Acquired Abilities: Playing Games as Cultural Skill

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Sometimes, as a game designer, you tend to forget how well versed you are in your medium. You tend to think that all people are able to plunge into a virtual world and stroll around. You could not be more wrong.

This weekend, Oli, Käde and me had our parents over for a lengthy Easter brunch. And since recently Portal 2 was released, we figured that we showed them the first Portal as an example of a really well done and funny game. I am not really sure how our parents received the game. In fact, I doubt that they realised much of it, since they were mostly occupied figuring out the controls.

This was the perfect illustration for the generational gap. While modern games tend to write “Use WASD to move around” and leave it at that, assuming that the player will know what to do, because he has used that control scheme so many times before, this was clearly not enough for our parents.

At first, they tended to alternate between intently staring at the mouse and then slowly turning it and swooping over the keyboard with the index finger, trying to find the correct key to … well, do something. The seemingly spaciously measured intervals in the second test chamber, where portals open up and close were way too short to react, pick up the cube and walk through that portal.

Of course, at this point, things start to add up:

  • First you need to learn the controls to navigate the space
  • Second, you need to learn to orient yourself in virtual space, basically only getting a small window into it, with your sense of balance completely detached from this virtual space
  • Third, you need to learn the concept of portals, that undermine this knowledge of virtual space you just acquired.

Portal has perfect learning curve, adding elements one by one – but only if you are already well versed in traversing virtual spaces. Otherwise, you are completely lost, which is exactly what happened to our parents.

I think that this is something all game designers should experience from time to time. It might remind them that playing is a cultural skill, that does not come naturally to a person, but is acquired in a learning process. The WASD control scheme is an arbitrary convention, just as the number, shape and meaning of the letters of the alphabet are. Both have to be learned. They will be internalised over time and use, at which point it will be easy to forget that not all people can read. Or are intimately familiar with WASD.

The same goes with the games you create, of course. After some time, you know exactly what to do, which corners to avoid, how to deal with tricky bits. Stepping back, correcting them, and then creating tutorial levels can be difficult, since it all seems so obvious to you.

It is not, however. Starting up a game is like being born into a completely new world. Everything has to be learned again.

Step. By. Step.