Last year, the lady I live with, also known as my wife, asked if she could try out one
of the games I’d been playing.
She described it as the one with the cute little ghost guy, and after scrolling through
my entire library, I realized she was talking about Hollow Knight.
Given the fact that her experience with videogames at that point consisted of the occasional
race in Mario Kart and a smattering of Crash Bandicoot levels from when she was a kid,
I knew with fair confidence that her playing Hollow Knight would go terribly.
So, obviously I booted it up and set her into the world of Hallownest.
As she played, every moment, regardless of how seemingly insignificant, had a strange
sort of intensity.
For example, in the tutorial there are a set of platforms that the player needs to jump across.
The only penalty for falling is a little bit of time, and on my first playthrough I breezed
past it and immediately forgot about it.
For her, it was intense beyond belief.
She wasn’t sure what the penalty for falling would be, and she didn’t have a full grasp
on how to adjust her jump height and distance.
Each successful jump felt like a triumph, and after landing, she’d look out at the
next platform, searching for the nerve to jump again.
Watching her work through this early section got me thinking a lot about the language of
video games, and just how much a person’s level of video game literacy affects their
experience with any given title.
I can’t really think of a time in my life where I wasn’t interested in games, and
because of that, there are certain aspects about them that are almost instinctual to
me now, and that is because a lot of games use the same ideas and vocabulary in order
to get information across to players as quickly as possible.
It’s why the color red is almost always associated with health, why the A button
or its equivalent
is typically the command to jump , and why platformers, more often than not, move from left to right.
At this point, I’ve played enough games where after five minutes of playing one, I
almost always know what to expect, no matter the kind of game, but that inherent understanding
of how games work and what to expect from them doesn’t exist for the lady I live with
because she hasn’t spent the time learning those things.
This made me wonder how people learn the basics of video games, so I decided to run an informal
experiment where I’d have her play a handful of titles and see how she approached figuring
each of them out in the hopes of getting a better understanding of how people learn the
language of video games.
In an effort to not influence how she approached any given title, I didn’t give her any advice
or instructions; I just watched, silently judging.
I had her play through the early sections of 9 games: Super Mario Brothers, Shovel Knight,
Celeste, Portal, DOOM, Skyrim, The Last of Us, Uncharted 2, and
so that I could really test the strength of our marriage, Dark Souls.
I picked these titles because a) I felt they would be a solid sampling of three major types
of games that being 2D platformers, 3D platformers, and first-person shooters/adventures, while
also offering a diverse spread of genres and gameplay mechanics and b) I like them.
This is how it went.
Just kidding, we’re still good.
With each game, I noticed that there were a vast amount of seemingly basic functions
and mechanics that she either didn’t fully grasp or know existed.
This first came up with Mario 1-1.
She figured out the jump easily enough, but never realized she had the ability to dash,
making her time with the level painfully hard to watch.
There are no in-game instructions on how to dash or do anything else really, so players
will only learn about it if they read the instruction manual, figure it out through
experimentation, or have another person tell them how it works.
As she didn’t even know it was something she could do, she never figured it out.
For me it has become second nature to try to sprint in games, whether or not I know
its an option.
I just assume it will be and guess it is probably the B button or its equivalent, but I only
make that assumption because of years of being conditioned to make it.
Figuring out the controls for all of the games, whether they were explicitly explained or
implicitly taught through level design, was a challenge for her.
Part of this stems from her not being all that comfortable with a controller.
Anytime a game asked for her to press a certain button, she’d look down at it to search
for that button.
One of the most instances of this came up while playing The Last of Us.
Early on there is a prompt on the screen to press L3, which she could not find on the
controller as there is no button labeled L3.
She noticed it was shaped like a circle, so she guessed it might be one of the joysticks.
However, she didn’t know that it meant to press down on it, so she just sort of moved
back and forth until eventually figuring it out.
I’ve certainly played games that do a better job of illustrating how L3 and R3 work, but
it is interesting that there is pretty much a hidden button on most controllers that new
players will have no reason to know exists.
I know that figuring out a game’s controls sounds easy, but she essentially had to not
only memorize which buttons did what, but also which buttons were where, adding another
layer of things to keep track of and making the process a little bit more overwhelming.
She typically faired better with games that didn’t give too much information to remember.
With Dark Souls, reading 15 or so messages laying out the controls, she mentioned that
it was way too much to remember in such a short span of time.
A lot of the things she learned, most notably the lock-on feature, she forgot by the time
they would actually be useful.
On the other side of things, with Shovel Knight she struggled to get through a few of the
early sections because she didn’t understand the full scope of her abilities or how to
use them, but once she did start to figure them out through pressing every button she
could, she ended up remembering them better because she witnessed first hand how useful
they could be.
Most of the games I had her play were with a controller, but I did want her to have some
experience with a mouse and keyboard, so I had her try a few games with a first-person
I figured Portal would be the best place to start as it doesn’t call for quick reflexes,
and it gives players time to figure things out.
Using the keyboard actually proved to be easier for her than the controller as she uses a
keyboard every day and knows where everything is.
However, if you’ve been paying attention to the footage, you’ve probably noticed
that she isn’t looking around at all, and that is because she didn’t realize she was
supposed to use the mouse.
In fairness, the instructions at the start explain how to move and how to pick things
up, but they do assume that players will just know to use the mouse to look around.
As she doesn’t spend her free time watching me play games on PC: why would she?
I know that a lot of these little issues she ran into in regards to controls and mechanics
all seem easy to overcome, and in some ways they are, but they do still act as small barriers
to entry for new players.
Even when games have detailed explanations for things, it isn’t uncommon for people
to skip over it accidentally or on purpose because they don’t feel like reading a bunch
of stuff when they just want to beat the shit out of something.
A lot of titles seem to assume that players will have at least some familiarity with controls,
so some of the more simple explanations are kind of just left out.
And I think the way most people end up learning this basic things that they won’t figure
out with out searching on their own is through other people.
For example, I don’t remember how I learned to sprint in Super Mario Brothers, but there
is a pretty decent chance that my brother told me how to do it, and that one of his
friends had told him and so on and so on.
Furthermore, the only reason I understand half of the things I do in Dark Souls is because
I’ve scoured wikis and message boards on how to git gud.
Video games are best when they are a communal experience, and a big part of that stems from
the sharing of knowledge.
Obviously, someone being a backseat gamer can get annoying if they explain how to do
everything, but getting assistance when it’s needed most can make a game far more enjoyable.
It bridges the gap between what games expect players to already know and what they actually
Most of the frustration that the lady I live with had while playing boiled down to not
being able to figure things out that she didn’t know existed, which is something that would
have been solved had I not just been a silent observer.
Given that I was though, she found herself continuing to have problems, and one of those
is summed up best by her most frequently asked question:
When it came to the 2D platformers, navigating wasn’t especially difficult for her.
Because the options were limited, it was pretty easy for here to figure out that she needed
to go right and sometimes up.
Celeste and Shovel Knight do have a few optional rooms players can go in, but for the most
part, whenever she entered one, she could tell it wasn’t the path she wanted to take.
Although Shovel Knight does have a side room in the tutorial that heads to the right and
seems like the main path despite not being it, and there was a fair amount of disappointment
she realized she did all that work for nothing.
Lady Buten: “Are you fucking kidding me?!”
However, for all of the 3D games, navigating proved far more difficult.
She spent a lot of time wrestling with the camera in third person games, and she wasn’t
all that great at moving and looking around at the same time in first person ones.
Due to her not moving the camera around a ton, she didn’t always get a great sense
of her surroundings, so she struggled with figuring out where she was and where to go.
Like, in Skyrim she missed the jump from the tower to the house during the tutorial, and
it took awhile for her to realize that she had fallen back to the spot where she started.
Also, because she wasn’t good at focusing her camera, she didn’t realize she was supposed
to be following Hadvar, so she was sort of just strolling along, trying to get out of
the city in her own way.
Once she did follow him and got into a building, she was more interested in picking up everything
she saw instead of moving forward, which actually is fair and how most people I know play Skyrim.
Either way, she wasn’t fully sure where to go.
Interestingly, after she finished the tutorial, I brought up the footage and showed her the
compass at the top of the screen, and she said that she hadn’t noticed while playing
as she was mostly just focused on what was directly in front of her.
The same thing happened with Doom’s compass and even the health bars of enemies and Bosses
in Dark Souls.
She typically noticed waypoints on the screen when they showed up, but as she didn’t know
what they were for, so she just sort of ignored them.
Another thing that confused her was when progression in a level wasn’t entirely linear, Like
with Dark Souls, she got confused when level looped back around on itself, and she made
the assumption that she had messed up and gone the wrong way.
Most of the games she had played before Dark Souls had typical progression, so finding
herself back near where she started felt odd.
Even the 3D games that seem like they’d be more straightforward had a few things that
ended up being a confusing for her..
For example, with Uncharted 2, what a player can climb is indicated by being colored yellow,
but that wasn’t obvious to her, so she constantly tried to climb on things that just looked
like something she could climb.
She constantly questioned why she was taking the longer, more roundabout path, when there
were perfectly good handholds right above.
A similar issue with signalling happened with The Last of Us as well.
There is a part where the player has to run through the city to escape, and a gas station
explodes causing street lamps and other things to block the road ahead.
My wife noticed a little gap on the sidewalk that was untouched by fire, so she kept trying
to run through that, but every time she did, the infected came and killed her.
This made her think that the issue wasn’t with it being the wrong way to go, but rather
with just not being fast enough, so she kept trying that same path over and over before
finally finding the right way.
With game design, there is often a battle between having a level look realistic and
making it easy to navigate.
In this example, Naughty Dog tried to make the city feel more natural by not having every
path be physically blocked off, and while more experienced players would most likely
see the explosion and assume they should go a different way, the game falls short on helping
players who don’t understand what they are supposed to.
By having the signal be the explosion, but the consequence be an attack by the infected,
she got the wrong idea of what she needed to do.
And this sort of thing ended up happening to her a fair amount throughout this process,
even with things that had nothing to do with where to go.
Sometimes she interpreted the information the game was giving her in the wrong way, and she found herself…
The idea that some games teach players how to play simply through gameplay and level
design is a pretty common talking point in the video game community.
I am a firm believer that a lot of titles do this well, and watching her play reaffirmed
For example, with DOOM, her initial instinct was to stay as far away from enemies as possible
because she didn’t feel all that comfortable with the controls of a first-person shooter.
However, once she came across enemies who threw fireballs at her from a distance that
did way more damage than anything she could do from the same range, she started to realize
that her best bet was to get close to enemies and either beat the crap out of them or use
Ultimately, DOOM is meant to be played this way; the glory kill system and the handful
of weapons that are powerful at close range are included to push a fast-paced action-packed
fighting style, and having one of the first rooms be extremely difficult to beat without
playing this way, sets the expectation for the rest of the game.
It took her a fair bit of banging her head against the wall to get past this room, but
once she did, she was better at the core mechanics of the game than when she started.
What I found even more interesting than when she learned the right lessons of how to play
a game through gameplay was when she learned the wrong ones.
The first instance of this that I noticed happened while playing Mario 1-1.
At the beginning of the level there is a question mark box with a Mushroom in it.
She had some familiarity with the Mario franchise so she knew that mushrooms were good to get.
However, after hitting the box, she jumped into a different block, causing the mushroom
to change directions and go off the left side of the screen, out of reach.
She didn’t register that she had caused the mushroom to change directions, leading
her to the assumption that mushrooms would always end up going to the left.
When she got to another block that she suspected held a mushroom, she hit it and immediately
moved to the left to grab it before it went off screen, and…well.
This was a far less intrusive lesson to get wrong than the ones that came up while she
played Celeste and Shovel Knight.
The tutorial of Celeste is a pretty simple stage that ends with the player learning how
to dash, which is arguably the most important and useful mechanic in the game.
The lady I live with interpreted the prompt to mean that the only way to dash was by doing
it at an upward angle, pretty much crippling her ability to do screens effectively until
after 15 minutes or so when she is accidentally dashed horizontally and realized her moveset
was wider than she thought..
With Shovel Knight early on she died from hitting this bubble.
A bag of gold popped out and hovered near it.
On her next time through, she jumped on the bubble and the bag at the same time, and assumed
that both things had damaged her, causing her to think that the bags of gold were an
enemy of some sort.
So when she came across them after, she would either try to attack them or just actively
As she wasn’t paying terribly close attention to the HUD, she never realized what they actually
I’m not saying that these things are the faults of the game developers, but it is interesting
how easily information on screen can be misunderstood.
These sort of things can happen to players of all skill levels, but given her lack of experience,
she didn’t have much else to go on to challenge the lessons she thought she had learned.
I found the disconnect between how she thought games worked and how they actually worked
to be pretty interesting, and as I focused more on those differences, I started to notice
a sort of trend with every title she played.
When most people talk about what any video game is like, there is often a greater focus
on the general actions players can do rather than the limitations that make it possible
for the game to function.
For example, Mass Effect could be described as a roleplaying game where, among other things,
players get the opportunity to talk to and form relationships with various characters
across the universe.
People who play a lot of games, will most likely go in understanding that this actually
means players will be able to form relationships with a predetermined cast of characters by
choosing responses from a set of limited dialogue options.
As it turns out, this formula makes for a really great series, but there is a gap between
what a game sounds like and what it actually looks like.
And I think for people who don’t end up playing a lot of games but have to suffer
through listening to their friends or partners talk about them, they get a warped perception
about what players can do in a title because they don’t understand or know the systems
that games use in order to give these grand sounding experiences.
Where I know to apply this sort of video game logic to any title I play, I found that the
lady I live with was more likely to apply real world logic.
Like, in the DOOM tutorial there is a Gore Nest that the player needs to destroy.
A waypoint marker shows up on it, which when I first played I knew meant I needed to go
up to it, and most likely hit a button prompt.
When my wife played, she didn’t know what the marker meant so her initial instinct wasn’t
to walk right up to it.
Instead, she noticed while messing around that the red barrels exploded, so she had
the idea to try to push one of the barrels towards the Nest to blow it up, and this is
objectively more interesting than just pressing a button to destroy it, but of course, it
Throughout the various games she played, a pretty common question she asked was “Why
can’t I do it this way?”
And my response was “because?”
The deeper answer is that limations exist in games because there are only so many potential
inputs a title can have, meaning there are a finite number of ways a player can interact
Also, if developers tried to program in every possible way a player might think about interacting
with something, games would just never come out.
I am used to these limitations.
I actually appreciate them in a lot of instances.
However for her, she got frustrated when the ideas she came up with didn’t work.
Like while scaling the train in Uncharted 2, she reached a point where she wanted to
swing from a pipe and through a window, so when she found out she had to follow the predetermined
path that didn’t take much more than pressing left, she felt disappointed because, yeah,
her idea was way cooler.
In Skyrim, as Alduin began attacking the city, she found a spot in a house and figured she’d
just wait it out until he left.
But due to the scripted nature of this part of the game, that plan didn’t work, forcing
her to follow the path the game wanted her to follow.
In turn, this took away all of the tension of this section because she knew she could
take as long as she wanted and nothing bad would happen.
Her expectations for what she thought she could do in each game were always different
than the reality of it, and I think as she realized that games were more simple than
she had first assumed, some of the intrigue about them faded.
For the lady I live, the thing she hated more than anything else about this experiment was
having to replay sections of a level over and over again after dying.
Had I not told her to keep trying on a handful of the games, she would have stopped far sooner
because it was understandably frustrating.
With that said, when she did stick with games that frustrated her and ended up beating the
parts that she struggled with, it was exhilarating for her.
I think this tradeoff of dealing with frustration so that the excitement of beating something
is all that much sweeter, is one that people who play a lot of games not only understand,
but look for.
However, trying to pitch to her that she should spend her free time doing something that actively
frustrates her so that the few moments where she succeeds feel glorious is a bit of a hard
This little test has me questioning how I became interested in video games in the first
I don’t remember how they became such a big part of life.
I don’t know how I got to the point where I could look at a compass at the top of a
screen and know what to expect from every marker without looking them up; I don’t
know how I first learned about stamina bars and the various ways to make sure I don’t
run out of energy; I don’t know how I became, I guess, fluent in the language of video games.
I am just glad that I learned the basics when I was young enough to not care about spending
hours on one level.
For a better understanding of how inexperienced players approach video games, I’d need to
run a much wider and more complex study that is tests in a more robust way than just sitting
down to watch my wife play video games a few times, but it was interesting to me to compare
how wildly different my approach to games is to her.s And while I definitely don’t
have enough definitive information to make any sort of legitimate conclusion about how
inexperienced players approach games, I do want to say this: In a similar way to how
it is harder to learn a language as an adult, it’s harder to get into video games after
a lifetime of not playing them, and that seems to have less to do with interest and more
to do with struggling to get over the barriers that exist for new players.
If you don’t know how to read, why would you pick up a book?
What I’m getting at is if someone you know who doesn’t play games expresses interest
in trying one, don’t force them to run an experiment where you give no guidance and
mostly just watch them struggle with something that they never learned how to do.
Teach them how to read instead.