Tuesday, 1 April 2014

My Mum Plays Sonic the Hedgehog

This post originally appeared on The Orchard Times in December 2011.

I think video games are fascinating: as works of design, as a medium of art and as a development of cultural importance. As a consequence, I decided to attempt an experiment recently.

We now have an entire generation of adults who have grown up with video games as a part of their lives. Many of those adults design video games themselves, and so certain concepts tend to establish themselves as assumed knowledge.  No-one has to explain anymore that touching a scowling enemy does you damage. Players already know what a save point is, and that red canisters explode when you shoot them, without so much as a peep at an in-game tutorial.  It occurred to me that watching someone play with absolutely no experience of these things may yield some interesting observations about what we take for granted, and inform some of my own design ideas.

Which is why I asked my mother, a 60 year old Polish emigre, to come over and play Sonic the Hedgehog with me.

Sonic the Hedgehog was my first ever hero. As a child, the energy I devoted to him was a limitless source of exasperation to my mother. She gave me the pocket money to buy the games, she cleaned around me as I watched the Saturday morning cartoons. She raised an eyebrow as I devoured even the British novelisations of his adventures, and nodded encouragingly at my collection of Sonic-related juvenilia, mostly consisting of half-finished platform level designs. But not once was it ever something we participated in together, and so one afternoon I invited her over to my London flat and fired up the original game, a few weeks shy of the 20th anniversary of its release.

My mother smiles as we hear the three snare reports that signal the introduction music. ‘I remember this’ she says, with a fondness that I find encouraging. After an explanation of the (minimal) controls, I take a deep breath, pick up my notepad, and let my mother loose in Sonic’s world.

The cobalt hedgehog leaps high into the air, and lands perfectly on the spot where he started. A pause. My mother looks down at the controller, and back up to the screen. Another jump on the spot. Flowers bob and spin in the digital breeze. More jumping. Silence. She looks at me plaintively.“I don’t want him to jump, I want him to go somewhere.”

It’s after I explain the concept of horizontal movement that the Motobug chugs its way into view – the first of a menagerie of robotic assassins whose sole purpose is to enslave the eponymous hero and his friends. Squat, red and slow, for years I barely noticed it as I careered through the first level of the game.
Through what I suspect is a muscular spasm, Mum dispatches the enemy by jumping on it.

“So all the guys he is meeting, I am either supposed to be jumping up, or killing, or whatever.”
“Well, this is unfriendly.”

I admit to myself that she’s probably right, as she runs straight into a robotic fish leaping from beneath the first bridge. A muffled timpani sound effect kicks in and Sonic’s corpse drops off the screen. Another plaintive look.

We don’t get much further than that first motobug; Mum runs straight into it again and again like a wasp against a window. But after the title screen whips away for the 6th or 7th time, something wonderful happens.

She leaps over her assailant and starts to build up momentum. She spins over a bridge through a line of golden rings, and suddenly Sonic is tearing his way unmolested through the garish hills with all the speed that fascinated me as a child, soaring over spikes and around loop de loops.

In awe, I wonder how on earth she picked it up so quickly. I instantly leap to conclusions about how universal and intuitive video games really are. I imagine that the last 20 minutes of failure have suddenly seeped into her cerebral cortex and made an epiphanical new connection somewhere. Slightly surprisingly, I’m consumed with overwhelming pride.

My mother looks at me plaintively again. Beyond her I can see that Sonic is still negotiating the level perfectly. I look at the pad and her fingers aren’t even touching the buttons.

There’s a moment of genuine deflation before I’m able to laugh at the fact the game had kicked into demo mode. So far had she been from engaging with it, that she’d forgotten to even press start. We decide to take a break and have a cup of tea.

As we chat, I wonder what I exactly it was that I expected of the experiment. It feels as if I imagined she would connect with the game in an entirely different way to a seasoned player, rather than just being really bad at it. I’d probably spent so much time convincing people my own age that video games are an interesting cultural force that I’d forgotten how much harder it would be with someone 35 years my senior.

I spend another half hour noting how Mum grapples with in-game physics and predicting enemy patterns, before deciding to call it a day. I ask her if she had fun, and she bobs her head from side to side in a combination of a nod and a shake that tells me she’s trying to be diplomatic. Surprisingly, she didn’t find it as frustrating as I did to watch her. Would she play it again? I ask as I kiss her goodbye at the front door. Her response is delivered with a characteristic lack of intentional humour:

“Perhaps, John. If I was in prison”.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

A byte to eat

Possibly the best idea I've seen for a blog in a while is Gourmet Gaming, where gastronome Daniella Zelli rustles up real-world recreations of food that you encounter in videogames.

Frankly, it's an aspect of the medium which deserves more attention. In those halcyon days when games were more innocent, sprite animated characters would regain health simply by walking into random piping hot delicacies that were just lying around.  But why did no-one ever ask what boxes of fresh pizza were doing on the deck of a pirate ship in Turtles in Time? Why in Vagrant Story did drinking entire bottles of wine increase your intelligence, of all things?  Wouldn't that just get you batshit drunk in the middle of a ghoul-infested hellhole? And really, what kind of mushroom, magical or otherwise, doubles you in size and allows you to smash bricks with your head?

Nowadays games' relationship with food seems a little more fettered by realism (though I could never get behind eating a pep bar that you found on a corpse in Bioshock;  maybe they just keep for ages). Nevertheless, it's good to see Ms Zelli turning her attentions to the more challenging dishes, such as her excellent rendering of 'the meat' from Golden Axe.

It's an absolute mystery to me what that was ever supposed to be.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Striking Gold

Since March 17th 2011, Joel Levin, a lower school teacher in New York City, has been blogging about his experiences using Minecraft to teach his students computing.

A teacher and his class: cute as you like. Courtesy of http://minecraftteacher.tumblr.com/
I can't help but be impressed at how much momentum he seems to have gathered in the fortnight since then, and at the imagination with which he's worked the game into his lesson plans since January of this year.  For anyone who doubts the benefit of something like this in a lower school computing class, the man himself says:

"While the kids are playing, they are getting practice typing commands, manipulating little boxes with the mouse, and visualizing spatial relationships.  All general skills which translate well to other computing tasks.  At seven years old, most kids really need this type of practice drilled regularly.  Minecraft makes it fun for them."

He also features a particularly heart-warming missive from an IT professional called Bart who started playing Minecraft with his son, only for the 11-year-old to turn around one day and ask: 'What is the password for the system admin panel of our network? I need to open a port’, as he wanted to host his own server for himself and some buddies. That's straight out of dorkyearbook and I think it's bloody brilliant, though a doubt does linger in my mind as to how the boy wonder is going to turn out in 5 years or so.

As a tool to introduce children to basic IT concepts, Minecraft is doubtless an effective carrot on a stick.  It's a fun game, you want to play it well; you have a direct and powerful incentive to familiarise yourself with basic important and transferable skills which otherwise might have been stultifying, dull and irrelevant.  This in itself is a wonderful thing. But what really blows my mind is how this teacher seems to be successfully combining that sort of learning with much broader themes like co-operation, planning and an understanding of one's place in a community. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the brief account of a project where students were let loose on a pre-made pyramid he had built in the game.  After applying themselves to finding a way in, and to exploring without disturbing the contents, students were invited to discuss the topic of preserving history and respecting other cultures:

"Three out of four groups decided to build a museum for the objects in the pyramid.  The fourth group voted to preserve the pyramid as they found in, encasing the contents in glass."

A lesson where 7-year-olds break into a pyramid,  reflect upon what to do about it, then decide to preserve it for posterity and build a museum as a result? At the risk of losing my cool, I'll admit that's left me pretty amazed.

But, as fun as creativity is, there's always a particular kick that we get out of destruction, and so I'll leave you with a video of someone accidentally burning his virtual house down.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Your life is gonna course like a history book

Many people loved Brandon Boyer's micro-talk at GDC, which I picked up on Kotaku last Friday. And I loved it too, not least because of his articulation of how games can elicit and capture aspects of humanity in a way all of their own. I loved it because of his earnest dissatisfaction with modern triple-A melodrama, his recognition that games can be about anything and everything in human existence, the low and quavering delivery brought on not just by having too much to say in too little time but because of the heartfelt urgency of his plea.  If Conor Oberst gave a speech on video games he'd sound a little bit like this:

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

I dare say

The youtube comment thread, so often excoriating, is absolutely baffled.  And for good reason; the We Dare trailer, online for around a month now, seems to raise far more questions that it answers. At what point on a romantic double date does it seem like a good idea to fire up the Wii in the first place? What does spanking have to do with flying through hoops? Why are those men taking their clothes off? How much are these people supposed to have had to drink?

To go into depth about why this particular piece of promotion is utterly risible would be too easy (I've spent literally days doing it).  To be charitable to Ubisoft, I imagine getting We Dare off the ground would have represented some pretty significant challenges of a very particular kind, and I am genuinely interested to see how they overcame them, difficult as it is to discuss the matter even semi-seriously without riddling this post with double entendres, or coming across as a prude.
So, challenges. Like I said, they're of a particular kind, and it's nothing to do with the general hesitance of the videogaming world to level-headedly depict sexual content.  They all come from the same mistake, which is getting people to play in a way which has absolutely nothing to do with what's going on in the game.  I'll take it as a familiar epiphany to anyone who's played Wii sports; once you realise you don't have to stand up and hold the Wiimote like a golf club, all contests devolve into sprawling on the couch and casually convulsing when you have to take a swing at the virtual ball.  The We Dare trailer doesn't give much away, but what's plain is that there really is no need to have a wii mote in a woman's pencil skirt so that you can hit it to fly faster.

Obviously that's not the point. The point is that it's in the spirit of the game to use the controller like that, just like it's in the spirit of the game to pass a playing card round a circle without using your hands, or to get up close and personal in a game of Twister. But the problem is that it's really not intuitive to use those controllers in such a suggestive fashion, and the game is asking a lot of someone when it requires them to throw inhibitions to the wind, just so they can get through the next digital challenge.  That thing doesn't need to be in my back pocket for you to hit it - what need is there for me to sacrifice my dignity? If I'm reluctant to lay on your lap, saying that I need to so that we can fly through some hoops isn't going to change my mind. The host could have pointed to a self-made laminated card with the words 'Fondle your fellow dinner guests' and given these people as much of an excuse to touch each other.  Maybe it's just me; as IGN points out, apparently hoop-flying and apple-biting send people so buckwild that they'll dance lasciviously even when there's no obvious need for them to do so in the game.

I'm all for getting creative with the Wiimote, and post dinner flirtation has been fun since dinners were invented, but I've really got to ask: If you're lucky enough to be in the company of someone who is willing to jointly nuzzle a wipe clean oblong for the sake of a game, why bother playing the game in the first place?  Why not forego switching on the TV and a potentially awkward startup sequence and skip straight to the foreplay? Maybe you're repressed.  Maybe you're really into video games.  I'm not sure We Dare will appeal either way.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Why I like video games.

There are a lot of reasons people like playing video games.  They might enjoy an escape into the simple and fantastical; they might have been suckered by variable ratio reinforcement mechanics; they might like the fact that video games have now cemented a twee and affectionate position in popular culture, and stand for the underdog who got beaten up at school because he was more into DnD than football. They might just unreflectively embrace the fact that they find them fun.

At least, that's why I play video games sometimes. Other times I do so for countless reasons more banal, and still other times it's out of a genuine, considered and distracting fascination.  This latter might, perhaps, be broadly explained below:

Games as art
I think enough people have understood that video gaming isn’t just a puerile distraction for me to forego an apology for it as a serious pastime here. What I believe, however, is that we haven’t really seriously considered that they occupy a space on the artistic landscape which isn’t quite filled by anything else.  I believe games can have a scale and subtlety comparable to that of a novel; that they can show scenes which make them as filmic as many cinematic efforts out there today; that the possible variety of visual styles they offer can rival that of graphic novels.  But just as all of those forms of art have idiosyncrasies which can never be replicated by other media, so too do games. It may simply be that it’s the interactivity and player involvement that fills this role, but I'm reluctant to be definitive on the question.

Games as education
Games seem to teach you things quite without you realising it. I don’t mean edutainment; rather I mean that bizarre way that you just know that falling down a hole or touching an goomba without jumping on it is A Bad Idea after playing Super Mario for two minutes. That kind of knowledge is non-rational, instinctive; it’s the kind of knowledge that means that you can speak a foreign language without consciously conjugating verbs - certain sentences just feel like they’re right.  I’m channelling Jonathan Blow here, but your potential to learn from games really hasn’t been tapped, and I wonder at what might be possible if we turned game mechanics to a purpose more useful and enriching than getting a better kill/death ratio.  Jane Mcgonical says that a total of 5.93 million years has been spent playing World of Worldcraft since it went online. Whilst I’m not interested in debating whether WoW taught those players anything valuable, imagine, for the sake of argument, that it had? 

That’s roughly what I mean when I say I’m into games, and that's roughly why I'm going to be writing about them on this blog.  Please note, my knowledge is by no means encyclopedic, I probably won't stay up to date and I don’t play nearly as many games as some people I know. I’ll put up stupid stuff like a Final Fantasy recreation of Jersey shore because I really like the culture, and I’ll get excited about Arkham Asylum 2 because, well, the first one was really really great to play. But I’m also a reflective gent, and just like I do in other aspects of my life, occasionally I’ll play a game or hear a piece of news and get a bit serious. But only a bit.