Monday, September 28, 2009

Kids These Days

Recently Chris Lepine, of The Artful Gamer, wrote a piece titled "The New Dark Continent of Childhood," which explores changing notions of childhood and how a gaming experience with his cousin seems to validate, in someways, the loss of "exploration and excellence" in today's gaming youth. In Chris's case, his thirteen year old cousin is morally defeated and quick to give up in his confrontation with Jack and Daxter. To many veteran gamers, this lack of tenacity is an affront to game difficulty and the classic games of yore. To some, a shift in attitude towards difficult games is a modern day tragedy, the games industry death knell.

I'm no fan of needlessly arduous games, and I'm certainly no gaming doomsday prophet. That being said, how children grow up today is markedly different than how they grew up ten, twenty and thirty years ago. I see no reason why these changes wouldn't manifest themselves within the gaming community. Shortly before reading Chris's article, I had my own "kids these days" moment with my neighbor. It is not easy games that irk me, but player apathy.

My landlord lives below me and has three kids who periodically come over and storm through the house like a tornado: brief, but loud and chaotic. The middle child fancies himself a gamer, and usually hangs out in front of the console. Most recently, right after buying Halo 3: ODST, he came over eager to play multiplayer. We hopped into a game of firefight, the game's survival mode. Within moments I was familiarizing myself with weapons, noting cover and choke points, and selecting fall back positions. I discussed strategy while my neighbor (let's call him Tom for convenience) was wandering around, itching for a fight.
The moment enemies appeared, our play styles veered in opposite directions. Hunkering down behind cover, I watched as Tom went Rambo, running head long into groups of covenant, blasting anything that moved with no regard for cover. When I wasn't covering his ass, I was ushering him back to safety. Regardless, Tom died four times in four minutes. Having some experience with his competitive nature, I flaunted my lack of deaths, encouraging him to play intelligently. Finally out of lives, Tom just sat and watched me play on my own. In his few moments with the game, Tom already hated ODST, completely regretting his purchase. "Let's play some Gears of War 2" he said, "That's the best game I've ever played."

Tom's attitude towards ODST is not the game's fault in any way. We were playing on normal difficulty, and Tom has a lot of experience with Halo 3. The game was only difficult because his impatience made it so. I can understand someone wanting instant gratification, but to lambaste ODST after a mere five minutes is ridiculous. Instant gratification is available for those who know how to find it.
Ben Abraham, of SLRC and Critical Distance, aptly responds to Chris's post in the comments, citing Clint Hocking's opinion that older gamer generations tend to idealize tenacity in the face of abusive game design. Gen-Y gamers, Hocking suggests, appreciate cooperative games more than competitive games. Easier games satisfy alternative play styles and are no better or worse because of their difficulty. I mostly agree with all of these statements.

However, Tom is an altogether different gamer. He favors competition, or cooperative games that rank players. It seems his ultimate goal is to dominate a game quickly and win. What is most upsetting, is that he has no desire to learn. Tom appears to find no interest in the system of rules that define his gaming experience. ODST holds no inherent value besides creating the sensation of success.

I don't want to suggest Tom is representative of "kids these days," or even that my few experiences with him have given me an accurate portrayal of his gaming tendencies. Yet surely my experience is not unique? Is gaming laziness a growing characteristic of modern gamers?

It is not tenacity that I value, but an interest in learning, in testing the limits of a game world, the rules that shape your gaming experience. The pursuit of in-game knowledge is valuable regardless of difficulty. Some games teach better than others, which may explain Tom's appreciation of Gears of War. But even the easiest and most intuitively controlled game has to teach. I have no sympathy for those unwilling to learn.


  1. I wonder if 'Tom' played some Left 4 Dead, which both teaches and forces co-operation, whether he'd understand the benefits and respond accordingly.

    I've only played a brief few games of Firefight but it didn't feel so much like cooperative as just fighting side-by-side.

    I don't think playing in a co-operative manner comes naturally to everyone. I'm glad you refrained from inferring implications about 'kids these days' just from Tom's experience! It's a temptation that seems only too easy to give in to lately...

    Bloggers these days! =P

  2. Playing Left 4 Dead recently has been less satisfying for me as a cooperative game, with some players rushing into situations doomed to cause disaster and then abusing anyone who doesn't follow.

    It's important to stay together as a team in L4D, but it's also important to protect your fellow survivors and adjust to their style of play. I don't as often get the sense that spontaneous cooperation will emerge when I join a game. The same seems to have happened to Red Orchestra, which used to be a shining example of team work.

    The strongest impulse does appear to be personal domination. To use Bartle's terms, will Killers become the most widely represented of all types, or are these players better classified as Achievers?

  3. There's probably also a factor of other games teaching and rewarding recklessness involved here. Halo was designed to encourage people to dash out and get in over their head, and then attempt to adapt. The systems of the game were designed to encourage this style of play: regenerating health, limited ammo and weapons that you can recoup from downed enemies, plentiful powerful close-and-mid-range weapons when compared with relatively weak or uncommon long-range weapons. And that's just the basic systems of single-player. When you're ranked on kills in multiplayer, it doesn't matter that you died 20 times and nobody else breached 10 as long as you were the guy that racked up 40 kills while other players wallowed in the teens.

    I'm sure there are also cultural and personal aspects to this as well. We've all known that guy who loves to play a game until he loses, and then immediately wants to play something else. That type of player is not limited to "kids these days." I'm inclined to think it's on the increase, but it wouldn't surprise me if that's just a product of confirmation bias and the process of refining social skills as you grow up.

  4. Tremendously well written post Jorge. As I mentioned earlier, you've pretty much said everything I clumsily tried to communicate in my article, with the added bonus of not overgeneralizing as Ben pointed out ;)

    I guess anyone could ask however, 'Well, who cares? They're enjoying it too, right? Games are just entertainment.'

    That's always a tough question for me to answer, because it implies that their enjoyment of the game is just as genuine as mine, or as someone else's. When I'm playing with a give-up-and-switch gamer (as Julian points out), I never find that they're really "enjoying" the game. It's more of a pass-time or rapid entertainment injection. I never see them fully 'engrossed' in the game. Like I said, it's hard to provide an answer that doesn't pass judgment on that kind of gamer. But honestly, it's hard to find something value-laden or admirable (or even playful) in their style of play. But maybe I'm still missing something in the give-up-and-switch gamer's experience that is valuable.

    Glad to see this conversation has picked up some genuine momentum - I have the feeling that it is part of a larger debate simmering in the public gamer consciousness.

  5. @ Ben

    You're right about the temptation to generalize more than I did. How does someone bemoan a certain type of player without sounding like an asshole? As for the L4D example. I think having him play is a great idea. I'm sure certain games can change how people approach gaming period.

    @ Dave

    Yes. I hate those L4D players with a fiery passion. In other games, these players prefer forcing their play style into a game, rather than exploring how to apply their options in a game world. I don't think I'm crazy to fear their buying power.

    @ Julian

    I'm with you on the Halo lesson. But when Tom's run & gun strategy failed, I expected him to test ODST and see which Halo tactics were applicable or not. Impatience and apathy transcends "kids these days" certainly. As for today's youth, lets hope its not as incorrigible as it seems.

    @ Chris

    Thanks for the inspirational source! It is hard to take a strong approach to this, since anyone has a right to experience games as they desire. It is their money after all. But I also want to give some credence to the fears of some core gaming audiences.

    For the give-up-and-switch gamer, certain game design choices are particularly appealing. We shouldn't confound their play styles with the "casual" player, lest we dumb-down games to appeal to the instant-gratification crowd.

  6. I think one important point is that these types of player tend to damage the experience for other types of players in multiplayer games. A reckless player in L4D leaves the rest of the team short and invites unnecessary danger by triggering alarms, witches etc. A reckless player in Demigod actually HELPS the opposing team by giving them resources (XP) when they are killed.

    When we're talking about the prevalence of this attitude in gamers, it's not entirely about telling them how to enjoy their games (although I'm sure some people do take the argument in that direction). It's about the frustration of having your experience with the game carelessly or maliciously damaged by other players. From that perspective, it's not unacceptable to take a strong stance on this.

    I'm not terribly concerned about their buying power specifically. There will always be niches of varying sizes; people make insane overcomplicated simulations like Dwarf Fortress, for instance. If you look at other entertainment arts like music, movies or books, some of the most popular things are mindless romps. 50 Cent sells more copies than Blue Scholars, Fast and Furious is watched by more people than The Fall, more people read Dan Brown than Murakami. Even if developers cater first and foremost to impatient gamers, that doesn't mean that other games won't get made, or that our slice of the market is going to get edged out.

  7. Really nice article!, I have mixed feeling on the topic; I can't stop to have preconceptions of teenagers and kids playing videogames (past experiences in Xbox live have enforced my rejection) but on the other hand I want to "pass the torch" to the "new ones". There seems to be a overall rejection from older gamers to the new ones, perhaps as a rite of passage, similar to those of native tribes; the old memebers make the new ones overcome challenges to ensure that the knowledge they pass is respected. So I guess in a certain way, the rejection has a fundament (atleast to a point).

    We'll grow old and tired, and we'll chuckle at the new game sensation of the kids, "you call that a game!?, they sure don't make 'em like they used to, THOSE where real games on my time, yes sir, one had to sweat and struggle and end up with sore thumbs just to get a crappy ending..."

  8. Like RASS, I wonder how age factors in to all of this.

    Personally, I remember being a give-up-and-switch player as a kid. I'm not sure if it was a specific game that changed me, or if it was simply a function of time.

    I do think there is something to be said for having folks learn that a game can be enjoyable even if it isn't flashy or instantly engrossing. Gears and Halo are meant to grab the player right away, but I'll bet there are many folks who find Monkey Island or an old-school Zelda ultimately more satisfying.

    My guess is that "Tom" doesn't have the most varied gaming palette, so anything that doesn't instantly fit the mold becomes bad. He doesn't realize that multiple versions of success even exist.

    Unfortunately, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. If you led Tom to World of Goo, would he play?

  9. Without doing any research of my own, I would hazard to guess that simply because gaming is more 'mainstream' that it will attract a wider audience. Whem games were less accessible, only those that had the tenacity to figure out how to play games in general figured them out, and thus more tenacious people played games. So most older gamers were these more tenacious kids.

    Nowadays, as games are marketed to a wider audience, they simply need to be easier to sell more copies. I guess this attracts a less tenacious audience.

    I think the tenacious gen-y kids are still playing the harder games and figuring them out, but many others just want the quick, Call Of Duty 26 fix.

    My 8-year-old brothers, on the other hand, were brouht up by myself and another brother who are quite seasoned gamers. I couldn't fid the Rock Climb HM on Pokemon Diamond, so they spent hours combing SInoh Region for me to find it. :)

  10. To throw my two cents in, I think I've become an "executive gamer" as I've grown on. I get enough frustration during my non-leisure activities and have little enough free time (increasingly less, it seems), so I'm less willing to fight with clunky controls or an awkward platforming section. I wasn't good at doing busy work in grade school, and now that I have an option, I'd much rather do something that doesn't intentionally seek to make my leisure time less efficient.

  11. Just thought I'd come back with an update on my L4D experience since I've played some Crash Course.

    Even worse. Players leaving if they get pounced, gratuitous team-killing, more "noob" insults flying, kick votes for nothing.

    Maybe I'm just unlucky, but this is becoming the norm in every online game I try.

  12. Sometimes I forget that people actually do public matchmaking.

    You have my sympathies, Dave. Have you considered finding a community to join instead of playing public matches? You could do worse than GWJ.

  13. Thanks for the suggestion, Erik. I never thought about joining as I have a morbid fear of getting too involved in a clan, but GWJ might be just the thing for me, now that I look into it more closely.

    I had a stint as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia about ten years ago in the American Civil War Game Club - - which was great except it took up so much time I never got to play (it was a PBEM, so you had to make time or your opponent would be waiting impatiently).

    A few years ago, I had to quit WoW when I realised I was getting into the same situation with my guild.

    So I've always avoided clans, even in Red Orchestra, where I could see that games were more enjoyable when populated by members from clans such as Splat.

    GWJ sounds more like a group I'd like. I'll post on the Steam Community forum on GWJ later to get an invitation. Thanks again for the advice. Looking forward to enjoying L4D again.

    [Sorry for hijacking the post with this...]