lowbrowculture

collects stories and ideas from John Kelly

Conventions

Another thing Emmett said that got me thinking was this:

> > Probably these developers know something I don’t. Probably they know that their market already understands the conventions of this world, and that eventually, and through repetition, anything that deviates from these conventions seems somehow false. (I suspect that this might be what Tom means when he mentions [games literacy](http://infovore.org/archives/2010/07/17/its-better-because-its-better/).) But for me, this time at least, it never stopped feeling like a videogame. > >

This is a criticism I hear a lot - that playing videogames presupposes a certain amount of knowledge. The reason I hear it a lot is because my wife is so unfamiliar with videogame conventions. So much that she’s a terrific litmus test for the accessibility of a particular game. Give me a joypad and my hands instinctively fall into a familiar grip. After a short while, I’ll be accustomed to the controls of a game that there will be almost no barrier between what I want to do and what I can make the game do. The controls will disappear for me, allowing me to fully immerse myself in the game. For my wife, the controls are always present. She isn’t familiar with the joypad, so when the game tells her to “Press X to open”, she has to actively think about where button X is. It will never not be a game for her. Years of experience has taught me that, almost universally, “X” (or “bottom button”) means “Okay” and “O” (or “right button”) means “Cancel”. I’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t even think about it now. For my wife, this is still a strange concept even though she uses these buttons every day to watch movies and TV through our Xbox.

Within the game worlds themselves, there are also conventions that might only be immediately obvious to someone who is familiar with games and has been playing them for a substantial amount of time. For example, the near-ubiquitous red barrel has an obvious meaning to gamers: kick-ass explosions. Wooden crates can be smashed open to potentially give you some amazing loot. In most games, the double-jump has no grounding in either the narrative or the physics of the world - I mean, what the fuck is that? Someone can ‘jump’ again in mid-air to go even higher? Seriously? - but this is something I almost expect when I’m playing a platform game. When it isn’t present, I feel like something is missing. Giant Bomb has helpfully put together a fairly comprehensive list of the most common videogame conventions so that we don’t have to go through them all here.

And so it’s not so much the fact that these conventions exist that bother me, but more the fact that this is used as a stick to beat videogames as a medium. A typical conversation when we try to play games together:

“How did you know you could open that door but not the door beside it?”

“It’s obvious!”

“Not to me!”

“Well, because 25 years of playing videogames has taught me which doors can be opened and which can’t.”

“You see?! This is why I can’t play videogames!”

Here’s where I’m in danger of sounding like a snob, but my answer to this is: so learn, get used to it.Or, to put it in more Xbox Live-friendly terms: have you considered sucking less?

You’re reading my blog, so I’m guessing that you’re probably a middle-to-upper class white male with at least a secondary school educationand your name is probably Steve, Bob or Gar. You probably spend a fair portion of your spare time reading - I mean, no-one’s paying you to read this so, if nothing else, I’m probably right with this assumption. Now, just think about the conventions of reading. We take it for granted, but this, too, presupposes a whole bunch of stuff. Obviously, you have to be familiar with the language, you have to be familiar with the form of the letters, the spellings of words. You have to understand the process of reading (in English, at least) from left-to-right, then top-to-bottom. These are the literary analogues to videogame control conventions, “X means ‘okay’”.

Once you actually master the mechanics of it, there are also conventions used in literature and reading. Right now I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System. To read this properly, to understand it and convert it from just words on a page to ideas and concepts, it helps to be familiar with, among other things, the logic of metafiction and the various philosophical theories of language including, but not limited to, the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The first time I read Thomas Pynchon’s V, I was completely unfamiliar with metafiction, and I had a hard time reading that book. Just as the game never stopped being a videogame for Emmett, V never stopped being a book for me. I was reading at such a cripplingly slow pace that it took me forever, which meant I never really developed a ‘flow’. I was always completely conscious of the process of writing that made up this book. I didn’t enjoy it. Because I wasn’t immersed in the subject of the work, I was very aware of the form of the work, I was aware of the author’s ‘tricks’. It’s like my wife playing a game, the controller/book never disappeared for meMy second read-trough, after more exposure to the genre of metafiction, more exposure to Pynchon’s work, was much more successful. I don’t think anyone would accuse the book of being at fault here. I was unfamiliar with the genre, and I was punching above my weight. I knew that. I accepted that.

I guess this is made worse with games because they are all rules, they’re all convention. I recently played a game of Carcassonne with my wife, and the rules never once disappeared into the background because we constantly had to think about what we were doing. Our first game of Dungeons & Dragons was quickly disbanded after we said “fuck this” because we couldn’t figure out what the various numbers meant or how we were meant to calculate things. In none of these cases did we blame the game’s rules, we blamed ourselves for not knowing themThis is a lie, we totally blamed the D&D rules. Christ, even their “beginner’s guide” is written with the assumption you were playing D&D in the womb. In videogame terms, I have little experience of Japanese RPGs. As a result, I don’t enjoy playing them. Their rules are so transparent that I feel like I’m watching an Excel spreadsheet with fancy graphics. At the same time, I’m unfamiliar with their conventions. Do you know how long it took me to wrap my head around the concept of ‘grinding’My enjoyment of Dragon Quest VIII increased immeasurably once I copped to this? These games never stop being ‘games’ for me. I’m never immersed.

But still, what should be done? What should I do when I’m having trouble reading a book like V? Well, I should read other books. Books that are more at my reading-level. Slowly build myself up my familiarity with literary conventions so that I could enjoy the book properly. You wouldn’t expect a teenager coming straight off Twilight (for example) to be able to pick up and enjoy Ulysses (again, for example), so I don’t see why you’d expect someone completely unfamiliar with modern videogames to be able to enjoy them properly either.

So the question is, why blame the game?