5 Crucial Lessons Learned by Watching Kids Play Video Games
Watching my kids play video games is like watching a virgin fumble around with his first prostitute. You just want to put down the camera, strap on your dildo hat and say, "No, look, you do it like this." For a long time, I thought that they just sucked at gaming, and grounding them for in-game deaths obviously wasn't working.
But the more I analyze their suck, the more I'm realizing that it's not their fault. It's the games themselves. And watching how the kids play -- and what they refuse to put up with -- will tell you everything you need to know about the future of gaming.
They Don't Tolerate Losing, So Modern Games Just Let Them Win
Let's face it, in the video game universe, death isn't what it used to be. I remember when save points were a thing, forgetting to use them for a couple of hours meant your death would erase everything you just spent half a work day accomplishing. In older MMOs, dying meant a loss of experience points or levels.
Go back a few years before that, and you find NES games that didn't even have the ability to save. You die, you're back at the menu screen. There are people in this world who have played the first level of Super Mario Bros literally 10,000 times.
Welcome back, asshole!
Because of this (MMOs aside), I learned to pause my game frequently. If I had to take a piss, it got paused. Need a new Pepsi -- paused. Need 10 minutes to stalk the neighbor lady -- paused. Because if you didn't, you were absolutely guaranteed to come back to a corpse, and you'd spend the next hour trying to come up with a good story to explain the Nintendo-shaped hole in your bedroom wall.
In almost every modern game, death isn't shit. If you die in Fallout: New Vegas, you just pick up at your last auto-save, which happens every couple of minutes. Every time you enter or exit a building. Every new area. Every time you sleep. Because of that, death is not even something my kids take into consideration when running face-first into a herd of Radioactive Cock-Punching Punchcocks. I've seen them put down the controller and go swimming for an hour while their character stands, staring dumbfounded into the horizon.
In their universe, when God takes a crap, the whole world stops.
Why Do They Do It?
I'll come back to Fallout: New Vegas again because it has a perfect example. Just outside of the very first town, there is a road adorned with signs that basically say, "If you go past these signs, you will fucking die. No, this isn't a fake warning." And of course, if you just assume that their "not a fake warning" line is actually a fake warning, you find out very quickly that you were in error.
My kids barrel-ass in without weapons or knowledge of the game whatsoever ... because why not? The only thing keeping me on the safe side of those signs is my memory of what video game death used to be like. I've been conditioned to respect the idea of virtual death, and the thought of falling to it is beyond what I can accept as a player.
What Does it Mean?
There is no price for failure. When you die, you're put right back where you left off, fully healed and ready to try again. That's a radical fucking change considering if you missed a single jump during the final boss battle of Super Mario Bros., you may have to start the entire game from scratch. It'd be like if a game today was set to delete your save if you failed at the end. It's unthinkable.
Now, I'm not saying we should go back to such a drastic style of play by any means. And it sounds ridiculous to groan on about how much harder games were "back in my day" because, you know, they're just fucking video games. But still ... those of you who grew up with the old-school games, have you felt anything like the horrible tension you felt when you knew that you were on that last life, on that last level and that dying meant everything you had accomplished would be wiped out?
"Knock it OFF! If I die, you go to the orphanage."
The stakes were so high, and the feeling you got from winning was like you'd won the Super Bowl. Now, when I'm given a virtual God Mode from the very beginning as part of the game design, it just feels ... well, kind of wrong. But the new generation of gamers disagree with me, and the entire concept of getting stuck in a game is treated like a bug that gets squashed during play testing. So games have moved on to the "long interactive movie" concept, a progression from A to B where it's a foregone conclusion that you're going to win, and without any kind of real hardship along the way.
They Have No Tolerance for "Grinding"
"Grinding," if you've never heard the term, is the "work" part of a game. You reach some boss you're clearly not strong enough to beat, or you don't have the right weapons. Then you figure out that to get strong enough or to earn the weapons, you need to go repeat earlier levels (or in an RPG, wander around and kill a bunch of random animals).
OK, only 491 more rabbits, and I can move up to angry plants.
For somebody like me who got into RPGs with the '90s era Final Fantasy console games, you knew what you were in for: 1) doing a lot of reading, 2) adding a midi soundtrack to your nightmares and 3) grinding your ass off to out-level a bullshit random monster that was harder than the motherfucking end-boss.
No one "enjoyed" it, I don't think. On some level, we knew we were putting the storyline on hold in favor of making our characters powerful enough to see the next cut scene ("What's that? We need this amulet to destroy the dragon that is about to wipe out the kingdom? OK, wait while I kill 300 armadillos."). But it was what the game told us to do, so we did it. You didn't question that shit.
When my kids encounter a boss that requires grinding, they think the game is broken, or that they're just missing something. I've seen them spend up to two hours trying to kill a Deathclaw in Fallout: New Vegas because they don't consider the idea that they should come back when they're more powerful. It's there, so we should be able to kill it. What's the problem?
"There it is! Quick, PUNCH IT!"
Why Do They Do It?
It's all they know. Once more, most games have come around to their way of doing it. Boss encounters in most games are designed to be beaten after about three tries. In some games, the enemies' level is adjusted to the players' level. In newer Nintendo games and in L.A. Noire, they give you the option to just skip a level if you fail too many times.
What Does it Mean?
I'm starting to think it means that the very idea of grinding was a bullshit trick to begin with in order to pad a game. When I was a kid, games were set up to make you grind the same tasks over and over because it would stretch out the play time. With the right amount of grinding spots at just the right intervals, a developer could easily -- and often did -- turn a 20-hour game into a 40-hour game. And that was a huge selling point to say, "Final Fantasy III has 40 hours of gameplay!"
Yep, and 30 of those hours were this.
Now, it's normal to expect the quest to be five to 10 hours long depending on the genre. If you want a long game, get a multiplayer game and go online. Congratulations, you have a game that never ends. Or, you get a sandbox game and spend the next six months in GTA trying to jump out of a helicopter and land in a swimming pool.
But it comes down to the fact that my kids can do what I never could at their age -- they recognize when a game is full of shit. They can do that because they have a lot of other titles to compare it to. And if what they're currently playing is trying to bullshit them, they simply put down the controller and go play outside ... and that means when Kill, Loot, Repeat 2 hits the shelves, they're going to say, "Fuck that" and buy $60 worth of ice cream instead.
They have no problem with repetition here.
If They Want to Read, They'll Buy a Fucking Book
Even in the age of cut scenes and professional video game voice actors (though most video game voices appear to be done by one guy), there is still a ton of reading to be done in video games. In RPGs, the quest-givers will still roll out their instructions across several paragraphs of backstory. Even supposedly "mindless fun" games like Dead Rising make you read the instructions given to you by the people you're trying to rescue. Then you have titles like the recent Metroid games and Alan Wake where collecting and reading text files fills in some mystery or other.
All that text to the left boils down to "talk to the guy behind me." That's not a joke.
And my kids will not tolerate that shit.
They will hammer the "skip" button as fast as they can to get to the part where they're doing the fun stuff. Even if they needed the character to tell them what exactly they were supposed to be killing or destroying or collecting. If you just blast through the text in any Fallout game, you will have no goddamned idea what you're supposed to be doing. It doesn't matter; to them, it's still not worth it. They'd rather just try to stumble across the objective on their own.
Why Do They Do It?
Just to be clear, my point isn't that "this next generation hates to read!" Because that's not the case with my kids at all. Both of my boys could fill Prince's sequined thong closet with their recreational reading. But even if they were dyslexic, the Fallout example wouldn't make much sense, as often those NPCs actually do speak their lines along with the on-screen text. It has more to do with the fact that they want their games to be games, and their books to be books. Combining the two doesn't really make sense to them. And maybe they're right.
"We must hurry ... but first, let me tell you about his origin and history."
I'm patient with game text because, well, I remember an era when text was all you had to tell the game's story. In 1993, I didn't have games where the king would walk up to you and start talking in Patrick Stewart's voice. But my kids see the text as a ridiculous, archaic intrusion. They prefer games built more like Modern Warfare, where the next objective is shouted at you mid-battle.
"Ramirez! I'll wait here, you go re-capture the White House."
It's less "here's the entire history of the opposing faction" and more "here's a gun -- go."
What Does it Mean?
You can already see games coming around. When World of Warcraft first came out, doing quests meant plowing through a metric fuckload of text. You talked to a quest-giver and actually had to pay attention to their sob story to figure out where to go. The guy's speech would boil down to "kill 20 Disembodied Asses and I'll give you a prize," but if you didn't pay close attention to his spiel, you could find yourself wasting an hour, killing the wrong thing. Like Embodied Asses or something.
Six years and countless updates later, it's now set up so that as soon as you accept a quest, they put a marker on your map that shows exactly what to do, where to go and how many of whatever to kill, collect or discover. Gone is all the character and backstory of the NPCs living in that universe. They basically turned an MMORPG into an MMOG.
"Wait, why am I killing 50 snakes, again?" "Just kill the fucking snakes, asshole."
In other words, I don't think you can write off the "hate to read" demographic as just the younger kids who can't sit still. As they've grown up, this hasn't changed, and I can see gaming coming around to their way. Taking control away from the player and forcing them to stop and read is being treated more and more like a flaw in the design.
As somebody who writes for a living, I like the idea of future games that are full of rich characters and plot, but I'm getting the sense that the next generation of gamers will have no patience for that shit. And if you think that the answer is just dressing up that story in flashy cut scenes, well ...
They Press "Y" to Skip, as Fast as They Can
NOTE: The following contains end-game spoilers for Grand Theft Auto IV.
A couple of months ago, my youngest son finished a climactic quest in Grand Theft Auto IV that led to the main character's best friend and cousin, Roman, getting killed. This is not a minor character -- he's the very first person you meet in the game; the entire story revolves around him. All of the early missions center around him and his business. When he died, my son looked at me and very sincerely asked, "Who was that?"
It turns out he had been skipping all of the cut scenes from the very beginning.
Why Do They Do It?
I'm a sucker for cut scenes. Again, I remember a time when cut scenes weren't a thing -- the consoles weren't powerful enough to support them. So when the technology finally evolved enough to include full-motion cinematics, I was blown away. They looked a hundred times better than the actual gameplay, and so they became a reward for game progression. Hell, the entire point of beating a game was to see the end cut scene.
But my kids were born long after the novelty wore off. I still play with the idea that cut scenes are a reward, and still get excited, because I've watched them evolve from this:
But my kids aren't comparing game cut scenes to the NES era. They weren't alive in the NES era.
They're comparing them to movies.
And no matter how pretty the cut scene, they just don't compare to, say, Lord of the Rings. The acting is usually shitty. The animations are overly dramatic. And, in most cases, you don't need to see them in order to figure out what's going on. They're only there for the sake of flash, their primary function being to please people like me, whose minds are still blown with how awesome the graphics look. But kids my sons' ages don't give a shit. They were born long after graphics were even a concern.
So to them, cut scenes are something that stops the game and clogs up their murder sprees. They could give a crap less about why Niko Bellic is doing errands for a drug lord. To them, that's just what the game is making them do. Do this, then this, then this and you win. Everything that makes them pause the action is just useless bullshit.
Unless there is giant cleavage to look at, of course.
What Does it Mean?
I'm starting to think they're right. I love cut scenes and I always will, but let's be honest here: They can't put together a Hollywood-quality cast or script -- it's just not realistic. Too much of the budget has to be spent elsewhere, and game companies have already figured out that games with cheap actors or non-actors sell just as well. And that makes me question whether or not they were ever necessary to begin with. They started as a novelty, to show off new technology (specifically, storage media large enough to hold them) but now? Yeah, they kind of just intrude on the fun.
It's absolutely possible to tell a good story through the "game" part of a game. Portal. Bioshock. Modern Warfare. The more time we spend watching, the less time we spend playing. And that directly affects what I do and don't buy at Christmas and on birthdays because I'm not about to throw away $60 on something my kids are going to put on a shelf because they get bored from the lack of interaction.
Oh, hindsight, you are a cruel bitch.
Don't Like it? Break It.
Cheats codes aren't as much of a thing with this generation of consoles (the achievement system prevents devices like Game Shark) unless you're exploiting a glitch or the game just outright gives them to you (like the phone numbers in GTA that spawn vehicles, health, etc). And that's too bad, because I need that shit.
Maybe it's because my kids have rubbed off on me, but if I'm playing a story-based game, I mainly just want to see what happens next, and the whole "game" part is just a means of getting me involved in that universe. So, yeah, I don't want to fuck around with being killed by the same pack of wild dogs 10 times in a row. I don't want to replay the whole level because I didn't realize the enemy lodged a grenade in my asshole. "Shit, is that a sniper up there in th- yes, it was."
I used to turn on God Mode and just bypass all of that. If I'm ammo-starved like the old-school Resident Evil series used to love doing, I'd turn on an infinite ammo cheat and just go crazy.
But then the other day, I heard my youngest son giggling and when I turned around, I noticed that he was playing GTA: San Andreas, and he had turned all of the cars pink and put all of the NPCs into riot mode. Buildings and houses were on fire, cars were exploding, people were beating the fuck out of each other. Oh, and they were all dressed as clowns.
When my kids cheat in a game, that's how they do it.
Why Do They Do It?
Remember, they're not playing for the story. They don't understand why games need stories. So when they get stuck, they aren't sitting there in suspense, wanting to know whether or not CJ's gang comes out on top of Los Santos. They just see it as a toy that has stopped working. So, they break it down and remake it into something else, like how in my generation electrician's tape could turn any action figure into a ninja.
Manx gets it, man.
What Does it Mean?
This is one of the few cases where console games seem to be going away from this (it's PC gaming where you find all the mods that, say, turn every gun into a dildo launcher, etc). Most non-sandbox games walk the player along a specific corridor to trigger specific scripted events -- any kind of improvisation is limited only to games specifically designed for it. Even games like Bulletstorm, which are supposed to be all about creative improvisation in how you kill the bad guys, carefully walk you through how to do it, and are still leading you toward triggering pre-scripted events (it's less fun to impale an enemy in the butthole when you find out the game had a specific achievement waiting for you to do just that).
Cheating in the way I cheat is still playing by the game's rules -- I have extra bullets, but I'm still trying to achieve the game's objectives and go where the game wants me. I make the character stronger, but the game remains the same.
My kids don't see the point of being constrained by that. They don't change themselves. They change the universe. That's a pretty fucking awesome philosophy to have if you ask me.