Thursday, 16 October 2008

October Round Table: Playing Halo with my Mother

'It’s a Family Affair': This month’s Round Table invites you to explore your earliest memories of playing games with your family.

How does one shoehorn family and videogames into the same sentence? In my case it’s to say that the two never were in the same sentence. As a pre-adolescent, and then as a teenager, videogames were an escape from the bullying I received while at school, and – for my parents – a welcome method of keeping me occupied for a while at home. I will admit that, as a child, I was one that demanded a lot of attention from parents and caregivers, and it was probably a happy day when they were able to sit me down with SimTower and not have to worry about keeping me occupied for an hour.

When I reached an age old enough to have my own computer (around 14 if memory serves) I began to spend entire Saturdays locked away in my bedroom playing games like the original Half-Life, Black & White, Baldur’s Gate and anything else I could pirate from friends. So it really wasn’t until last year that the phrases “my parents” and “videogames” ever really started to go together in any sentence that wasn’t an admonishment about spending so much time on my computer.

When my mother noticed how much fun my brother and I had when playing cooperatively in the Halo series of games (and how much of our focus it took away from useful and productive things like chores, eating, etc.) she declared that, it looked like fun and that one day you’ll have to show me how to play Halo. And so my brother and I introduced mum to the Halo games.

Yes, she was pretty bad at first, but she made good progress, and the fact that we played cooperatively meant it was an easy learning curve for her. The thing it made me realise, however, was just how much accumulated skill we as gamers now possess – more specifically, the ability to rapidly adapt to new control schemes and button mappings. When my brother and I played The Orange Box on Xbox 360, we perhaps took 15 minutes to become reasonably competent at the Valve variant of console shooter controls, whereas my mother with her near complete lack of previous gamepad experience still has trouble moving and looking at the same time after a number of hours playing.

So I learnt a lot from playing with family – there is such an amazing level of knowledge that we gamers take for granted. When we complain about ‘arbitrary’ control schemes, I now take a minute and think about how, well really, all control schemes are largely arbitrary to you also happen to have a similar shared gaming background. I mean, why does shoot always have to be under the right index finger? Just because that’s what we use that when shooting a physical gun? Okay, that’s a bad example because maybe there is something to be said for some button mappings, but jump as A? That’s also reasonably standard, and there is no correspondence between using your legs and pressing A with your thumb.

Thinking back to it now, when I first played Half-Life all those years ago, I had no-one to tell me about the WASD control scheme. Imagine if, instead of looking into the control mapping and thinking oh, that’s interesting, I think I’ll try that, I instead said, oh stuff that – arrow keys for me k thnx. I’d probably be horrible at modern PC shooters (in b4 “you’re already horrible at PC shooters”).

This issue of accumulated, similar experience among gamers is one that’s cropped up a fair bit in the last couple of days – Both Matt Gallant at the Quixotic Engineer and Dan Purvis at Graffiti Gamer have addressed the question of whether the ‘enthusiast’ or ‘hardcore’ gamers and press have different interests and experience to your more ‘average’ gamer (if there is such a person). I think I’m definitely on the affirmative side of the issue in question, as playing with my mother has shown me exactly how big that gap can be.


Daniel Purvis said...

Hahaha, I can sympathise with your WASD case. It wasn't until I began playing Counter-Strike at a friend's house did I realise that you could even use keys other than the arrows.

Previously, I had only played Wolfenstein 3D and Marathon (being a Mac kid), and always played flight simulators with the arrow keys. That was how I played, it was ingrained. To this day, I still consider moving back to the numpad to game.

I used to screw with every bloody game I had to see if I could make the numpad play nice. Never really came up with a comfortable solution, though.

You're right, though, regarding the controller and such. My dad used to love playing Master System but ended up with a neck injury and was no longer able to hold a controller correctly (though he seems to handle a tv remote fine!).

In fact, I've tried, with some success, to encourage mum and dad to play some games, just to kill time and enjoy life. They always complain about how poor the newspaper is but never took steps to do something more exciting.

I found that they can play Buzz, because the special controllers are easy to use. You have a big red button you push when you want to answer a question, and you have coloured buttons for when you want to select from different answers.

However, they still had trouble getting to buttons hastily -- and many of the Buzz questions are times -- so it's still a challenge.

Mum also loves her DS because she doesn't NEED to know what the buttons are. She can just use the stylus and point at what she wants to do.

The whole idea of using a controller is essentially excluding a whole range of people -- Nintendo has tried to change that with the Wii and to be completely honest, I'm glad they're helping make games more accessible.

Ben Abraham said...

Yeah I think Nintendo are to be commended for their work on breaking down the barriers to entry that, frankly, Microsoft & Sony have really done nothing about for the past 10 years.

And it's definitely paying off for them - both the Wii & the DS are a licence to print money!

Scott Juster said...

I think you're really on to something when you talk about gamnes' control schemes.

Those of us who play lots of games develop a set of knowledge that can usually be applied to most games. If "a" is accept, then "b" is back. You can often hold a button down to make text scroll faster. We have an intuitive sense of what walls can be destroyed and which can't. The trigger is on the right, etc.

I liken it to one's ability to predict a story arc or musical progression; those that read lots of books can quickly get a sense of where a story is going before they get there. It's just a matter of reading enough to discern patterns.

New gamers come into a situation with no knowledge of widespread game mechanics, and thus I think the hardest step is to complete or master that first game. It gets easier over time if they just keep at it.

Ben Abraham said...

Hi Scott, thanks for taking the time to read and for the comment.

You summarised my piece in one paragraph! What I think I failed to mention though, and what doesn't get mentioned enough, is that unlike pre-empting story arcs in books or expecting a harmonic progression in music, the inability to control the game *does* preclude the player from actually playing and participating in the game.

Michael Abbott every so often reminds everyone of this issue, particularly when games come out that promise to be a great new potential entry point for non-gamers into gaming.

If I remember correctly, this post about Civ Rev for the DS was a good example of that:

Thomas said...

It's funny to hear people talk about this, because for me, for a long time, my gaming family was my brothers. My parents would never play games, ever, and when they try, it's like they just tasted old milk.

I was insulated from non-gamers, for a long time, because we three were always up on new games, how to play them, playing them together.

My girlfriend changed that though. You're all right, especially about the ways in which we know what's permissible and what's not, intuitively, after a moment or two. Still, she loves Professor Layton, and a few others, so I have more luck than some.

Ben Abraham said...

Hey Thomas, thanks for reading and commenting.

Funnily enough, my brother and I share a close shared history of gaming as well and it's only been recently that I've managed to rope my mum in for a game or two. I recently got her to play Spore, which I think she's enjoying.

Maybe you should try some outreach to your folks. ;-)