an acquired skill

From a recent article on video games, written by Charlie Brooker:

If you’re a gamer, you’ll naturally want others to share the experience. So you try to introduce the game to your flatmate, your girlfriend, your boyfriend. But they’re wary and intimidated. From their perspective, even the joypad is daunting. To you it’s as warm and familiar as a third hand. To them it’s the control panel for an alien helicopter.

But you persevere, press the pad into their unenthusiastic hands, and offer to talk them through a few minutes of play. And almost immediately you have to bite your tongue to avoid screaming. They run into walls or hit pause by mistake. They swing the camera around until they can see nothing but their own feet, then forward-roll under a lorry. They try to put the controller down, complaining that they’re “no good at this”. You force them to have another go, but within minutes you’re behaving like a bad backseat driver.

What’s funny is that not one week before I read this article, I had exactly this experience with Damian, he of the fine photography and frequent website comments. He was visiting Boston for New Year’s, and in one of our quieter hours I suggested he try out the demo for God of War III, which amounts to roughly fifteen minutes of truly exquisite violence. “I’ve never really played video games,” he said, by which I thought he meant, “I rarely play them, they are not my thing.” What he really meant was, “No, seriously, I’ve never played a video game. Certainly not one of these 3D ones.”1

Apparently his mother had forbidden him from playing such games as a kid, which strikes me as odd, as Damian routinely describes his mother as a garden variety California hippie, and not the sort of person I would imagine prohibiting a Playstation in the house. Well, you’re on the East Coast now, buddy, where the only rule is, there are no rules. Except that in Boston you can’t ride the subway after 12:30AM and in New Jersey you can’t make a left turn on a highway. Other than that, no rules.

Ever the good sport, Damian starts the demo and commences the surprisingly fun process of murdering several dozen faceless minions. The demo walks him through the basic controls as he plays. So far so good. Then we come to the Harpy Ride section. “Press L2 and Square to fire your bow,” says the game. Damian does so, thus attracting the attention of a nearby flying harpy the subtle way, by puncturing it with flaming arrows. As the harpy draws near, the game commands, “Press L1 and Circle to ride the harpy.” Again, Damian complies, and finds himself attached to the harpy as it flies across a small chasm, towards a second harpy he’ll have to commandeer if he wants to finish the crossing.

Here’s where we run into trouble. The game makes it simple to jump from one harpy to the other. As the player gets within range of the second harpy, the harpy is highlighted in a blue light. Press X, and the player will simply jump onto the highlighted harpy. The thing is, the second harpy never lights up. Damian seems to get close to it each time, and maybe it flashes blue for a split second, but never long enough for him to press X and grab on. This section of the demo takes a little getting used to, and most people mess it up once or twice. But six times? Seven? Troubling.

Finally, I see the problem. God of War uses a fixed-camera system, allowing the game designers to present each section of the game as beautifully and cinematically as possible. During this particular section the camera is at a 30-45° angle to the action. Instead of moving in a straight line over the chasm, Damian is veering sharply to the right.

“You’re moving him off to the right. You need to move him more forward.”

“I am.” Welcome to the joys of backseat video gaming, by the way.

“No you’re not. Move him away from the camera.”

“And which direction is that, Jon?”

“You know, forwards…away…in. Move him into the screen.”

At this point I get up and move myself behind Damian so that I can look at the controller. I look at the control stick and imagine myself playing this section of the demo. “Up and just a bit left.”

And just like that, he was across.

I find it downright fascinating that Damian had a problem here, because for any experienced gamer there is simply no problem to be had. The game tells me to move, and I just know how to do that. The fact that I’m using a 2D control stick to move in 3D space doesn’t even register, because I first learned how to do this kind of spatial conversion, what, fifteen years ago? I don’t even know which game might have been responsible for rewiring that part of my brain. Final Fantasy VII? Battle Arena Toshinden? Super Mario RPG? Q*bert? God only knows.

The point is, this sort of spatial mapping is an acquired skill, one I learned entirely through video games. It’s easy to think of more specific examples. Are there four unlit torches in an otherwise empty room? Is this a Zelda game? Well then, let me go get my matches. I once played Zelda: The Wind Waker as my brother, nine years younger than me, observed the action. I was visiting home from college, and this was thoroughly His Game. I walked into the dungeon, saw the unlit torches, and, without a second thought, proceeded to light them. “How did you know how to do that,” he asked, confident that his older brother would’ve gotten stuck on this puzzle, crying out for assistance. I said, “I have been lighting these torches since before you were born.”

Light the torches. Move the stick up and to the left to go in. Who says video games can’t teach you anything?

  1. I’m paraphrasing the conversation. Damian could probably fill you in on the exact sentences. His memory is truly prodigious.