On The Outside

5 May

There are walls around gaming. How they got there is a thorny and complex issue, but the fact remains that more so than most forms of entertainment or expression, there is a divide between those who play games and those who do not.

I’ve written a feature for Kotaku that comes at that issue sideways. It’s titled “But I Don’t Play  Video Games! Don’t Worry. Portal 2 Will Teach You How.” It was a fun piece to write, and I’m hopeful that it will convince a few non-gamers to give Portal 2 a go.

But gameplay can be so difficult to talk about—what’s that old saying? Something about dancing and architecture? In order to really understand video games, you can’t read about them or watch someone else play; you have to play them for yourself. It’s why we all cried bloody murder when Roger Ebert dismissed the art-game Flower after watching a videotape of another person’s playthrough, and it’s why you couldn’t possibly understand my adoration of the building blocks game Minecraft simply by watching me punch holes in a virtual hillside with a pixellated axe for a few hours. Playing Portal 2 is a wonderfully kinetic, joyful experience, and it’s one that I really want you to have.

As a side note, I noticed that a lot of people have talked about their adventures (and misadventures) guiding their friends and loved ones through Portal 2‘s co-op levels. Although I understand the impulse to bring the uninitiated along with us on a tandem co-op excursion, I actually think that if someone’s going to discover videogames through Portal 2, he or she should probably start with the single-player campaign.

Cooperative gaming is awesome, but it can also be surprisingly frustrating, particularly for players of varying skill levels. I can easily imagine sitting as a co-worker or girlfriend apologizes over and over, “Sorry, I don’t know what I’m doing. Wait, how do I aim? Where are we?”

Co-op gaming just doesn’t have the patience of a single-player game, if that makes sense. If you move too slow, there is always someone waiting on you, and that’s stressful. By contrast, one of the fine things about Portal 2‘s single-player campaign is that it’s almost never time-sensitive, so new players can slow down and adjust to the controls.

If we do get some new gamers into the fold, I hope that we can welcome them with open arms. I have been really interested in the reaction to Garrett Martin’s PAX East Piece that we ran at Paste. Some have remarked at how similarly they feel, and others have been upset and outright hostile about it.

In the piece, Garrett recounts how the convention brought out his inner cynic, and how difficult it can be not to feel bummed out by it all.

Maybe it’s because I’m a proud dilettante annoyed by those more dedicated than me. Or maybe it’s because someone can enjoy video games without wearing t-shirts with Portal references or listening to MC Frontalot or laughing at bad web-comics that focus exclusively on one of the great multitude of entertainment options available to us today. I hate cynicism, but then this all sounds very cynical. PAX East makes me hate myself.

Several of Garrett’s points resonated with me, though I felt a bit differently about PAX Prime than he did about PAX East. An excerpt from my own writeup from last fall’s big shindig in Seattle:

During the Q&A segment of a videogame journalism panel, a middle-aged English professor approaches the microphone and prefaces her query by cautiously asking why there aren’t more people her age in attendance. Without missing a beat, a journalist on the panel quips, “Because they’re all too busy playing Farmville!” A deep guffaw rises from the crowd and, realizing he might’ve overstepped, the panelist quickly backpedals and graciously answers her question.

The exchange is indicative of the delicate balancing act with which many gamers are faced—if we must revel in our specialness while also welcoming newcomers, surely there is going to be some conflict between the two. Videogames traffic in personalized fantasy, so it’s not a surprise that some of us have a hard time opening them up to the rest of the world. Is there anything harder to share than one’s fantasies?

I dunno, I guess. In many ways, gaming is like any other area of interest. It’s something that rewards you the more you do it. But it’s also very much its own animal—like I say in the Kotaku piece, games don’t quite “come to you” in the way that other media like movies and TV do. You have to actually play them to enjoy them.

Jazz is actually very similar—more than almost any kind of music, Jazz requires understanding in order to appreciate and enjoy it. (I know this is not true for everyone; I’m speaking broadly here.) It’s why jazz listeners can be such insufferable snobs, and why so many people are turned off by the music. It sounds like chaos until you understand the structure, vocabulary and common practices of the musicians who perform it. But once you do, it is an incredibly beautiful form of expression to let into your life.

When it comes down to it, I’m not really certain what it is that makes gaming culture so off-putting to so many, particularly to so many who work in and write about the industry professionally. But I’m glad that we are seeing more and more games that I can so easily recommend to my non-gamer friends.

If there are aspects to gaming culture that we find distasteful, surely diversifying that culture can only be a good thing.

Sackboy photo taken at PAX East by Brian Taylor
PAX Prime photo by Annie Wright

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