From video games to modern life

Image credit: http://www.gamesgrabr.com/blog/2015/08/13/why-we-love-retro-games/

Warning: this is going to be a random musings post ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I love video games. Maybe I don’t play them as much as I used to, but I’ve been playing video games longer than any of my friendships (siblings don’t count). My first video game was an educational game called Treasure Mountain by The Learning Company, but I soon moved on to games that had significantly less educational value and exponentially more entertainment value, like Commander Keen and Doom.

It’s safe to say that video games made me computer literate. Back then, almost all our games came from shareware on floppy disks. I was probably all of 5 or 6 years old, and at that age, nobody wanted me touching the family PC. But I had sneaked up on my older brother and peeked at the commands he entered to run the games. No prizes for guessing what happened when he left the room.

Eventually, the grown-ups realised that I wouldn’t make the computer explode, so they let me muck around the PC quite freely. It’s been more than 20 years since, and on my most recent trip back home, I went on a retro-rampage and tried to dust off some of my favourite old games for a trip down memory lane. Some worked, while others couldn’t. That’s why I’m such a fan of GOG.com, best place to get all your old childhood favourites.

One of my favourite genres was the city-building games, the entire Sierra games series from Caesar III onwards, Age of Empires and Settlers 3. I still don’t understand why the genre seemed to die off, but that’s a different topic for a time. So I managed to get Settlers 3 to boot up on the old family PC and since it’d been what, 15 years? I started off with the tutorial level, just to refresh my memory.

So you just bought a new game…

I once read this fascinating article on Gamasutra about knowledge acquisition styles and how this influences gamers’ experience when they first encounter a new game. Basically, there are 2 different styles of knowledge acquisition, explorative acquisition and modelling acquisition. The former describes gamers who will just dive head first into the game and figure things out along the way by clicking on everything, trying every button and generally just exploring the new world. The latter describes players who want to know what each button does before he/she presses it. They want to understand the consequences of their actions by observing someone or something else, then replicating those actions to ensure they get the same results.

The article emphasises that modelling players are not afraid to learn something new, rather, they need to have an opportunity to understand the risks and rewards before being comfortable with exploring. I’ve played a lot of games, and I can tell you that there are many different ways tutorial levels are designed. But I want to classify the techniques into having an explicit tutorial level versus having the tutorial built into the start of a new game.

The explicit tutorial level

I find the explicit tutorial level more prevalent in older games. You know, those games that have an additional selection for a tutorial level on the game’s start menu. Examples are Settlers 3, Half-life and Jamestown. Players who wanted a wading pool style introduction to the game would consciously make a decision to play that level, while people who just wanted to jump in the deep end would ignore it. I personally felt that this style of tutorial was very well suited to strategy games, but the Half-life tutorial was pretty well done too, in my book.

The built-in tutorial

Most of the newer games I played would have the introductory level built into the start of the game. The start of the game will introduce most of what you need to know to play the game proper. However, to make it less boring, game designers try to make that level as fun as the rest of the game, at least, most do. So many games take this approach, Fallout 3,Portal 2, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Shovel Knight, I could go on and on but those are the few I thought were exceptional.

And I understand why most games take this approach. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so the challenge is to design a level that teaches players game mechanics and provide a positive initial experience. Some games give players the option to just skip over the introductory stuff, which is a good option to have. This means the exploratory group can move straight into the main game-play while the modelling group can ascertain risk and ramifications in a controlled, safe environment.

I’ve fallen and I can’t get up

But say somebody thought the tutorial would be boring and just skipped through the whole thing, only to find they didn’t know how things worked in the game. What then? I can’t speak for others, but I have done the following things.

  • Open the game menu and find the controls option to see which buttons did what.
  • Save the current game (if possible), then go back and replay the tutorial
  • Google the damn thing because, in this day and age, odds are somebody has put out a video or asked the same question in a forum

Nowadays, I think most people would go straight for option 3 or say “Screw this” and turn off the game altogether. And here was the thought that triggered this entire post: our attention spans are now so short that we don’t even bother with figuring out how a game works on our own. Or it could be that we have so many things competing for our attention that we would eschew anything that requires extra effort.

The pace of modern life has made it such that people rely more on heuristics and snap judgements than taking the time to understand and think through what they are consuming, be it news, opinions, even food. There is a lot less “right now” and a lot more “what’s next”. Is it a coincidence journalistic inaccuracies are more prevalent than ever before? I suggest reading Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday for a full length exposé of the digital media industry. And to provide a viewpoint that will make you doubt everything, here’s an article by Craig Silverman which calls him out for applying media manipulation principles to boost sales of aforementioned book. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What does this have to do with video games?

Not much actually. It was just a thought that decided to run amok. You know how when Simpsons episodes start off, the initial opening scene often has nothing to do with the main storyline of the episode? Exactly like that. Do I have a solution for short attention spans? No. In fact, I’m consciously aware that my attention span is much shorter now than it was when I was a kid. Surprising? Probably not. When I was a kid, I didn’t mind spending hours replaying a level until I got through it but now if I keep dying, I’ll probably turn the game off and go do something else for a bit.

I do make it a point to reconsider my snap judgements, especially on controversial issues, because we all make snap judgements based on past biases and superficial factors. The problem is when we don’t bother to consider things on a deeper level. What makes things worse is when we just spread these snap judgements around like free tacos to the people around us. Everybody is contributing to the information overload. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, but shoving your opinion down someone else’s throat is not cool.

How many of us consider views the oppose our own?

Social media actually makes this worse. Facebook, Amazon and nowadays Twitter want to filter the information you see and only serve you what you want to see. Is it any mystery that people nowadays are more polarised than ever before? Confirmation bias is a real human fallacy. It used to be people sought out information that supported their own views, now you don’t even have to expend effort to do that. Social media does that for you.

It’s important to know where you stand on various issues. But if you don’t expose yourself to as wide a range of viewpoints as possible, your stance may end up being very narrow indeed. The root of all conflict is the lack of communication and understanding. The world is rich with different cultures, beliefs and ideas. But often, we huddle together with people who share the same views as ourselves, and see those with opposing viewpoints as adversarial. What is with this them versus us mentality? We are ultimately the same species, we’re all mammals, we all bleed red, and if we don’t take care of our planet, we will all die together.

Guiding principles are better than rules

Unfortunately, life is not simply black and white. There is a full spectrum of grey in between. People are going to have different viewpoints with regards to human nature. The thing about human beings is they are capable of unbelievable goodness, and they are also capable of unspeakable evil. I belong to the camp that believes people generally have a decent sense of morality, and will do what they think is right.

When we try to explicitly state specific rules on what is right and wrong, that’s when people start coming up with ways to exploit loopholes. That’s why rulebooks end up being tomes used in all types of situations other than its intended purpose. Like as a door-stop, or a foot-stool. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

A guiding principle of “don’t cause harm to others” may sound very broad, but I think most people can be counted on to employ their own judgement to do the right thing. Will people get it wrong? Of course they will. Perfection is impossible. What’s more important is when we do get it wrong, we own up to our mistakes, and focus on trying to rectify the mistake as opposed to playing the blame game, it’s a destructive human past-time.

Wrapping up

This is not a research paper. This is not an essay. This is not a well-written piece of literature. It is simply a documentation of how somebody’s (okay fine, my own) train of thought can run all over the place. Sometimes the words in my brain want to be written down, who am I to say no?

Further reading