possible because she didn’t feel all that comfortable
with the controls of a first-person shooter. However, once she came across enemies who
threw fireballs at her from a distance that did way more damage than anything she could
do from the same range, she started to realize that her best bet was to get close to enemies
and either beat the crap out of them or use the shotgun. Ultimately, DOOM is meant to be played this
way; the glory kill system and the handful of weapons that are powerful at close range
are included to push a fast-paced action-packed fighting style, and having one of the first
rooms be extremely difficult to beat without playing this way, sets the expectation for
the rest of the game. It took her a fair bit of banging her head
against the wall to get past this room, but once she did, she was better at the core mechanics
of the game than when she started. What I found even more interesting than when
she learned the right lessons of how to play a game through gameplay was when she learned
the wrong ones. The first instance of this that I noticed
happened while playing Mario 1-1. At the beginning of the level there is a question
mark box with a Mushroom in it. She had some familiarity with the Mario franchise
so she knew that mushrooms were good to get. However, after hitting the box, she jumped
into a different block, causing the mushroom to change directions and go off the left side
of the screen, out of reach. She didn’t register that she had caused
the mushroom to change directions, leading her to the assumption that mushrooms would
always end up going to the left. When she got to another block that she suspected
held a mushroom, she hit it and immediately moved to the left to grab it before it went
off screen, and…well. This was a far less intrusive lesson to get
wrong than the ones that came up while she played Celeste and Shovel Knight. The tutorial of Celeste is a pretty simple
stage that ends with the player learning how to dash, which is arguably the most important
and useful mechanic in the game. The lady I live with interpreted the prompt
to mean that the only way to dash was by doing it at an upward angle, pretty much crippling
her ability to do screens effectively until after 15 minutes or so when she is accidentally
dashed horizontally and realized her moveset was wider than she thought.. With Shovel Knight early on she died from
hitting this bubble. A bag of gold popped out and hovered near
it. On her next time through, she jumped on the
bubble and the bag at the same time, and assumed that both things had damaged her, causing
her to think that the bags of gold were an enemy of some sort. So when she came across them after, she would
either try to attack them or just actively avoid them. As she wasn’t paying terribly close attention
to the HUD, she never realized what they actually did. I’m not saying that these things are the
faults of the game developers, but it is interesting how easily information on screen can be misunderstood. These sort of things can happen to players of
all skill levels, but given her lack of experience, she didn’t have much else to go on to challenge
the lessons she thought she had learned. I found the disconnect between how she thought
games worked and how they actually worked to be pretty interesting, and as I focused
more on those differences, I started to notice a sort of trend with every title she played. That being: When most people talk about what any video
game is like, there is often a greater focus on the general actions players can do rather
than the limitations that make it possible for the game to function. For example, Mass Effect could be described
as a roleplaying game where, among other things, players get the opportunity to talk to and
form relationships with various characters across the universe. People who play a lot of games, will most
likely go in understanding that this actually means players will be able to form relationships
with a predetermined cast of characters by choosing responses from a set of limited dialogue
options. As it turns out, this formula makes for a
really great series, but there is a gap between what a game sounds like and what it actually
looks like. And I think for people who don’t end up
playing a lot of games but have to suffer through listening to their friends or partners
talk about them, they get a warped perception about what players can do in a title because
they don’t understand or know the systems that games use in order to give these grand
sounding experiences. Where I know to apply this sort of video game
logic to any title I play, I found that the lady I live with was more likely to apply
real world logic. Like, in the DOOM tutorial there is a Gore
Nest that the player needs to destroy. A waypoint marker shows up on it, which when
I first played I knew meant I needed to go up to it, and most likely hit a button prompt. When my wife played, she didn’t know what
the marker meant so her initial instinct wasn’t to walk right up to it. Instead, she noticed while messing around
that the red barrels exploded, so she had the idea to try to push one of the barrels
towards the Nest to blow it up, and this is objectively more interesting than just pressing
a button to destroy it, but of course, it didn’t work. Throughout the various games she played, a
pretty common question she asked was “Why can’t I do it this way?” And my response was “because?” The deeper answer is that limations exist
in games because there are only so many potential inputs a title can have, meaning there are
a finite number of ways a player can interact with things. Also, if developers tried to program in every
possible way a player might think about interacting with something, games would just never come
out. I am used to these limitations. I actually appreciate them in a lot of instances. However for her, she got frustrated when the
ideas she came up with didn’t work. Like while scaling the train in Uncharted
2, she reached a point where she wanted to swing from a pipe and through a window, so
when she found out she had to follow the predetermined path that didn’t take much more than pressing
left, she felt disappointed because, yeah, her idea was way cooler. In Skyrim, as Alduin began attacking the city,
she found a spot in a house and figured she’d just wait it out until he left. But due to the scripted nature of this part
of the game, that plan didn’t work, forcing her to follow the path the game wanted her
to follow. In turn, this took away all of the tension
of this section because she knew she could take as long as she wanted and nothing bad
would happen. Her expectations for what she thought she
could do in each game were always different than the reality of it, and I think as she
realized that games were more simple than she had first assumed, some of the intrigue
about them faded. For the lady I live, the thing she hated more
than anything else about this experiment was having to replay sections of a level over
and over again after dying. Had I not told her to keep trying on a handful
of the games, she would have stopped far sooner because it was understandably frustrating. With that said, when she did stick with games
that frustrated her and ended up beating the parts that she struggled with, it was exhilarating
for her. I think this tradeoff of dealing with frustration
so that the excitement of beating something is all that much sweeter, is one that people
who play a lot of games not only understand, but look for. However, trying to pitch to her that she should
spend her free time doing something that actively frustrates her so that the few moments where
she succeeds feel glorious is a bit of a hard pitch. This little test has me questioning how I
became interested in video games in the first place. I don’t remember how they became such a
big part of life. I don’t know how I got to the point where
I could look at a compass at the top of a screen and know what to expect from every
marker without looking them up; I don’t know how I first learned about stamina bars
and the various ways to make sure I don’t run out of energy; I don’t know how I became,
I guess, fluent in the language of video games. I am just glad that I learned the basics when
I was young enough to not care about spending hours on one level. For a better understanding of how inexperienced
players approach video games, I’d need to run a much wider and more complex study that
is tests in a more robust way than just sitting down to watch my wife play video games a few
times, but it was interesting to me to compare how wildly different my approach to games
is to her.s And while I definitely don’t have enough definitive information to make
any sort of legitimate conclusion about how inexperienced players approach games, I do
want to say this: In a similar way to how it is harder to learn a language as an adult,
it’s harder to get into video games after a lifetime of not playing them, and that seems
to have less to do with interest and more to do with struggling to get over the barriers
that exist for new players. If you don’t know how to read, why would
you pick up a book? What I’m getting at is if someone you know
who doesn’t play games expresses interest in trying one, don’t force them to run an
experiment where you give no guidance and mostly just watch them struggle with something
that they never learned how to do. Teach them how to read instead. (relationship banter)


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