The Power of Game Literacy

Advancing game literacy is key to unlocking the full potential of the medium

Game literacy is an incredibly important topic to game enthusiasts and developers alike. It affects the quality of the games and how accessible games are to audiences. The topic has multiple layers and meanings, so I felt it would be hard to justify writing about just one of them. That is, until I watched one of my friends play a new video game. Today I will be discussing basic literacy in games, which is the ability to successfully navigate the game’s mechanics.

Have you ever handed a controller to someone and watched in dismay as they do something ridiculous and are just unable to play? Well, sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s hard to watch, but sometimes the player trying to play just gets angrier and angrier. The frustration they’re experiencing has to do with game literacy.

First, “literacy” refers to the ability to read and write. For games, or media in general, literacy is the ability to access, critically evaluate, analyze, and create. This can be broken down into three levels: basic, advanced, and creative ‘literacy.’ Basic literacy refers to the ability to consume media. Advanced is the ability to analyze media. Creative is the ability and knowledge to make media.

Now you might be thinking, well that’s not a lot! And you’re right, when thinking about generalized categories that apply to all media it seems perfectly fine and orderly. All we need to do is teach people to play games like they would read a book or watch a movie… and right there is the problem: you can’t. Or rather, to do it takes a lifetime of consuming and analyzing content. Just like how to fully absorb a complex movie, you need to have an advanced literacy of the medium to understand what’s going on and integrate the various layers of message into meaning. In more complex games you can’t even play without a foundational understanding of the controls. But this is inherently different then just having an advanced game literacy. Being able to control these complex video games requires a higher level of basic game literacy. With basic game literacy there are two notable levels: can you interact with ease, and can you complete the game.

You can experience some games without having to play all the content, like Super Mario Bros., or even Halo. But for a heavily narrative or mechanically driven game like Bioshock, The Witness, or complex online games like Auto Chess, you need to have experienced all of it. In order to have adequately ‘read’ or ‘watched,’ a game, some need more content consumed then others, and some content is inherently harder to consume. Not all content is created equal.

There are still people who want to play games but don’t have the basic game literacy needed to enjoy them. Imagine if we jumped back to the beginning of motion pictures and we made a movie with cuts in it. The cut as a transition is something we take for granted in film, because it is a part of basic film literacy. But back when films were just being developed, people had no clue what was happening, it was disorienting.

About the Invention of the cut.

Everyone has a level of basic game literacy. RTS games used to be unplayable for me because I grew up on consoles and handhelds. I would constantly just not get that I had to navigate menus to do the basic task of building units and managing resources. Just the other day, one of my friends who loves Marvel comics and movies went to play Insomniac and Marvel’s Spider-Man. The next thing I know they are asking for help, and I say ok, there are some tricky puzzles in the game maybe that tripped them up. But when I started the game up with them, they were still in the tutorial. I ask them to play through the level, and a mechanic as simple as web-slinging up onto another platform was still unknown to them.

Now, my friend isn’t a gaming expert, but they have played games before. Insomniac is one of the best in the business, and if they struggled with getting new players acquainted with mechanics, then what about the rest of the industry? For me this was a huge wake up call. And to be fair, Spider-Man is a 3D action game, one of the harder type of games for someone who is not 100% game-literate to pick up. I’ve seen this happen with FPS games as well, where eventually the player ends up running into a wall, and unable to aim, and then bang, they are dead, angry, and don’t want to play. Most of them put it down and never come back.

One problem with this is that there is no ‘games for beginners’ list, and more importantly people want to play current games, and depending on who they ask, “what game should I play?” they will get wildly different responses.

Chris Crawford at GDC 1992.

Most players just pick up the next game in their favorite franchise every year, just to see what the next level is. In Chris Crawford’s old GDC Dragon Speech, he talks about how gamers want to be challenged, and want a new game that lets them increase their skills. Which led him to the conclusion that the industry is set up to be inherently non-newcomer and ‘artistry’ friendly. Which is another problem game literacy faces.

The industry itself is set up to discriminate against new game players. Not only that, it’s set up to disregard game critique; luckily, though, this is starting to change. As gamers and journalists alike become more specialized and advance their literacy, in one genre or in several, the bar will be raised.

Advanced literacy in games is just the starting point, because ultimately developers will be the ones shepherding in the game literacy paradigms of the future. Remember when game creators didn’t talk to players? Well now that they do there are tons of experts out there, specifically in their game. These discussions wouldn’t be possible without advanced game literacy, and it is some of the most rewarding discussions games have to offer. Even if some game developers are infamously bad at playing their games (which they also need to work on).

Games are ideas. They can be as simple as point and kill aliens trying to take over the galaxy, or as complex as frustration as fun, or struggling. Examining mechanics as metaphors, questioning game elements, and searching out themes are all things gamers need to be encouraged to do. Game reviewers need to rely less on their numbered ratings and more on their qualitative analysis and critique. Developers need to layer deeper meaning into games so that it boils to the surface and creates something even more beautiful and resonant. That, and ensuring that players have access to the tools and skills to figure out how to play.

Game literacy is a hard problem, but universal game literacy is a problem we should be trying to solve. When the time comes when everyone knows what games are capable of, and when everyone is capable of accessing games, the medium will explode and will be able to reach its full potential as a medium.