Ed – A big thanks to both @Gshowitt and @Newsmary for a fantastic talk at Videobrains on December 11th that got me thinking about Video Game Literacy. As someone with a non gaming partner who loves Let’s Plays, their talk did a great deal for helping me verbalise myself properly on this topic and where LPs come into providing value for someone in my life who wants to explore games, but died on Goomba 1 of Mario.
Video Games as a medium have undergone a scary number of core mechanical changes over their incredibly short history. In a approximately 40 year history as an industry we’ve seen more changes to not only the way video games are controlled but also the basic understanding required to enjoy the medium than perhaps any other form of media in history.
Books require you to understand the alphabet, a core amount of reading comprehension and the ability to look up the meanings of complex words. That has not changed much in the history of the written word, with vocabulary evolving over numerous generations rather than just a couple of decades. Films require an understanding of framing, scene transitions and the way narratives and dialogue traditionally flow. There are films that break these core conventions, but they break them on the understanding that the core concepts are taught from a young age and that people will understand the changes in relation to the understandable core.
If you watched films, read books or listened to music growing up in the 70’s you may not enjoy a lot of films released today, but you’ll understand how to watch them, with the possible example of understanding how your DVD player operates compared to your old VHS player. You could grow up with any of those media in the 70’s, walk away for 40 years and still understand the language of those media as they have evolved today.
Video games on the other hand are incredibly different now to their inception 40 years ago and their design today is built on the understanding that everyone who wants to play video games has an extensive knowledge of the medium’s evolution.
So, here’s an example: My mother used to play video games. Rewind back to 1985 and she was more than happy playing Mario. She had a controller with four directional inputs, one button that let her jump and one that let her run. It was a manageable amount of information to jump in with, she could process the number of available inputs and their results quickly, holding that information in her mind and enjoying the experience.
My mother could not get the grip of Super Mario Galaxy when I tried to bring her back into playing video games in 2007. She had taken approximately twenty years away from a form of media and the required language for her to jump in was just far too high a barrier to entry. There’s an assumption that you’ll have played Mario 64 to learn basic camera controls in a 3D space designed to give you time to react very slowly for a very long time until those controls felt natural. The curve of that game took into account how unnatural 3D camera control would feel for people new to it and taught players how to look around at a comfortable pace. Mario Galaxy assumes you know how to control that camera among a whole host of other things and doesn’t pace itself in a way that allows learning those skills naturally.
It’s a long standing problem for me trying to introduce my family, friends and girlfriend to video games. I tried to get my girlfriend to play through Gone Home but she struggled with the camera control and her difficulty with it caused her to become motion sick part way through a story she was invested in. I tried to introduce a non gaming friend to Spec Ops: The Line as critique of military fetishistic attitudes in pop culture, but she didn’t have the core literacy required to play a twin stick shooter despite being excellent at playing Plants VS Zombies.
There are valuable narratives and experiences locked behind a complex set of controls, with the biggest problem being video games no longer assume new people are coming into the fold. An assumption is made that everyone playing games understands how games work and as such they are designed with a difficulty curve that caters only to those who know what is assumed knowledge.
So, I guess you’re wondering where I’m going with this? Obviously we need to better accommodate new video game players with design that is easily digestible, but can be easily jumped into for core fans of a genre. Still, that’s not what my article today is about. I do not know enough about video game design to claim I can solve the problems inherent in modern video game design, but I can point out a solution to this problem that has been rising in popularity. Video Game Let’s Plays.
Where Video Game Let’s Play videos really succeed in my eyes compared to actual modern video game’s as things to be played is that they strip the mechanical and design language complexity from video games, allowing them to be digested by people who could not otherwise digest the medium. Watching someone play through Gone Home on Youtube not only cuts out the required base literacy required to traverse that world, but also through commentary can teach viewers more about the conventions and language of those genres. I have friends who did not have the level of genre awareness required to play through Dark Souls, but after watching let’s plays of the first game were better equipped to jump in and play Dark Souls 2. They watched someone play the game, they learnt from commentary all of the core skills that series required them to know going in.
The vast majority of my partner’s video game vocabulary comes from watching Game Grumps videos every night before we head to bed. She gets to see little snippets of a variety of games, learn about them without playing them herself, experience the narrative and learn about the skills required to play the games. It’s a safe space free of consequence to explore video games as a medium without having a huge amount of existing knowledge expected of you. You jump right into the experiences, rather than having to fight 30 years of assumed knowledge to get to them.
That said, watching video games being played online is obviously not a perfect solution for this medium for a number of reasons, the biggest reason I see being the loss of agency that effects a lot of what the experience playing video games has come to be about. Watch a video of someone playing Mass Effect and you lose the ability to make choices, see how they play out and get connected top the character in the way the series is loved for. You can still discuss the choices as they come up, but it’s not the same. Likewise, you can watch someone play The Stanley Parable, but when you’re not the one making choices, exploring and directly being addressed, something is lost in the experience.
TLDR; Video Games need to get far better at keeping new fans in mind as a core tenant of design, LP’s are a great way to experience games if you don’t have those core skills, but something is inherently lost when you don’t have direct agency as a player.