I was struck with a generally feeling of old man grumpiness coming from Mike Bowden in his article “Stop making me learn“. In it, he tries to make the case that core gaming — a problematic term at best — has not changed from the time when “button combinations, tricky pad movements, infinite lives, and game maps being imprinted on [his] mind to the extent where [he] could almost draw them myself.” He says that while graphics have improved, the general trend has been toward multiplayer games where “‘being the best’ equate[s] to the amount of time you plug into something.” He doesn’t want to learn anymore, he wants “to experience.”
I think he is missing the point.
Playing is learning.
Every time you play a game you are learning. Every new virtual world has its own rules both in a cultural sense and that of the game’s engine. Every play session is one in which learning must take place in order for communication, between both the rules and players, to happen. Most of this learning takes place below the conscious level — hence why you could draw the maps after playing for a long time — and some of it is even influenced by the world’s design itself. There is no way to escape the learning process. By their very nature, games are a form of languages in which narratives arise from the active participation with the medium. The very act of playing produces a narrative within the mind of the player as they consider the visual terminology and make a response, an active dialogue (dynamics) to and from the mechanics that ultimately results in an aesthetic reaction good or bad.
Mastery takes time
The more time you put into something, the better at it you will become. This really has not changed since games were invented — assuming they did not just arise in response to a psychological need, see Homo Ludens. This is true for everything that requires constant skill and a high fluency. I would argue that the ‘being the best equating to time invested’ is always going to be true for any multiplayer game that requires any degree of skill. This is not new or will it ever be old. It is constant. Physical games like Basketball and Football require a high degree of memorization and peak fitness to be able to compete on a professional level. That same rigor is needed for things that happen in virtual worlds too. You will be beat by the person who plays the game a magnitude of ten more hours a week more than you. They have more training and have dedicated themselves to that activity. Yes, the focus will be more on “online gaming” (social connectivity). In fact, the newest focus is on matching players of like skill with each other, something even the most actively played games like StarCraft 2 sometimes fail. There will be people who have developed mastery over a game and there will be people who are playing it for the first time. The trick is to not pit these two groups together.
A greater fluency
Now, more than any time in the last twenty years, there is a greater amount of people playing video games than ever before. This also means that many people are now in their own “heady teenage days” and can invest large amount of time to build up a healthy vocabulary of game mechanics understand. New games are being produced with an almost wild abandonment now too. These same (probably) young people have to quickly develop a cross-genre and cross-platform fluency. As they approach a new game, they will understand it better than us older people because they have had better teachers, third and fourth generation (if not more) designed games. As more critics and scholars come to understand video games as a medium, the ability to teach improves over time. What was once a good way to explain something to a player has been iterated on and (hopefully) is better than it once was. The vocabulary has been expanded dramatically.
You are doing it wrong
I know I am bad at certain genres like first-person shooters. I know, for example, that I am very bad at playing Team Fortress 2. I have tried to play with a friend of mine several times during his weekly matches and always get frustrated and leave the session. This friend of mine plays weekly, having cut back from playing it daily about a year ago. It should be no wonder then that I cannot achieve the same success rate at things in the game than he can. He’s had time — maybe too much in own opinion — to learn all the various techniques for himself, from days worth of trial and error. I fail at the game consecutively because no one, including the game, can easily teach me what I have to know, it takes time to build up the skill of interacting with live players, mastery of the mechanics and the interaction of the two. And that’s just for multiplayer games.
If the games is frustrating you, I have come to learn, play something else. There are new games pouring out of every platform constantly. The handheld market, noticeably iOS and Android devices, have numerous (often short) games to play. If your time is short — like mine, for example — then try something else. If you do not have the time to invest in mastery of the complex subsystems that a game wants you to learn, then don’t play it. Try another game and then, if you have time later, come back to the first game. Try something in a similar genre but with less complexity in order to build up the necessary understanding of tropes and vocabulary for faster translations later if you find the one game too hard initially.
Freedom may not mean more fun
Supposedly, games are to be fun. This is a gross exaggeration of the total effect that games can have on a person and the unique ability to provide creative spaces that games grant as a medium, but mostly true. So, if you are not having fun trying to learn about some world and want something where your “behavior”, “actions and reactions define” your “experience” then stop looking at games. Look to simulations. Look to things like Minecraft or The Sims where your every reaction will cause events to change on both the macro and microscope levels. They will provide you with the necessary possibilities to define both your own goals and where your “reflexes” will not be “tested”. You can have (nearly) complete freedom. However, it might not be fun unless you are prepared to write your own stories.
A great deal of the enjoyment of gaming is from overcoming obstacles set in your path. This is what developers do. They explain how the world works, what the verbs and nouns are, and then creates opportunities for you to test yourself. In order for the success to matter, there must be a struggle that feels up to the standard that the player feels is fair. This is why games have different languages, you can master one but it may not translate perfectly to another. Each is its own contest between the player and the rules as well as the player and the ability to play. The limits and rules are there to direct play, to push the player up a slope before the roller coaster of the experience rushes down the mountain to the player’s enjoyment. The rules are there to be learned so that mastery of them can take place, this is what “boss-fights” (ideally) should be for, the last test before the number of verb-noun combination is expanded.