What It’s Like to Play is a column that describes how videogames are played, to an audience that doesn’t necessarily play a lot of such games. It is inspired by the series of the same name that ran on CultureRamp in late 2012, and its basic premise is explained by L. Rhodes here. The name is used with permission.
As an adult, how does one learn to play electronic games? With no older sibling or friend down the block to teach, no community of mates to check in with, no memory of games from childhood, how does one begin, how does one progress? The universal advice is, “Just play.” Or “Find a game you love and play till you’re adept.” A welcoming thought — however, for me, it’s not been that easy, and I think the reasons might be interesting.
In my late fifties, my personal and professional life both confronted me with how very much I didn’t know about electronic games, aesthetically and otherwise. So I set out to explore, and set the arbitrary goal of getting to know fifty games (and a wide range of them). I am still at the beginning: in three months that began with casual and occasional play, I’ve introduced myself to some twenty-nine games, so far finishing or getting seriously into about ten.
I can hurry past two initial demands on a new player: my new boyfriend, an expert and thoughtful gamesman (yes, he’s younger than me), has spared me initial expense by sharing his Steam account and hooking me up with Blizzard, loaning me a trackball mouse, and doing basic recommendations and coaching. As for the second task, finding people to play with — no such luck. None of my friends play, and the dreaded Beginner Shame blocks me for now from playing with either my few advanced game-player acquaintances or with online strangers. “Games,” for me, for now, more or less means solo-player PC games.
So far, everything I know I owe to alternative games — independent, eccentric, arty, small, non-competitive, lower-stress games: Monument Valley, with the charm of its unflappable heroine’s tiny, methodical steps as she traipses through gravity-defying Escher structures; the restrained, meta-gaming wit of Cameron Kunzelman’s Catachresis and Epanelepsis; the simple but snide world of Loved; Two Queers in Love at the End of the World. Of course, for a bookish chap like me, interactive fiction has been the most involving form, so thanks go to Kentucky Route Zero, Gone Home, and The Walking Dead. And — make no mistake — this is an awe-inspiring way to enter gaming. But my project requires me to go further — across a great divide, mainstream games are staring at me, expectantly.
So now let’s talk about my one and only, tiny, area of expertise, my special POV: learning to play electronic games without the benefit of any prior experience. So far, two major observations: first, as natural as game-playing comes to feel for the veteran player, none of this is simply “natural” — or, at least, human nature, whatever that may be, has to adjust to these amusements: there is more habituation and shaping of desire here, more re-arranging of affect and excitement and, indeed, of values, by the very act of playing, than anyone accustomed to video games may realize. And, secondly, playing a game is a different experience if you’re inexperienced. And thus, when you’re just starting out, there are real, and revealing, hurdles to “just playing,” to sharing what a more knowing player feels.
The first hurdle, and it’s huge, is unfamiliarity with gameplay itself — and with the very process of learning a game.
Start with the controls. For me, not being good with controls almost derails the whole experiment. It means lots of not succeeding; more, it means hesitating at the threshold of the deeper, more involving experience of the game. This is true even with apparently simple games: I would have more fully enjoyed Gone Home — its story, its mood and characterization and sweet queer love story — if it hadn’t been the first time I ever moved a character’s POV with WASD keys and a mouse. I also had things to learn about the puzzle logic of traditional adventure games. Struggling with these, I was too preoccupied by the gameplay to get involved in the game.
More complicated games, like MOBAs, exponentially increase the obstacle, adding time-urgency in battle and the demands of multiple focuses of attention in a screen flooding with visual information; for the first while, naïve players like me will play without much control or even much sense of what’s going on. It leaves me preoccupied by my own incompetence.
Plus I find that I — more a deductive than an inductive thinker — do not easily learn from the trial-and-error method of just jumping into a game to see how I do. Once lost, I might stay lost. “Just try it, you’ll figure it out” must work better for other people.
The second hurdle is the challenge of, yes, getting involved in the game, but only in the right way. The fact is that one who enters the world of gameplay is asked to master a strange dance of simultaneous attachment and detachment: stay unmoved if you are lost, if you fail repeatedly, even if you fictionally die in the attempt — but, contrarily, if you level up, survive, or win, celebrate! I’m told to be emotionally open to the music, art and animation, to the suspense, the whimsical possibilities of character creation, the fantasy, the story — to just get into the game — but in that very state of openness and susceptibility, I’m somehow not to be dismayed by the gloomy, even dystopian, situations of so many games, the violence, the insistence that I kill strangers, or even the fundamental helplessness of trial and error (and error, and error), as these, after all, are just the givens of play and not to be felt or thought much about. To experienced players, to problematize this is preposterous: “What’s wrong?” they ask. “You can’t enjoy the game if you keep getting upset about the wrong things or don’t enjoy the right ones!” Just so. But knowing the difference is not automatic — it has to be learned.
The third, and, to me, the most resonant, challenge is the fact that, for a new player, each game stands by itself. Michael Lutz wrote acutely in First Person Scholar (emphasis added):
I would contend that in the context of videogames, each performance is doubly haunted: first by our memories of other games and expectations of new ones, and then by our experiences of playing the game itself.
If that’s so, then some part of the fun an experienced player enjoys is not inherent to any particular game: the exhilaration my boyfriend feels as he plays is not inspired only by the game at hand, or even because he knows it as one of a type or sequence of games, but, because he already loves games, always-already validating each particular one within a larger, familiar delight. Lacking that context, a new game for me can be a shallower experience, even a strange shot in the dark that I’m not sure I’m getting the point of. A good relationship with any game can depend on knowing things beyond it.
So, hopefully, with more play-time logged in, more getting the whole process under my skin, and (fingers crossed) some more success, my ease, my confidence, and, thus, my engagement and delight will increase. But John Vinson, in an Examiner.com article, “How to Play First-Person Shooters”, gives the hard word:
The world of video games requires a lot of experience … FPS games in particular have a nuance which requires tons of practice in order to even be decent at them. … No one said it was going to be easy. … When you first pick up a game, whether it’s FPS or not, you’re going to be pretty awful at it. Don’t get discouraged. No one truly becomes adequate at playing a game until they can put the time in necessary. It’s easier said than done when you keep dying on the same stage over and over again. … The key is to simply look at it as an obstacle which needs to be conquered.
For a new player, the obstacle that needs to be conquered is being a new player. As such, and for all these reasons, I — fiercely determined to get somewhere in this exploration — am not yet getting to the fun, at least not the fun an experienced player knows. Curiosity (and sometimes teeth-grinding stubbornness) has to motivate me instead. And that works.
There are certainly positive moments, gifts along the way — the dive bar’s ceiling mysteriously opening up to the sky during the torch song in Kentucky Route Zero, a moment of victory when, after eight rapid deaths in The Walking Dead I figure out how to survive a particularly tenacious zombie by sneaking away behind a moving car, a short sequence of challenges in Portal 2 that proves surprisingly doable. I’m getting a little more patient, a little more acclimated — maybe even a little more amused. I’ve grown accustomed to giving games some time, and recognizing that the startup period of learning a game is never going to be the part I personally enjoy. And lately I’ve seen that the days when I am most bitterly frustrated, “hate-playing” and complaining to any poor soul who will listen — those days are usually followed by next-day breakthroughs.
A few mornings ago I find myself playing through the tutorial of Diablo III with my boyfriend, who offers tactful coaching and explanation (N.B.: the most important words you can say to a new player? “You don’t have to understand that part yet.” Instant relief.) As a team game, it’s a big change for me. And, to my surprise, I like it; for three hours of mediocre playing (my longest play session at a single game so far), I like it well enough — simple gameplay, a hope of survival, a break from puzzle-solving, pleasing visuals, a changing landscape, another player in the room … My son texts me, “I’d comment that it’s odd that such a smart guy likes such a dumb game, but I like Diablo a lot, too.”
I write as an outsider, but one interested in and sympathetic to games. What, then, might this outsider account offer to insiders?
First, an appeal: I really think this could be easier. Can’t someone create a graduated list of games for adult-onset players, a series of games to take on, in sequence, that would build familiarity and component skills and even attitudes, in a conscious way? Most players I know have only the blurriest memories of how one learns this stuff, little sense of the parts that make up the whole: sorting it out might be an interesting project.
Second, a reflection. I’d hazard a surmise for inveterate players: if playing these games feels natural, it’s an acquired nature — because habituation to play actually changes you. In particular, you become desensitized to some elements of the game fictions and highly sensitive to others, including the rewards and energetic stimulations of play. You become crafty at the kinds of problems games put forward; it comes to affect your rhythms, your imagination, your way of processing things. (Don’t get me started on what it’s like to drive in traffic with a committed MOBA player!)
Most importantly, in a larger sense, I believe that games alter your sense of fun, including, centrally, the very value you place on fun, the amount of time, money, effort you are willing to invest in its pursuit. In short, alien visitor that I am, I have to accept that for you this fun is authentic and valuable. In fact — here’s my professorial training — I believe that the value you place on fun actually constitutes an on-the-ground riposte to a lot of critical/cultural pessimism (I refer especially to mid-twentieth-century Marxists, like Lyotard and Baudrillard, both very influential on me, who saw all pop-culture habituations through narrowed, suspicious eyes). A thoughtful, critical reevaluation of play, of fun, could upset a lot of orthodoxies. That’s part of the promise of games.