As the weather cools down and we find ourselves drawn indoors, it becomes a good time to cuddle up next to a friend or a loved one with a hot drink, a slice of pumpkin pie, and a Super Smash Bros. U game disc. That is, assuming your company knows anything about videogames.
The sad, surprising truth is that a lot of people are unfamiliar with videogames or have only a passing familiarity with them. Some of these people might even be in your family! They may not necessarily hate videogames. They might even enjoy them if they take the chance to engage with them. But the hard part is mustering up the courage to take that chance.
As people who’ve been playing videogames for a good chunk of our lives, it’s easy for us to forget just how intimidating they can be for outsiders. I’m not talking the subject matter, either (although that can be a problem), but just the fundamental act of playing a game. The modern controller has two clickable analog sticks, four face buttons, four triggers at least, a d-pad and extra buttons for functions like pausing or bringing up a home menu, and the modern game routinely expects you to take advantage of most if not all of these features. Trying to get these people to play a PC game isn’t much easier, and just serves to remind us that these devices weren’t actually invented to play videogames, and that we’ve essentially had to hack the existing setup to make it work. Mouses might seem easy enough to manipulate in an everyday context, but the level of dexterity needed to so much as face the right direction does not come naturally if you weren’t raised on it. And keyboards will just end up making them scratch their heads as they try to remember what key does what, having not memorized the standard conventions. (Generally speaking, the default combination of Mouselook and WASD is a lot more complex than we give it credit for.)
It’s like trying to eat with chopsticks. No, better, it’s like trying to eat with chopsticks if you are an adult who has never used chopsticks before. It’s intimidating.
So what are we to do when we want to share our games with the ones we love? I’m happy to say that there are workarounds, but they’re not the kinds you might be expecting. They will require you to reconsider the way you understand what “engaging with a gameworld” really means.
The Inner-Game and the Outer-Game
We sometimes forget that “the game” can be more than just what its explicit rules assume. This game doesn’t come with a map, but there’s no reason you can’t draw one yourself. This game doesn’t have a hints system, but there’s nothing stopping you from asking around. This game doesn’t have music, but if you find a song that works well with it, there’s no rule that says you can’t make a recommendation. The program may only exist within the circuits of the computer, but “the game” takes up space on both sides of the screen, and on our side things aren’t so tightly rule-bound.
Let me give you an example. There’s a game floating around the web called Thing-Thing. It’s a pretty basic side-scrolling shooter: you move and jump on a 2D plane with WASD, and shoot with the mouse. Although it is a very violent game, me and my sister used to play it a lot when it was new and we were younger (and on our mom’s computer no less!) But although it was labeled as a single-player game, we’d play it as a team more often. Why? Because we were weaned on ordinary sidescrollers and platformers. We’d never seen a game that used the WASD-Mouse standard, and at the time it was a lot to wrap our heads around. We fumbled quite a bit.
So in the end, we split the controls: I would focus on moving and jumping while my sister would handle the gun. It worked like a charm. The controls for moving and shooting were nicely compartmentalized, being divided into two modules on separate parts of the interface, and you didn’t have to be in control of one to adequately control the other. The rest was negotiation, but it was easy, and it was as a team that we were able to beat Thing-Thing 2 for the first time.
Again, the game was programmed to be 1-player, and what we were using could technically be considered a two-controller setup, but the game isn’t the whole experience. It’s part of a larger one, one that we get to decide on for ourselves.
Some games have made concessions to us improvisers in the past. Sonic Spinball‘s 4-player mode is designed for one controller, which is passed around between 4 people, which is how I’d sometimes play level-based games even if there wasn’t a multiplayer option available. And Sin & Punishment, a rail shooter released for the Nintendo 64 in 2000, beat me and my sister to the punch chronologically speaking (although, given that it was only released in Japan, I wouldn’t find out about it until our special technique had already been well established within the family), implementing a 2-player mode in which both players control a single character, with Player 1 in charge of running and jumping and another player in charge of aiming and shooting. Far from being awkward, this makes a game with one of the most convoluted control schemes ever much easier by breaking it into manageable chunks. And though I’d taken it for granted until now, the “negotiation” part of this kind of gameplay is maybe the most fun of all. Putting each other’s heads to come up with a game plan and setting each others’ terms (“Just because I can cut down obstacles doesn’t mean you should just run right into them!”) pointing out each other’s blind spots, and really communicating, you end up with an avatar whose supernatural finesse is the product of your cooperation and combined strengths.
Looking to the future, more games are taking experience differentials into account through the implementation of asymmetrical multiplayer, in which players are given different roles with different controls. (The early Mario Party games (I approve the first 4 specifically) are a golden example of asymmetrical multiplayer from the past.) In Super Mario Galaxy, for instance, the multiplayer setup consists of two roles. The lead role controls Mario directly, and handles the heavy platforming and navigation. The co-star takes on a support role, freezing enemies and sweeping the stage for the crystallized bits of star stuff that are used as ammunition for both players to fire and as the key to unlocking new levels and paths within a level. The co-star can even make Mario jump or double-jump, which is great for a last minute save…or a cheeky prank!
What makes this control scheme work so well is that even though the second player has only the minimum of choices for direct contact with the gameworld (the whole control scheme consists of pointing a pointer at the screen and pressing either A or B), those choices still feel important. During play, the co-star is responsible for keeping her lead out of harm’s way by swatting aside anything that comes within 10 inches of Mario, and while it’s possible for the lead to pick up star bits herself, there are just so many that it becomes self-defeating to try to collect them and play at the same time, especially since moving and jumping while pointing the Wii Remote at them to pick them up is a bit of a cognitive balancing act until you’ve gotten a fair bit of practice in. In short, the co-star is valued and gets to share in the joy of her lead’s adventures.
There are more playstyles like this being included in games today, and they follow a similar pattern: Divide the control scheme up so that the brunt of it goes to one player while the other player gets easy but valuable support functions. It’s unique in that it’s clearly designed around the possibility that the two players may not be at the same point in their journey toward videogame mastery, something that’s always been true, even between dedicated players, but not always acknowledged in design, in which players were almost always given the exact same role. (I used to be a real deadweight when it came to first-person shooters. Oh wait, that’s right: I still am.)
But if your favorite game doesn’t have the multiplayer you want? Hack it!
Adventures in Sharing
The biggest issue is whether or not your friend or relative feels involved and can follow along with what’s happening. Games tend to operate based on a complex set of rules whose effects and significance aren’t all that obvious to someone who isn’t engaging with the system. There are graphics, yes, and some games make good spectator games. This was definitely one of the reasons Pac-Man took off. See also: Countless horror games, since it’s that time of the year (or at least, it was when I wrote this.) But for the most part, the onscreen symbols tend to be of more use to the player than a viewer. Side effects may include confusion, aggravation, awkward silences and awkward commentary. “So you collected the talisman with the cone on it. Why does that allow you to sink through walls? Where are you now? What are you looking for? Something in the corner of the screen is blinking? What does that mean? What does anything mean?” So when I first started trying to pull people into the games I played, I figured the most important thing was to get them to join in the interaction. But what does that mean?
For the most part, our understanding of interactivity in videogames places an emphasis on quantity over quality, with total and direct control being the ideal. Modern big-budget games tend to veer toward the Virtual Reality paradigm that came into being in the late 20th Century, was popularized by such examples as Gibson’s cyberspace and Star Trek’s holodeck, and shows no sign of slowing down, with the launch of the oculus Rift and similar “VR headsets” on the horizon.
But the VR lens has its limits, and can sometimes promote a very narrow way of conceptualizing engagement with a virtual space, a symptom of which is the assumption that graphics and immersion are directly correlated, or that precise simulation is more important than good design, because in the future we will have our games uploaded directly to our minds. The gameworld exists not just as the image on the other side of the screen, but within your own mind, a mental model formed as a product of your interactions with it. It’s the reason why gameworlds like NES-era Hyrule and Zebes could be so engrossing despite having only four colors to a sprite. The more time you spend navigating a virtual space and understanding the principles by which it operates, the more you have to think seriously about it, the more natural that environment begins to feel. In fact, I believe interactions, even more so than audiovisual elements, make immersion. (Although, to be fair, “immersion” is itself one of those iffy gamer words with iffy implications. But never mind that now.)
Furthermore, these interactions don’t have to be direct either, as long as they teach you something interesting about the gameworld that you can add to your mental model. It’s less about how much control you have, and what the actions you can accomplish mean.
There was one incident last Christmas where I invited someone to try out The Stanley Parable with some friends, having just discovered the game and wanting to pull everyone with a 50-foot radius into it. She was stumped by the user interface, even though me and my friends viewed it as relatively minimalist. So, after several unsuccessful attempts to teach her, we decided instead that one of us would man the keyboard and mouse and she would decide which door she wanted to go through.
You’d think a setup like this would water down the experience, but it didn’t. She was very engaged in the game’s mystery, and made her choices carefully, as though they were being made in real-life. She still found the writing funny and the plot twists surprising. She was still using a controller. I was the controller (Or at least one of us was. It was almost a year ago and some of the details are fuzzy.) It turns out a person is as good a user interface as any mouse or keyboard. (Very dynamic and adaptable too. It’s like it really understands you. Go figure.)
I’ve also found that I didn’t have to be leading the play session to enjoy it, either. There can be a lot of fun that comes from riding along in a low-risk support role, doing things like drawing maps, taking notes, solving puzzles, and looking up cheat codes, all roles I’ve been placed in myself before.
When it came to splitting controls I found that it required finding soft spots in the game’s design or physical interface. For instance, if I was playing a game on a laptop, I would try plugging another keyboard in through a USB port. The laptop would often accept signals from both the USB keyboard and the one that comes attached to the screen. This way both players get equal control over the character and can divide up the controls they each end up using based on their respective specialties. Best of all, this setup means that one player can act as a spotter for another, less experienced one, taking over when the first players gets in too deep. For another example, games like Strawberry Cubes, where you can move with both the arrow keys and WASD make this even easier; one player takes the left side while the other player takes the right.
Some games are more conductive to this than others. What you’re looking for are games that have controls that are compartmentalized. That is, a control scheme that is composed of smaller sets of controls that can be operated without having to keep track of each other. Examples include moving while controlling drop down menus, or controls that involve moving while aiming something, or “single-player” touchscreen games that allow for multiple inputs, like Fruit Ninja.
But even if I was playing by myself, it helped to not just lie there, looking mysterious. I would add commentary, explaining the stakes, the mechanics. If all else failed, I would joke. This, and everything above it, is what I’ve tried. I can’t guarantee that any of it will work (And I’ve heard that multiplayer games can be a bad gateway into the medium because the visible skill differential between players can be discouraging,) but it hasn’t failed me yet and I think it’s worth trying at least once.
I admit, it wasn’t until recently that I considered making the effort to share these games with my friends and family. My family’s stance on videogames is a little bit ’90s, a little bit Mortal-Kombat-ESRB-era, and I’d been burned more than a few times over the years, left wary of talking about my interests to people outside my circle of friends. But time is short. Life is short. I don’t want to have to cut out other people to enjoy these things, and I shouldn’t be afraid to talk about them in the 21st Century. All month long I’ve been hearing about how videogames can bring people closer together, and it sounds like the kind of experience I should have more of in my life.
You, the reader, can have this too. No longer will you have to be watched in bewilderment as you stare into the television screen alone. Now you can both stare into the television screen, together! But in all seriousness, I have made friends and bonded with siblings over these. I have used these to cheer people up, and make up after arguments. Memories like this can be made playing videogames! I suspect those who say otherwise have never played them. And I want you to know that you can always find a way to make them work for you and your loved ones, despite in-the-moment technical difficulties. So maybe there is a problem. Maybe the rules specify that only one player can play, and the machine will only accept one controller. No problem. The rules can be broken, and the machine tricked. Good luck.