Tuesday, April 21, 2009

EXP Podcast #22: Games for the Uninitiated

If you read this site, you are probably one of two kinds of people:

1. The kind that loves video games or...
2. The kind that is subjected to rants about why we love video games (i.e. non-gamer friends and family).

This week, we were inspired by Owen Good's article about explaining the allure of video games to non-gamers. We use his discussion of trying to decide which games to demonstrate for his grandfather as starting point to discuss the tricky business of sharing our favorite games to people that probably have never heard of them. It is a situation in which many of us have found ourselves, so please feel free to share your stories in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- Have you ever tried to explain or demonstrate your gaming interests to a non-gamer? How successful were you?
- What is the most effective way to draw someone in to gaming? Finding a game that ties in with their interests? Showing them something completely new? Demonstrating graphical realism? Showing them inventive story-telling?
- Which games would you show to a non-gamer and why? What would you want to communicate to them?

To listen to the podcast:
- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show Notes:

- Run time: 30 min 20 sec
- Owen Good's Article, via Kotaku: "What Would You Show to Someone Who's Never Seen a Game"
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. I can't see the Kotaku article (it's blocked at work) but my parents were fairly casual gamers who nevertheless got me into it by virtue of the fact they had to buy all the stuff in the first place!

    We had a Colecovision and my parents played stuff like Time Pilot, Mousetrap, Space Fury. Eventually I surpassed their skill.

    My dad bought an IBM PC and played stuff like Solo Flight and The Hitchhiker's Guide text adventure. He played a few minutes of Space Quest 2 and then we played it together until getting stuck in the swamp (where we remained for years until someone told us the solution).

    After that, games were primarily my domain except when my Game Boys, NES and Genesis were hijacked for link-up Tetris, Dr Mario and Columns respectively. Since then, apart from the odd sports game with my dad, mostly it's my mother who plays the games, specifically Bust-A-Move, Dr Mario 64 and the usual stuff on the DS.

    Convincing my missus about games isn't as easy - sometimes she's very keen to try and we have some fun, but the only thing that's really caught her attention recently is Viva Pinata. She is, however, quite content to sit and peer over her book as I play Gears of War/GTA/whatever, offering encouragement or taunts as I go.

    However, the problem with introducing new people to games I find is the complexity of the controls - two analogue sticks to control movement and looking around in particular is very disorienting. I find I have better results with fighting games and puzzles as opposed to action or platform games.

    Saying that, Goldeneye, by virtue of the fact using the aiming controls was practically optional, appealed to everyone who tried it.

  2. @ Branch-me-do

    It's funny that you found success with fighting games. Those are the last titles I would think could succeed. I would think gaming newcomers would not want to play competitively. But maybe that drive to win translates to a drive to learn.

    (Ed. I listened to the podcast again and realized I mistakenly attributed Eve Online to developer Stardock (Creators of Sins of the Solar Empire). Eve Online is actually developed by Iceland based CCP.)

  3. This podcast actually inspired me to write an article about my father's progression through gaming based on what Scott said about his father.

    I think Scott had a good point about a game needing a "hook." My fiance does not usually play anything outside of Mario Kart or Rock Band, but she actively sought to play a Wii game about cheerleading, since she is a former cheerleader. My father enjoyed playing Geometry Wars because it looked reminiscent of Asteroids, which was a game he played often in his youth.

    Another point Scott brought up was the Wii controller. My dad could not get into Call of Duty 2 or 4 pm the Xbox 360 (though he spent more time at least trying on the latter because he enjoyed the story) because of the controls. However, once I got him a copy of Medal of Honor: Heroes 2, a thematically similar game to the CoD games, but this new control system really opened the door for him.

    Another thing is this idea of "gamer guilt", which is something I've largely shunned. I'm very up front and open about it in my life, namely in my academic life. I make no qualms about expressing my ideas about videogames, because in my mind, all mediums are equal and nobody should hold anything against games or gamers. In the field of communication, in which I study, technology is really changing the way we look at how people interact, and I think games are one of the mediums that hold a lot of impact on the way human communication will evolve with technology.

    However, this comment is running a little long, so that's really a blog piece for another day (or similar to several I've already written).

  4. I wish I had a good answer to this. I've been trying to get my wife to play games, but she can't even stand to look at them when I'm playing them.

    The first strike against them is that she hates anything animated. She won't watch more than 2 seconds of anime. She hates computer graphics and thinks they all look silly and fake. She especially hates claymation because it sickens her to think of how much time is wasted in their creation. So basically, the fact that every videogame requires some form of animation is an instant put off.

    The second strike against them is the controller. If you haven't developed with the gaming systems, a controller with two sticks, 12 buttons, and a directional pad is confusing. The only games I've had any success with getting her to play have been Buzz! The Mega Quiz with the buzzer controllers and Guitar Hero, with the guitar controller (though she won't play it with the blinds open).

    The third strike is just the general nerd stench of videogames. It's like female repellent. It's hard to ask a woman to associate with it in any way.

    And the real clincher is that videogames are tied tightly in her mind with the phrase "waste of time". As soon as she sits down to play, she's thinking of other things she "should" be doing.

    Nevertheless, I continue to try. She had an Atari growing up and actually enjoyed games like Pacman, Yar's Revenge, Space Invaders, and Frogger. And like I said, there are a few modern games I've had her play that she did like. It's just a really tough sell. I've been thinking lately that I might be able to draw the link between her favorite games of old and the more modern games. Deep down, the heart of a lot of games are still a Pacman, Space Invaders, or Frogger. You collect stuff, you shoot stuff, you avoid stuff. I wonder if she might do better to start retro and progress to modern games since she stopped playing after the Atari 2600.

  5. Jorge,

    I think the fighting game thing goes back to the controls. All you need is the one stick to move around, and buttons to attack and block with.

    I ended up with three female housemates all happily pounding the crap out of each other in Dead or Alive 2 on the Dreamcast. I find 3D fighters to be better for this sort of play than 2D ones. 3D ones I find revolve more on simple (and understandable)punches, kicks and holds. 2D is all about ridiculous super moves that require crazy pad motions to pull off.

    (they also found GTA3 hilarious to watch but frustrating to play... their cars would burst into flames or the cops would arrive and they'd die quite quickly)

  6. Great episode! I've been listening your podcasts for a while now and I just wanted to tell you guys that you are doing an amazing job. You have great topics, great insights and a very dynamic chemistry so there are no boring parts. I love it! Please continue!

    As for the topic: It's a question that is very dear to me because unlike you I actually know very few people who play games (in person at least). So I'm constantly in a situation where I need to explain my interests to the uninitiated. Although you've mentioned a lot of god points, I also disagree with some of your choices. For example, I think an MMO won't work AT ALL. Seriously. The fascination of a MMO only stars working after you have some kind of involvement into the "community". So you need to stay for a couple of hours and actually interact with people WHILE you actually play the game itself (which is already very complex because it's designed for long-term gameplay). And even then, it could very well be that actually nothing exciting happens in the first few hours because you don't stumble across anybody interesting. It won't work for an unexperienced player. Even then, it won't work in a short amount of time.

    And I'm also very suspicious with Bioshock. Sure it's cinematic but in a very crazy and fantastic way. So the actual THEME of the game is quite nerdy. Also it's pretty dark and violent right from the beginning. As a shooter, something like Call of Duty 4 might work better, at leas for a male audience.

    I like how you suggested Assassin's Creed. I second that. I was surprised you didn't call out the most obvious title from the same category: GTA4! It was mentioned in the news a lot so many outsiders might know the title and be curious what the fuzz is about. It has the same feeling of space and freedom as Assasin's Creed AND a great cinematic story. Also the theme is quite "mundane" in that it shows an everyday urban environment. This would be MY pick for the game to show.

    But you should also consider if we are talking about games to SHOW to somebody or about games to actually let somebody play. If we are talking about the second, you can just as well cut almost ALL of the XBox and PS3 Titles. The controls are just too daunting.

    Great choice with Shadow of the Collosus. I was wondering if you might also want to go with ICO instead. It lacks the scale and freedom aspect but the hand-holding makes it much more emotional which might caught outsiders off-guard.

    You've also talked about beautiful graphics. That's an interesting thing. I noticed that outsiders are far less sensitive to the technical details of the graphics (polycount, shaders, animation) and more sensitive to the actual mood of the game. An outsider won't be able to see ANY difference between a PS2 game and PS3 game (or even Dreamcast and PS3 or even PSX and PS3). And even if they get that a game is older, they actually won't mind if the overall look is nice. So you might want to show Windwaker instead of Twilight Princess or even Oblivion.

    From the "simple to pick up and cooperative" category, I would certainly get Boom Blox. I was just amazed how easily even uninitiated people were able to get started with it. And they really got into it really quickly. Plus the physics are good for an eye opener or two.

    I second the Fighting Games suggestion. I know it's crazy but it's true! I wrote recently a short summary of my experiences of convincing my girlfriend to play games. There were some excellent comments too!:
    http://gamedesignscrapbook.blogspot.com/2009/04/girlfriend-games.html(Sorry for the long comment. Thanks and all the best to you!)

  7. I had another bit of success in finding a game for my wife last night. :) I tried to begin with some retro stuff, hoping that the simplicity would work out:

    Final Fight: too violent. no go.

    Legendary Wings: getting tired. no go.

    But then I pulled out Space Channel 5. I explained that it was basically just like a glorified version of one of those old Simon machines of the 80's with the four colored buttons where you had to repeat back the correct sequence of musical button presses that Simon just played. This linked it to something familiar to her. Space Channel 5 has a real quirky sense of humor and style that I knew would gel with her too. I also knew that it dropped you into the action right away- anything with too much tutorial or a long CGI intro and she gets frustrated and disinterested. It's also a game that doesn't require that you use all the buttons on the controller. You only need the directional pad and two shooting buttons.

    She made fun of Space Channel 5's weirdness for the first few minutes, but after awhile she was bouncing along with the beat, laughing at the silly-funkiness on screen, and playing over and over again to improve her score without letting me have a turn. She said one of the things she liked about the game was that it reminded her of some of the portions on the IQ test, so she felt like she was giving her brain a workout by trying to remember all of the things that the aliens said. When we went to bed she still had the music in her head "Up Down Up Down Shoo-shoot Shoot Shoot!" and she said she might want to play that one again. So, Space Channel 5 may be another good one for the uninitiated. But I think the take home message is: know your audience. I paid attention to everything she complained about every time she didn't like a game, and I asked about games she did like. I tried to find a game that would play to her skill strengths (memory, but not complicated controls) and would have a fun atmosphere instead of a violent or serious one (which I knew she didn't like). And mostly, just be patient until you find something that clicks. Hardcore gamers get too caught up in games they think people "should" like. You can't expect someone who hasn't grown up alongside the developing videogame world to appreciate them in the same way you do.

  8. Thanks for all the comments folks; hearing your experiences makes me want to re-record the whole conversation :-).

    I feel you on the control issue. It's such a big hurdle.

    Funny, my mom used to be a huge Dr. Mario player, regularly trouncing everyone in the household. I'll have to tell her she can get it again for Wii...


    Say it loud, say it proud, my friend. Have you ever encountered anyone who gave you a hard time for liking/studying games? What is your response?

    Thanks also for the link, I'll stop by and check it out.


    You and your wife sound like an interesting couple: "One of them hates animation and computer games, the other writes about games on the Internet while watching anime! Put them together..." and you have the makings of prime time sit-com.

    Nice to see that you happened on something that works, especially a cult classic like Space Channel 5.


    Thanks for the kind words, we really appreciate it. Long or short, getting comments is a real pick-me-up.

    You might be picking up on one of the points that JT made: "hardcore" players might not always have the best judgment about what to show new players. Maybe an MMO would be too daunting, and Bioshock too nerdy...

    Then again, I am completely surprised by the fighting games suggestion: fighting games often require a lot of dexterity as well as the interest in direct competition. I always figured this might scare of newcomers, but I guess not!

    Oh, and Boom Blox? Genius pick.

  9. Heh.

    I'm doing some experiments on my girlfriend regarding just that (which I blog about).
    And yeah, boom blox works juuuust fine.
    But strangely enough, horror games grab her too.

  10. @modran

    Which horror games worked well? They have a reputation for being difficult to pick up quickly, but I can see how the thematic attraction (everyone loves a zombie movie!).