Watching a “Non-Gamer” Game

Dur­ing the recent hol­i­day, a Christ­mas gift exchange pro­vid­ed a chance to learn some­thing. Being me, I embraced expec­ta­tions of what a geek and a game design­er con­sid­ers a good gift, and I deliv­ered a 360 copy of Red Dead Redemp­tion to some­one who is a bit of a gamer, but not much of a con­sole play­er. You can rea­son­ably ask why I chose this gift, but let’s skip over ques­tion­ing my judg­ment for today.

The result was a rather frus­trat­ing expe­ri­ence for both the play­er and for me: Watch­ing the non-gamer play a game. My impulse to grab the con­troller and let-me-show-you-how-to-do-it is a strong one. In this instance, like most, that wouldn’t be help­ful. The stum­bling block I wit­nessed in that crit­i­cal first hour of play wasn’t nav­i­gat­ing menus or get­ting start­ed, and it cer­tain­ly wasn’t get­ting immersed in the sto­ry. It was one of the basic things that con­sole play­ers are assumed to know. The dual-stick con­trol mechanism—left stick loco­mo­tion and trans­la­tion, right stick cam­era and ori­en­ta­tion. This inter­face finds use in almost every con­sole game today. And my new play­er had no expe­ri­ence with it. He had trou­ble with coor­di­nat­ing motion and direc­tion at the same time.

The inter­est­ing ques­tion is how to solve this prob­lem? Every game could include some­thing of a tuto­r­i­al. Dri­ve your char­ac­ter to here using left stick. Look over here using right stick (hey, do you play invert­ed?). And I’ve seen some of that. But the real thing is the coor­di­na­tion of doing both at the same time. And repeat­ing that les­son, get­ting it to become sec­ond nature, pro­duc­ing an intu­itive con­nec­tion of feed­back and response.

I shud­der at every major game release attempt­ing a tuto­r­i­al that would stretch long enough to cre­ate such a con­nec­tion. I’m not sure we can solve this, or that it’s worth try­ing. Once a play­er has got the fun­da­men­tal skill fig­ured out, it seems akin to rid­ing a bicy­cle. You get your bal­ance, and you can ride just about any two-wheeled bike (or char­ac­ter-based con­sole game) with it.

For the cur­rent-gen­er­a­tion of con­soles, though, I think the sin­gle defin­ing skill of the con­sole gamer is the mas­tery of the mod­ern con­troller. Peo­ple who play casu­al games, Face­book games, exer­cise games, music games, and Wii games don’t will­ing­ly admit to being a gamer. But once you’ve got two thumb­sticks down, it’s a label you have to embrace.

One Comment

  • I’ve played a fair num­ber of games that do try to have this tuto­r­i­al at the begin­ning. It is a lot to absorb quick­ly though. Espe­cial­ly if you’ve nev­er held a con­troller before. It’s like try­ing to learn to touch type while being shot by paint balls.

    We’re hav­ing an oppo­site issue with the Kinect. My son, who is ful­ly knowl­edge­able on a con­sole con­troller but not as skilled at mov­ing his actu­al body is get­ting outscored over and over in Dance Cen­tral by my wife — who can’t play, and doesn’t want to play, con­sole games. He expects to be the supe­ri­or play­er, but the con­trol mech­a­nism favors peo­ple who actu­al­ly know how to dance.

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