From Zero to One

By the numbers, the most effective, the most deadly enemy in video games is probably the goomba.

World_1-1_-_Gameplay_-_Super_Mario_Bros

Specifically, this goomba here. The first goomba you face in the game. I would bet that this one goomba has slain more players than any other creature in video games. Grandma gets you a new NES for Christmas, you plug it in with the game it came with, you jump into good old Super Mario Bros., start figuring out the controls, and bam! Before you even have any sense of precision with your jumping, before you even know how to properly maneuver, you’ve got the weakest enemy in the game in your face and bearing down on you. That has happened to thousands and thousands and thousands of players over the years.

For those of us steeped in video games, veterans of the form, that goomba is a complete non-issue. Seriously, one jump, a bunch of minute mid air navigations, we’re on his head and then on our way. A whole bunch of instinctual things going on there that we don’t even think about. Even if you’ve never played Super Mario Bros. before, even if 2-D platformers are completely foreign to you, if you’re enough into video games that you made your way to this blog, you can crush that goomba no problem. Because you’ve built up the gaming skills to know what to do.

Yet, if you don’t have that experience, that first goomba is a completely different challenge. You first have to recognize it as a threat, then recognize the movement that threat is making, predict the immediate actions of the threat, determine the appropriate response, mentally map the buttons to press to execute that appropriate response, evaluate the timing of the appropriate response, move yourself into position to execute the appropriate response, then press one button to launch yourself into the air than use the pad to control your descent.

You and I would be able to do this with all the efficiency of a professional athlete in the midst of the game. Most of this won’t even enter our consciousness, we’d just act on instinct and and put our active mind beyond it. Because we have practiced every single step in that process, or at least something very similar, over and over and over and over and over to the point that it doesn’t even require a thought. Again, it’s a very different game to someone just getting into the medium.

So how do you bring someone to that point? With everything that games have to offer, from the thrill of action to the mind-bendingness of puzzles to the sense of accomplishment of success to the involvement of the narrative and beyond, games have a lot to offer. They are an art form, a very multifaceted one that has some really great experiences within it, but one with a barrier to entry. And how do you take someone over that barrier?

That’s a problem I’ve found myself posed with recently. My most frequent Player 2 is my daughter. But her gaming journey has been a very sheltered one. Usually, she’s on the couch, backseat playing for me as I dominate games like I dominate all things. In recent years, she’s taken to picking up the controller herself, in pretty limited fashion. She’ll ride on the back of my kart and chuck items ahead of me as I drive in Mario Kart: Double Dash. She’ll copy along with what I do in Cooking Mama. She’ll take the reins of my cap and fly around in Super Mario Odyssey. She’ll wander through Kirby’s Epic Yarn with me, my carrying her through the dangerous parts. She’ll have fun, but these have largely been experiences where she doesn’t have much impact on the game, and is not at any real risk of failure. She’s not going to feel the sting of failure in these rolls, and she’s not really going to have to challenge herself. She gets frustrated at losing, and so everything we’ve been doing together have been experiences that I can carry her through. It’s all been very safe for her.
She’s decided she’s done with that. She’s tried some single player fun. She can wander around and catch bugs and fish in Animal Crossing. She can jump around Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64. But she wants more. She wants to grow and expand to becoming a True Doom Murderhead like her main man Aether. She’s been wanting to get into the same type of games I do. She wants to play appropriate to her level, of course, but she still wants to get into the type of game where she needs to be overcoming conflict, facing off against enemies, and navigating strenuous situations.

And that’s where I’ve been having issues. Finding a game that I can use to introduce her to the skills needed to succeed. And it’s been a lot harder than I expected. I set her up in Kirby figuring that’d be about as simple and flexible as it comes, had her watch me play through the first level, had her practice all the controls, and she still froze up when faced with her first enemy. As simple as that game is, just playing games in the first place involves so much mental actions that even a simple mindless encounter to me is overwhelming to her.

It makes me think of my own journey through video games. I remember being exposed to them for a while through friends before I ever felt comfortable enough to pick up the controller on my own. Once I did, my learning experiences were mostly through the standard classic fare. Super Mario Bros. 1-3, Kung Fu, the first two areas of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 over and over and over. I wasn’t aware of my skill progression there, but obviously, that did build the fundamentals I needed to find success in future games, and I kept building up on that over the years and decades since, to the point where I’m the planet-shattering warbeast I am today.

But how do today’s newbies do that? Going from 0 to 1 on anything skills-based is generally one of the hardest steps. And modern games are generally a fair bit more complicated than they were when I was growing up. The skill progression would be very similar, I’d imagine. But I find myself more stumped as to how to instill that in someone, how to put them on the path to competence while still engaging them with what they’re playing on the way there. Trial and error just doesn’t seem to work anymore.

220px-Rcr_gameplay.png

For the time being, we’ve got ourselves going back several years to River City Ransom, and that seems to be working the best for her. Requires a lot of basic positioning skills, while still being mashy enough that she can still be a meaningful part of the game just hammering on buttons without thought, and the beat up guys/get money/go shopping gameplay really feeds into the reward structure that resonates with her. Most importantly, this is one of the few games I’ve found that, as long as I’m running interference as the other player, she only needs to focus on one or two things at a time, cutting through a lot of the mental processes that altogether can be overwhelming and lead to freezing.  So that’s working for use right now. Next steps are still to come however. Hopefully I’ll stumble onto something that works then.

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4 responses to “From Zero to One

  1. You know, we take for granted that buttons on controllers have different labels depending on the console, but back then, I can imagine it took some getting used to. In the arcade scene, what each button did was spelled out for players. On the NES, all those people saw were buttons labelled “B” and “A”; their intended functions weren’t immediately obvious. Under those circumstances, I can imagine quite a few people did, in fact, lose quite a few lives to that unassuming Goomba.

    Then again, there was also the fact that platformers arguably hadn’t fully solidified by then. Pac-Land was one of the first platformers available in arcades and it had a very strange control setup wherein buttons were used for moving; it didn’t even have a joystick. Apparently, this even extended to certain console versions wherein the d-pad is used for jumping.

  2. I still remember getting my SNES and having to look down at the buttons to see which was X and which was Y. Likewise, I remember having a lot of trouble working twin-stick movement and camera controls when I first came across them, which are the absolute standard now.

    And yeah, when different types of games are new to you, there’s much more of a learning curve. I still play 2d fighters on one of the easiest settings, typically, because I haven’t played enough of them to have built up the skills to excel at them. And when the genre is new to the developers, and the conventions of the genres haven’t even settled down yet, that difficulty curve gets quite a bit more rocky.

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