The first cut is the deepest, or so Rod Stewart would have us believe. When it comes to our first family gaming experiences, these are often on the periphery of what we now understand games to be. But even when these first plays are with the most tentative of mechanics, they still seem to leave their mark on us.
When we pick up a game we bring our previous experiences with us, and they have an enormous bearing on how we experience the game. We arrive in front of the screen unaware of the language and expectations of the gaming world. We blunder in, bringing all our baggage and wider life experience with us. Needless to say, our experience of the game is often very different to someone else’s.
This is something that becomes very apparent when you watch your kids play a game for the first time. They often pick up on things previously unnoticed, or spend hours fiddling with a particular inconsequential play mechanic. My daughter for example, will happily sit for hours taking her Nintendog for a walk. The game itself limits outings to once a day, so she has taken to turning the DS off after a walk so she can do it all over again. Whilst this may seem like she isn’t playing the game properly, who are we to say how she should interact with it, and besides if she is enjoying the experience then why hinder it?
One of my first game play experiences was aged nine in Junior School, not the most obvious place to find cutting edge games. It was the late 80s and our school had received its very own BBC Micro computer. My teacher, Mr Doil, was obviously keen to make use of it. A buzz went around the class as we discovered our allotted time to have a go, where upon we would make our way up the hall and sit in pairs at ‘the computer’.
The game presented a simple turn-based stock management affair; assign a certain number of people to different tasks by entering numbers via the keyboard. It was funny to re-read the marketing blurb whilst researching this week’s article, as it wouldn’t sound out of place in the current generation of games: ‘Yellow River Kingdom uses the computer to simulate a ‘real-life’ situation, illustrating how the computer can help you to make decisions about a complex situation. The game makes you the leader of a small kingdom, which you must rule and protect against the ravages of floods and the ever present danger of attacks from bands of thieves.’ Regardless of the game’s depth it still had that same magical experience as my first plays of Super Mario World, Populous, Halo or Wii-Sports.
Maybe it’s to do with these new experiences lacking any previous reference points, meaning we have to just encounter them and respond as best we can. We bring more of ourselves to the game because that’s all we can do. Maybe it’s just me being sentimental, but this is how I want my kids to encounter games. To engage in an experience that asks questions of them for which there are no pat or well-worn answers. Like watching a good TV series, they should come away not only enchanted for more, but with new questions and perspectives about themselves and about life.
Admittedly, there are not many of these games around at the moment. But with a little care, you can find a those gems that enable you to engage on your own terms, and rediscover the meaning of the word play: ‘to work freely with ideas and concepts so as to learn new skills for life’.