The Value of Non-Gamers Playing Games

For Mothers Day, we gave my mom Minecraft and taught her how to play it with us on my brother’s realm. My mother probably plays video games more hours than my brother (a game designer) and myself (a games researcher) combined, but they’re all casual games like search-and-find or connect-three that most people don’t even consider “gaming.” She certainly wouldn’t call herself a gamer, although she has always enjoyed watching us play. One time when I was in high school and I went to play a Zelda game, she was folding laundry on the couch and asked “Is this another one of those Link movies? I like those.” So, that’s the kind of player I’m talking about here.

My mother working on her castle in Minecraft.

Teaching my mother Minecraft meant first teaching her WASD controls, since as I said most of her gaming experience is with casual games, not with action games. Most “gamers” take these for granted, of course; they’re industry standard, and the controls don’t change much from game to game that use them. I’m not a huge fan of WASD, as I’m quite sure there are better ways to do keyboard controls for action settings (in King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity, which allowed for a lot of customization of controls, I usually set my direction keys to ESDF instead to give me more keys to set to other actions), but it’s generally considered “intuitive” because that’s the control scheme most “gamers”—the target audience for most mainstream games—already know.

But the thing about watching someone who isn’t a “gamer” play is that you start to see the cracks under the veneer in game design. You start to see the big holes that were just patched over with tradition and genre conventions, the things gamers just accept because they are used to them. You also get to see the real structure of a game, rather than just the ornamentation.

WASD was one of those cracks, as was the distinction between left and right mouse buttons. None of that was intuitive. My mother picked up the game wonderfully fast (and is now quite obsessed with it, regularly telling me to log in so I can see what new things she’s built), but nearly a week after teaching her the controls, we still sometimes have to remind her how they work. This isn’t her fault. As we can see by how quickly she picked up the game, she’s not a slow learner by any means, nor is she unused to using a computer to play games. It simply isn’t as intuitive as tradition has taught us.

Indeed, the field of game studies owes a lot to “non-gamers” and how their experiences with games can help us understand games better, in much the same way that linguists delight in the “errors” that children and non-native speakers make when learning a language, because these errors can help expose the very structures of language itself. As I reflected on watching my mother play Minecraft, I was reminded of another parent learning to play games, a case much more familiar to most games researchers: James Paul Gee’s self-analysis in What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003).

Gee’s book is considered instrumental in game studies becoming recognized outside of itself as a legitimate field of study, and is still my go-to recommendation for people wanting to start on either game studies or pedagogy research. But at the core of it is this: a non-gamer perspective on the experience of gaming.

I have often wondered, for instance, why, when playing Arcanum, Gee would have chosen to call his elf character “Bead Bead.” Initially, not having played Arcanum when I first read the book, I thought it might be something to do with Arcanum in particular, but when I played Arcanum and found it to be a fairly ordinary, if exceptionally deep, fantasy (steampunk) RPG, I was baffled by the choice. To someone who has been deeply steeped in the fantasy genre so much that it might be her native language, to someone who has grokked the conventions of role playing, it seemed really weird. But watching my mother customize her Minecraft avatar and then go delightedly chasing after sheep with shears, Bead Bead made a lot more sense.

Gee’s book is primarily about principles of learning, not about games themselves. The main thesis of it is that video games, when well designed, function as well-designed learning environments, and teachers should learn from game design principles in order to better design learning spaces (virtual or physical). But in order to truly see those learning principles at work, it partly requires seeing a novice navigating them.

My mother’s castle. Really impressive for someone who learned WASD less than a week ago!

We often see discussion of “gatekeeping” in gaming’s social spaces as a question of inclusivity and recognizing the diversity that has, frankly, always been present in these spaces even as certain elements try to erase it. But I think another aspect of that gatekeeping is that, by keeping people who aren’t already members of the space out of the space, we inside the space lose a lot of valuable insight from the people who don’t take things for granted because everything is new to them. This is as true for gaming as it is for education, of course, and for any other social space with a long tradition. When we let in novices and nurture them, it forces us to confront our own assumptions and structures; this is something we should do often and intentionally.

My mother always taught me “The best way to learn is to teach.” Among the many lessons she has for us in the games world, that may still be the most important.

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