I've been playing games since I was 5, so that's 21 years now.I play primarily RPGs and Strategy games. I love just about all RPGs whether they be WRPGs or JRPGs. Some of my favorite games include Baldur's Gate, Final Fantasy VI, and Civilization. I just finished Valkyria Chronicles, been playing a lot of Civ 4 and am currently waiting on Persona and Demon Souls (I love most of what Atlus does).
I prompt this question due to the response I've seen from this article http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=25122 at Gamesutra, promoting easier gameplay in video games. In short, Mr. Pulsipher is writing from the perspective of trying to greatly expand the audience of video games, something I can tell you publishers want to see happen regardless of how we feel about it. He advocates an undo feature, which is almost like an auto-save on steroids, essentially rewinding the game back to the very moment before you made your fatal mistake. He also advocates an auto-pilot mode, so that when you get to a part of a game that you find particularly difficult, you can essentially have the computer play it for you. One thing he is clear on though, is that he is proposing these devises as crutches, something that inexperienced players can lean on to help them through the game, while more advanced gamers can simply cast them aside and enjoy the game as they normally would. I think the game industry is already moving in a direction in line with his philosophy. What I find more interesting though, is the reaction to his article and ideas, which has been overwhelmingly negative. As I read through the responses and see what is being said I cannot help but ponder, “are gamers elitist?”
As Destructoid explored last month we ALL have games we're bad it. Maybe it is a particular game or a whole genre. My kryptonite are FPSes and watching me play Halo is a laughable experience. But even though I'm a level griding, skill unlocking, character building lover, that doesn't mean that on occasion I don't enjoy feeling like some action hero blasting away at aliens with my assault rifle. In addition to just having generally fun gameplay, Halo also had what I felt was an interesting story. Standing between me and that gameplay/story was the fact that, even though I thought it was fun gameplay, I wasn't very good at it. Luckily for me Halo came with an easy mode, which I gleefully chose so that the fact that I couldn't hit the broad side of a barn wouldn't detract from my Halo experience. It was good, I enjoyed it, but it wouldn't have been so enjoyable for my roommate, who owned the game, played on live, and killed more of then than he was killed. Thanks to the scalable difficulty we were both able to enjoy the game, so that kind of thing all games would be great right? Well apparently not, at least that was the response to Mr. Pulsipher's article indicated to me.
While there were some championing the message Pulsipher was pushing most reacted negatively. Some of the responses I read include statements like:
“If you aren't good enough to beat those games, maybe you shouldn't play video games at all.”
“Go watch a movie or read a comic book if you want it to be easier.”
“Games are hard? How about back in the day when you only had three lives?”
“If there is no challenge in beating it, it diminishes the sense a accomplishment.”
On some level statements like these seem a bit elitist. As we all know, there are games out there we are bad at, there are things in life that we are bad at, but just because you are bad at something doesn't necessarily mean we cannot enjoy it. I suck at Halo, I still had fun playing it. My father sucks at golf, he still has fun playing it, no one is telling him to go play air hockey instead. Sometimes, when we people are engaging in activities that they are not particularly good at we look for a hand to help us along a little. In bowling you can turn on the bumpers for those players who have a special affinity for the gutter. In video games we look to things like auto-target, easy mode, one button combos. And like video games, in bowling the more skilled players are able to play without the bumpers right next to the less skill players who need them. But PBA bowlers don't tell the rest of us not to play, they don't say that lanes shouldn't come with bumpers, rather they respect the fact that people can enjoy bowling even though they suck at it.
Then there's the argument that games are already easier than they used to be. Yeah, I'm aware of that, I remember Contra too. To me, the moment that this really hit home was when I played Ocarina of Time. I realized it was far easier than The Adventure of Link for the Nintendo. But just because we have all played something harder and think that modern games are easier by comparison, doesn't mean that new players cannot find modern games difficult. I had to give up Call of Duty 4. I just couldn't do it. Yeah I got through the first couple of levels just fine, but eventually I got to a point where I was just going no where, so I stopped playing. It's kind of sad too, the reviews were great and I've heard that the story was solid. Yeah, I could go look up the ending on wikipedia, but you know, playing through it, even on an extremely easy difficulty, would be more fun and enjoyable. But wouldn't beating it on super easy mode diminish the accomplishment? Maybe it would for you, but not so much for me. I get to define my own sense of accomplishment, and others don't get to define that for me. But you know what, it isn't even necessary that I feel the same level of accomplishment you feel, I'm just looking to enjoy the journey of the game on easy mode. I'll get my accomplishment fix when I go crush Class of Heroes which has had numerous complaints leveled at it for it's difficulty. For Call of Duty for I' just looking to enjoy a light interactive ride.
So why is the response to Mr. Pulsipher so strongly negative like this? I think it is really two reasons, a sense of loss and fear.
Everybody likes to be good at something, better than others. Maybe we have peers in what we are good at, but everyone likes that feeling of being special. I think on some level some gamers believe that by putting in these devices to make games easier, it takes away from their own accomplishment. It enables other people to do something, that before, only themselves and a select few others could do. But you know what, you can always tell yourself that they used easy mode and you can keep your sense of accomplishment because you did it the hard way. Hey, I still respect the people who beat Halo (or respect their skill at least) on hard mode, maybe even more so now that I've beaten it on easy. I know I can't stack up against them. I suppose on some level I can understand why some people may feel like others have been granted access to their elite club, but are they really there?. You're still better, and you can still do things they cannot. Heck, you should be happy, there are more people enjoying your game and that means it is more likely that another one will come along.
The other reason for the negative reaction is fear, fear that all games will be dumbed down and the challenge removed completely. Fear that the games we love will be taken from us by the masses. I know this fear very well. Games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect make me uneasy, I worry that the push towards more action oriented RPGs will deprive me of the turn based games that I enjoy the most. (I still enjoyed Fallout 3 and Mass Effect, I just don't prefer them). But on some level this fear is unfounded. Bioware is coming out with Dragon Age, which will play like Baldur's Gate rather than Mass Effect. Japan is still pumping out the clichéd JRPGs that I love (yep, I am part of the problem). Even the ultra hard Nintendo games of the past aren't gone, as Mega Man 9 is evidence of. As long as there is a market for more challenging games, developers will deliver a challenging experience, I don't think we have to worry about a world where there is nothing but easy games to play.
I'm not going to unilaterally praise Mr. Pulsipher though. I think his philosophy is right on, games should be made as assessable as possible, but there are risks to his proposals. He does take great care to express that while making things more assessable to a wider audience we shouldn't dilute the challenge for more traditional gamers, and I think this is the way is should be. More importantly, I don't want games to be ruined towards that pursuit. He states that his own undo feature might eat up a lot of computing power. If it is eating up computing power that would otherwise be used to make the game better, then I say leave it out. I am all for having easy modes, short cuts, whatever, in the game as long as they don't damage another aspect of the product. Here I think the fears of gamers are well grounded. These accessibility options need to be integrated non-intrusively, so they don't get in the way of the game, and so they can easily be opted out of for those looking for a challenge, I don't think he would disagree.
So that leaves us with the question, are gamers elitist?
Well... maybe not necessarily in this instance. I think the trend may be there. I think some of the statements said certainly sound it. I think there are certainly gamers out there who are, but on the whole I don't think we are. What we are is self-interested, like the rest of the human race. The reason why so many gamers react negatively to ideas like Mr. Pulsipher's, is that we are afraid that if developers act on those notions, we will somehow be losing something. Whether it is the feeling we get from playing the games or the games themselves, I think we're afraid that something will be lost. That is understandable, it is part of human nature, I hope we, as gamers, as people, can deal with those fears in a rational manner. Mr. Pulsipher seems to have had a lot of vitriol aimed at him, and I think that is unfortunate. We've all encountered games we're bad at, but we might enjoy them anyways. We shouldn't criticize less skilled players for wanting an easier mode of play. It may not be our bag of chips, but each person gets to decide what they enjoy for themselves, and they are perfectly entitled to enjoy something we might find boring. I do not think we really have the right to tell them they are not allowed to enjoy something because we believe games shouldn't be that easy.
We do have the right to fear that the games we love will be changed to meet changing demands, whether rational or not. But our fear shouldn't manifest itself as criticism toward people looking for easier gameplay. Instead we need to use it to fuel our message to developers that we are here, we enjoy these games, and we want to you keep making stuff that we enjoy. I think publishers understand that, and I think for the time being, we don't really need to worry. But next time you see someone saying that they wish a game was easier ask yourself if they shouldn't be allowed to enjoy themselves too. We're all entitled to fun.
I've edited the post to move the focus away from Obama, because really he was just a convenient device to use as a hook and a representation of those normally aligned against video games, albeit a bit unfairly. It backfired and distracted from what this post was really meant to be, a discussion of the role video games have to play in education.
I just watched President Obama's address to the students of our nation today, and he once again made mention of turning off the Xbox, his symbol of all things video games. One one level he is right to say so, one cannot finish their math homework and get their English paper in on time while playing video games. Indeed, the Xbox does need to be off and the books open. Nonetheless, as it is his job to encourage the youth of American to focus on their studies, I think it is our job as gamers, who care about our hobby, to show how video games can contribute positively to youth as well.
Video games can educate and challenge people in a variety of ways that enable them to sharpen skills and expand their minds. There have already been several studies that show that video games can help surgeons improve their eye-hand coordination, so more Halo and Tetris for dentists and doctors please. But the focus of Obama's speech, and mine entry here, isn't on our adult professionals, but rather, our youth, and I'm going to expand that to college aged students, because some of my examples are better suited for them.
First, video games can help inform you what you are passionate about: I don't think it is a coincidence that I've been an avid player of Civilization since I was 13 and that I majored in History and Political Science and college. Now, I don't think I majored in those subjects because of Civilization, I think I've always had a base interest in human society. But Civilization allowed me to explore my interests and engage them on a regular basis. Civilization on it's own may not be much, but coupled with the actual study of history it allows a student to envision how those important moments in history might have played out. This perhaps drives their curiosity to learn more and sends them back to the books to study things more in depth. Which really brings me to my second point...
Video games allow you to experience ideas and lessons in ways that can reinforce learning: Movies do this too, but I would argue video games do it better. One of the foremost philosophers of the 19th century was Friedrich Nietzche, and there's a good chance you are going to encounter him in college. He philosophized on morality, religion, society, science and more. He is famous for stating that “God is dead” which itself can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but seems to point most to how society relates to itself, and what it meant for a society that had spent over a thousand years defining itself by it's relation to God to become so secularized. What you may or may not realize is that Xenogears for the PSX, is an exploration of those very themes from Nietzche's philosophy (it is no coincidence that the subtitles to all the Xenosaga games are titles to Nietzche's works). In Xeongears it turns out that the being who everyone believed was god turned out to be a bio-engineered weapon created 10,000 years earlier by humanity that crashed into the planet in question. Furthermore, this weapon essentially created the people on this planet to fuel it's return to space, and so they have to rebel and essentially kill their god. Xenogears allows a student to play through a story in a world where many of Nietzche's themes are at play and allow them to interact with his philosophy in a different manner than just being lectured at. Thus it allows them to engage the material in a new and interactive way, enabling them to explore themes and reinforce the learning they do in the class room. So if you struggled to fully understand Neitzche's works after reading some excerpts, perhaps playing through Xenogears and applying his ideas to that world will help you better grasp what he is talking about.
Video games can straight up teach you stuff: I'm not talking about Oregon Trail and Math Blaster here, though those type of games certainly have their place, but there are people out there working to use video games as a key part of the classroom, and in some cases, as the classroom itself. This week (September 5th-11th) the Economist ran a story about Katie Salen, a games designer at Parsons The New School for Design. She is hoping to create an education model that completely abandons the traditional “chalk and talk” for something more interactive. She is working to create a school day that involves four 90 minute blocks of different video games designed to teach two subjects at a time. She calls the examination periods “Boss levels”. While I don't necessarily support the full abandonment of chalk and talk, I think the interaction between teacher and student is a key tool for education, I fully support using video games as teaching tools, and they have a place in our schools. Video games allow us the chance to interact with our lessons and see results from applying concepts, which greatly changes the way we grapple with material in comparison to simply being lectured at. Ms. Salen will be testing our her methods in one school of 12 to 18 year olds so we'll see how her methods turn out when they graduate their first class in 2016. In the meantime, I hope other designers and education professionals continue to work together to explore how video games as a medium can be used as instructional tools in the class room. It is quite possible that video games could be the key to redefining the way we go about education altogether, much to the chagrin to traditionalist.
As with all things, a popper balance needs to be found. There are certainly priorities that come before video gaming. But perhaps a little more attention should be paid to the positive effects video gaming can have within our society. What needs to be done now, is the exploration of how this medium can allow us to get more out of education than we are right now.