Learn how to play
Originally published in February 2001.
Historical note: This was my first attempt at pontification. I think I got much of it right.
Something has been stuck in the back of my mind since Christmas 1999 and I want to take a moment to discuss it. I have been playing and enjoying electronic games for over 20 years now. I have played every type and genre of game imaginable. I have played so long that I have become knowledgeable enough to write this monthly gaming column. However, I have also become so knowledgeable about computer games, and possibly so single-minded, that I have forgotten that many of you are not familiar with the peculiarities of my favorite past time.
This point was brought home to me in Christmas 1999 when I innocently recommended a computer game to a friend: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. Now, this is an excellent game, one of the best strategy games I have ever played. But for my friend, who was, and still is, new to the complexities of computer games, a textbook on theoretical physics may have been just as enjoyable. She was not prepared to study a 100-page manual or survive the steep learning curve required by Alpha Centauri. For me, overcoming and mastering the strategy was what the game was about. For her, playing computer games is supposed to be a leisurely pursuit requiring little effort and even less time.
This difference in playing styles is causing a real dilemma for the game industry. As a game publisher, do you make games like Alpha Centauri, which earns rave reviews from hard-core computer game players like me, but only sells 10,000 copies? Or do you produce games like Myst, which appeal to the casual gamer but are despised by us hard-core types, and sell 1,000,000 copies? As electronic games move to an online environment, there should be room for both hard-core and casual game players. The challenge for the industry is how to make games accessible to all styles of play.
This line of thinking led me to another thought. Not all computer game players were raised on Infocom text adventure games like Zork. These games required days of actual game time and often required months to complete. These marathon games defined my frame of reference for what an electronic game is supposed to be. These were the games that immersed you in a vibrant detailed virtual-world without the benefit of any graphics at all, only the players’ imagination. Responsibility for much of the game aspects in a text adventure falls squarely on the player. The player is responsible for visualizing the environment and the problem at hand, and then deciding what comes next. The satisfaction of making a decision that leads to a new and unanticipated game response is a standard rarely matched even by today’s games.
A Bright Future
I bring the specter of player responsibility for game play to your attention as a precursor to my thoughts on the future of computer games. In the past few months, I have spoken in this column about the exciting future I see for electronic games. The technological advances currently in the pipeline, both in terms of software and hardware, are mind-boggling. Electronic games, whether played on the personal computer or on a stand-alone console, will be the entertainment medium of this generation. Game culture will infiltrate mainstream culture. Instead of discussing ER or Temptation Island around the water-cooler, people will discuss what they did last night in some virtual online environment.
Television, radio, films – they are all passive forms of entertainment. However, playing a computer game, especially as they become more sophisticated, more immersive, means being a participant. This subtle, yet significant change in the entertainment dynamic, again adds a layer of responsibility to the experience. And there is the rub. Game players will have to know how to play. With a television you only have to turn it on. With a game you have to read the manual, you have to devote time and energy, especially if you want to master its intricacies. Will the general, entertainment-starved public study the manual, transverse the learning curve, and persevere in the face of frustration for the promise of a unique gaming or entertainment experience? Will you work hard for the sake of your leisure activities?
This leads me back to my friend and her reluctance to spend the time and effort necessary to successfully play Alpha Centauri. I understand her unwillingness to give such a large chunk of her already active life to the playing of a computer game. However, much of the entertainment we will experience in the very near future will take place in a virtual world and will require this level of commitment. I wonder what it will take for her, and other casual gamers like her, to accept the burden of learning how to play a game.
I want to leave you with this thought. Electronic games are more like sports than they are like television. Just like taking up golf requires that you buy the equipment, take some lessons, and practice before you actually play, so does taking up the “sport” of playing computer games. As electronic games become more immersive they also will become more complicated and as they migrate to online multiplayer environments, gamers are going to be forced to practice before they play. So before you jump into a multiplayer frag-fest, or find yourself in an online romance novel, you better take some time to read the strategy guide, learn the game, and practice, practice, practice.