Monday, December 22, 2008

December '08 Round Table: A Future of Shared Stories

This post is an entry to Corvus Elrod's monthly Blog of the Roundtable. This December, Corvus asks participants to explore their future gaming expectations, how games will impact familial relations, and how game designers might facilitate a more family friendly experience. My thanks goes out to those who submitted their thoughtful entries earlier in the month. As always, your input is greatly appreciated and I encourage you to participate with posts of your own.

With my house mates gone on holiday vacation, me and my significant other had the place all to ourselves. Only the faint glow from the Christmas tree lights lit the walls and floor where we lay. We prepared ourselves to feed the desires we can seldom satiate in the usually occupied living room: we played videogames together. This experience got me thinking seriously about my future gaming habits; which have usually consisted of science fiction daydreams (virtual reality machines or bumper stickers that read "My Other Flying Car is a Mario Kart"). I have no doubt I will be gaming well into the future, but who will game with me? How will I share these experiences with non-gamer family and friends?

My girlfriend and I played World of Goo and Ico. After a few minutes of explanations and examples, she felt comfortable maneuvering World of Goo's goo balls around the environment, building complex structures and bridges. There were snags of course, goo traits I had forgotten to mention and general puzzle difficulties, but we passed four levels before I stopped the game (I was concerned my desire to beat the puzzle was overshadowing her own exploration). Ico was next, and I left it entirely in her hands (mostly). As expected, it was slow going at first. She took her time learning basic movement and combat controls, focusing on the buttons well before executing and maneuver. It was a joy watching her explore two of my favorite games, and I hope we can find time to do it again. Sharing the these gaming experiences is important to me.

The desire to share a passion with others, particularly loved ones, is only natural. I am sure many of you have your own stories about trying to get your significant other into gaming. This process can be a frustrating endeavor. one might strategize and map it out like a dangerous museum heist. Unfortunately, the barrier of entry into videogames can be monstrously high for being so easily appealing. How this is addressed should be of concern to those who want a future where they can freely share experiences with gamers and non-gamers alike.

Sharing my passion should be like sharing a book, not initiating my friends into the fine art of underwater welding. Thus, I am in full support of Spencer Greenwood's post on the necessity of democratising games, what he defines as "the process of making games more accessible to the 'non-gamer.'" Spencer cites Nintendo's success in the casual market as evidence that "to some extent, this democratisation is inevitable." World of Goo fits well into this explanation with its fun and relatively easy-to-learn mechanics. But these "simple" games are not the only ones I'd like to share, but jumping from Goo to Fallout 3 is no easy task.

The debate between "hardcore" and "casual" games may resonate because an apparent lack of middle ground. Perhaps there are not enough bridges between easy and difficult play experiences for adult non-gamers interested in the narrative depths videogames can provide. Many narrative driven games may be frustrating for non-gamers because they do not recognize the visual or auditory cues we have grown accustomed to. A stick dropped in the background, a location mentioned in passing, or a clue scrawled amongst red herrings may all be overlooked by the untrained eye, yet are the essence of some amazing stories. Without these narrative packets of information, the progress of the inexperienced player may be slowed to a crawling pace, leaving them unsatisfied. Developers can better "democratise" gaming by reexamining how information is imparted to the player with the non-gamer in mind.

I believe this can be done while entertaining my future non-gamer familial relationships and myself. Perhaps a game's difficulty selection will change presentation and pace to fit the skill level of the player or include optional, but enjoyable, training sessions for the inexperienced player. The features Prince of Persia is often criticized for can also be these "bridge-like" qualities. The easily visible climbing walls and exposed platforms can be legible clues for non-gaming loved ones, while a lack death could appeal to those not looking for in-game punishment. Prince Persia could have been the Harry Potter of videogames, creating a bridge between casual gamers and the stunning worlds videogames can provide through richer works.

I am not one for fantasizing about fatherhood. The idea of little parasitic children running around my legs spouting my own sarcastic phrases at passerby is only now suddenly appealing. But if I were to have a family, storytelling would play a crucial role in our relationship (as well as dressing my children up like videogame characters). I want stories I can share, stories of all wondrous shapes and sizes: family friendly titles that spark the imagination like a candlelit fairy tale, contemplative and serious games for adult minds, and some good old fashioned swashbuckling or sci-fi thrillers for every non-gamer I can sit down in front of the television. I want my future videogame world to be all inclusive, without losing a touch its uniqueness and diversity. But I do not believe this is inevitable. If we want our future to be full of share experiences, we've got to make it so.


  1. Apparently, you and I have a lot to say about each others' work. I've just scheduled another post in which I quote you and play with your ideas.

    You know, it's strange. I find it almost impossible to get my friends and family members to play games. I think it's related to a kind of stigma, though. They seem to view them as simultaneously the playthings of children and as excessively inaccessible. We have a lot of work to do.

  2. @ Spencer

    Always a pleasure to get into a discussion and have a place to spur my brain into action.

    Is you family the least bit enthralled by Wii-mania? Last week my mom said she wanted a Wii, and I'm not even certain she could handle a toaster let alone a next-gen game console. But at least she the "playthings for children" mentality isn't as pervasive. Which is itself strange considering how much of a casual "plaything" the Wii tends to be.

  3. My Dad got a Wii for Christmas, so my family is enthralled. He talks to me every day about strategies for various Wii sports and complains about muscle strain.

    I got him Guitar Hero, but I don't think he has played it yet. Still too obsessed with Wii Sports!

    I've also decided that I will dress my children up as video game characters for laughs.

  4. @ dhalgren

    I'd be interested to see if he picks up Guitar Hero. It seems like it might be a good mid-range game, but maybe starting him off with Wii music would have been better?

    The Big Daddy - Little Sister combo is precious. But maybe Banjo-Kazooey could work with a baby in the backpack.