Why EA Sports reminds us why old people don't understand games

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One of the many reasons that gaming isn’t taken as seriously as film and literature by the mainstream media is that there’s something of a generational divide. One only has to think back to the cringe-worthy video of Charlie Brooker trying to teach Channel 4 News’ veteran presenter Jon Snow how to play Lego Marvel Super Heroes to see an old man completely bewildered by the interaction between controller and screen.

For gamers, it can be frustrating: why can’t older people get into gaming? Why do they refuse to understand something that is so essential to our modern culture? Hell – apparently in it’s first month of release, Grand Theft Auto 5 made more money than the entire global music industry combined. You’d think that even non-gamers might be curious to find out what all of the fuss is about.

I think the problem is the controller. This is not surprising when we remember the huge success enjoyed by the original Wii because it wasn’t controlled by something that looks like a controller – but it bears reiterating, to explain just how alien a game can be.

Can you remember the last utterly bewildering gaming experience you had? Perhaps it was when you were first confronted with the original Halo, and its unusual dual-analogue stick movement controls which have become the standard means of control for pretty much every action game that followed it. There was definitely a learning curve in figuring out how the right stick looks around and the left stick moves and strafes.

I experienced a similarly bewildering experience last night when I loaded up NHL14 for the first time. My girlfriend is Canadian – so I’m trying my best to get into ice hockey, so that I can understand the culture of her people better.

I’m not a natural sports person – outside of Tony Hawks skateboarding, I can safely say I’ve never bought a sports game. So to play a big blockbuster EA Sports title was totally new to me.

With essentially every other game I buy, I know the drill: left trigger aim, right trigger fire, sticks for looking and moving, “B” is probably reload or change weapon, “back” button is map – easy. During the inevitable tutorial sections I’m yawning and waiting for the real game to start. Hell, sometimes I even play on hard mode.

With NHL14 though… it was like aliens had come down and replaced my brain with Jon Snow’s. Because the controls are so radically different (hockey may be violent, but it’s not Call of Duty), I was at a loss. Even getting through the tutorial having previously told the game I’d never played an NHL title before was hard going. To compound things – when I did finally get into a game I found it necessary to consult an on-screen game manual… which was page after page of instructions for all sorts of complex maneuvers.

Similarly – the “grammar” of games is important. Another similarity between Jon Snow’s experience and mine was that neither of us were familiar enough with the context. In Snow’s case, as he had never played a videogame he had no idea how it worked on a mechanical level. Whereas gamers take concepts like levels, missions, lives, power-ups, scoring and – hell, the fact that if a barrel is red and is shot, it will explode – for granted, these aren’t necessarily things that occur hugely often outside of games.

For me, the difficulty was the same – I didn’t understand the structure of the game. Obviously I could navigate myself around a menu and knew what the symbol for the left trigger was… but I don’t actually understand the game of ice hockey. The game assumed I knew what a “deke” was, how a face-off worked or what ‘checking’ is. A trip to see Professor Wikipedia soon helped a little – but my lack of immersion in the ice hockey world until now made it a confusing and disorienting experience.

So really, can we chide the older generation for not understanding games? Unbeknownst to our generation, who have grown up playing games, we’ve learned almost an entire other language and understanding of something to which there’s very few analogues. Though it is depressing that Snow can’t handle even a game as basic as Lego Marvel, asking him to change now is like asking an adult to learn another language – possible, but it is going to be a chore.

James O’Malley
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