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Essay

Teaching My Mom To Play Portal 2


When I was home for Christmas in 2011, we tried the original Portal. I figured the mechanics were simple enough for someone who didn’t game. No inventory, no stats, no combat tactics. What I hadn’t thought to consider was that my mom didn’t know how WASD worked. After just a few rooms, she’d become a little frustrated, and the first-person camera view was making her disoriented. We took a break, and for no real reason, we never picked it back up.

We were both determined to try again. My mom has a real affection for GLaDOS, born out of videos and my anecdotes. And I, always grateful for her willingness to listen to me wax on about a medium she doesn’t take part in, was eager for her to get a hands-on understanding of one of my favorites. This time, I decided on Portal 2 instead, with the goal of playing co-op together. I thought she might feel more at ease with me in the game alongside her. But first, I had to get her used to the basics. I pulled up a chair, and we started a single-player game.

“Okay, use the mouse to look up at the ceiling,” I said. She did so, haltingly. But it came easier than it had before. Maybe it was because she knew what she was getting into this time. Maybe a year of keyboard-and-mouse mulling around in her subconscious had been enough. Whatever the cause, she seemed more comfortable.

There is a framed painting on the wall,” said the Announcer. “Please go stand in front of it.

“You remember WASD?” I asked. “W is forward, A is left, D is right, S is back.”

“Right,” my mom said. She looked down at the keyboard, got her bearings, and pressed the W key. As she did so, she took her right hand off the mouse.

“Okay, two things that will make life easier,” I said. “Keep your fingers resting on the keys, like this.” I leaned in and demonstrated. “And keep your other hand on the mouse. You always want one hand on the keys and one hand on the mouse. Your feet and head work separately, but they do stuff at the same time. Just like walking around in real life.”

“Okay,” she said. She sighed. “I feel kind of dumb.”

I would like to point out that my mother is an exceptionally intelligent lady, an award-winning educator who rubs shoulders with researchers and rocket scientists. “Mom, you’ve never done this before.”

“Yes, I have.”

“Once, for, like, an hour. It takes practice. I wasn’t good at it when I first started, either. Everyone has to learn this at some point.” I said it, but I didn’t really remember my own early ineptitude until I watched her slowly navigate the Relaxation Chamber. She bumped into corners, and she had trouble aligning herself with objects. She hadn’t yet learned how far each step would take her. She didn’t think of her movements as an extension of herself. As I watched her, I remembered moving like that myself once, long before I learned phrases like “air strafing” or “kiting.” I, too, had to learn to look through a second pair of eyes, to trust virtual feet that I couldn’t see. I thought of how my hands now instantly settle into place when I launch a new game. I take that comfort for granted.

Once we started on the puzzles, I realized that she lacked another learned instinct: exploration. The only time she took action was when I gave her specific instructions. In part, I think this was because she knew that I knew what I was doing, and she preferred to wait for commands rather than make a mistake (this is a common habit that I have only recently begun to break myself of, the tendency to dig my heels in when I perceive another player as more skilled than me). But it also appeared that without my guidance, she was a little lost. Portal 2 gives more direction than its predecessor, but it relies heavily on the assumption that the player will independently deduce what the objective is. I love a game that lets me think for myself, but for my mom, who was still getting used to moving around, her options weren’t readily apparent, not until I coaxed her toward them.

I nodded at the screen. “So, to get out of this room, you have to launch yourself through that panel up there. How do you think you can do that?”

“Well…hmm. I can’t put portals on the floor here.”

“What about that pit over there? Have you looked in it?”

“No. Won’t it kill me?”

“…oh, right, no, the pit in the last room had goo in it, but I don’t think this one does. Walk up to the edge and look down, but don’t jump in yet. You always want to explore all your surroundings before you do anything.”

I wondered, as I gently directed her through the dilapidated testing track, how long it had taken me to experiment without fear of breaking the game. When did I start seeing in-game death as a necessary learning experience, rather than a failure? When did I start scouting out the designers’ clues — a patch of light, a differently colored panel — rather than needing arrows and quest markers? Would I be able to enjoy any of the games that I do now without years of prior experience?

I had figured that my mom would be keen to keep playing after we’d reactivated GLaDOS, given how much she loves her snark. But after Chell was thrown down the incinerator chute, my mom turned to me and said, “Do you want to play together now?” I did, but the other game-worthy computer was on the other end of the house, and we were without a second headset. We remedied this the following day.

Her voice came through my speakers. “This is so cool!”

“It is cool.”

“So, we can do this even when you’re not here?”

We hadn’t even started playing yet. “Sure we can. That’s what I do with my friends.”

“Am I blue?”

“No, you’re orange. I’m blue. You’re looking at me.” I jumped up and down, and gave her a friendly wave.

“Oh, right. How did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Wave at me.”

“Q gives you a radial menu.” I paused, realizing how unhelpful that comment had been. “Uh, sorry, hold down Q, and you’ll see some icons. Move your mouse in the direction of the icon you want to choose. Once that icon is highlighted, click on it.”

For a few seconds, nothing. Then, a wave.

I remembered an incident during my short time in Star Wars: The Old Republic, when a Bounty Hunter in the pick-up group I’d assembled kept breaking CC during a tricky pull. It took us a few tries before we realized the problem, and upon questioning the Bounty Hunter, s/he replied, “what’s cc?” One of the other randoms in my group wasted no time in replying: “omfg,” then “kick,” then “kick kick kick.” Unsurprisingly, a vote kick was initiated. But I did not kick the Bounty Hunter from the group, and I quickly communicated support before others decided to follow suit. I took the mere minute or two necessary to explain the concept of crowd control, and spelled out exactly what everybody’s task was. The next pull worked like a charm, and we cleared the rest without a hitch. Afterward, the Bounty Hunter sent me a whisper, thanking me for the crash course. It was his/her first MMO, I was told, and asking for help was daunting.

Part of me wondered why someone would rather flail blindly through an instance than ask for help, but I already knew the answer: omfg. kick. kick kick kick.

Back in the present, my mom gave me another wave. “How do you know how to do all this stuff?”

“Because I’ve played this before,” I said, but it was only partially true. A lot of the skills I use in Portal are skills I’ve picked up from other games. Something as friendly and accessible as Portal 2 still assumes that you’ve played other stuff before, just as MMOs assume that you understand talent trees and crowd control, just as players assume that everyone we encounter in game knows the same lingo.

A few rooms later, I heard a loud, angry buzz behind me as I walked toward the exit. I turned around to see my mom (as P-body) walking into a laser.

“You’ve got to jump over it,” I said. She jumped, straight up. “No, press forward while jumping.” She jumped straight up, then walked forward into the laser. I heard her sigh irritably. “That’s okay, I’ll show you how.” I hopped back over to her side. “Watch what I do. You want to jump while moving forward, so that you do this.” I jumped over, then back again. “You’ve got to hold both keys at the same time. Here, I’ll do it with you. Stand next to me. Ready? One, two, three.” We sailed over together.

Gamers are so quick to lash out against those who don’t understand our hobby. We go non-linear when people claim that games aren’t art, or that games cause real-world violence, or that we all need to grow up and stop wasting our time. In a general sense, I don’t see any major difference between the art critic who says games don’t belong in museums, the family friend who immediately brought up Sandy Hook after I mentioned that I write about games, or the parents convinced that their kids won’t learn anything useful from digital play. We roll our eyes and complain about how such people just don’t get it, but that’s exactly it — they don’t get it, and so often, we fall short when trying to explain. When we make arguments about the cultural importance of games, are we making an effort to reach out to those who have no experience with the medium? Or are we just talking to each other? When we sneer at casual games or easy mode, are we remembering that all of us needed to start somewhere, too?

If we continue to mock the newbs and curse the nonbelievers, all we’re ensuring is our own sad insularity. But if we take the time to explain, if we use language that the muggles will understand, if we be patient and remember that not everybody has used WASD before, then more people will get it. They might understand why we love games as we do. They might even come to share that love.

Some days after that inaugural co-op session, I was sitting on the couch, drinking tea and kicking back. My mom sat next to me with a partially completed crossword puzzle. “Here,” she said. “You’re going to help me finish this.” We sat there for a while, trading the pen back and forth, racking our brains for a four-letter word for “earthenware jar.”

“I hope this isn’t boring,” she said.

“What? You know I love puzzles,” I said. “That’s why I play stuff like Portal. Running around and blowing stuff up is fun, but puzzles mellow me out.”

She set down her pen with finality. “You said the magic word.”

“What, Portal?”

“Yes,” she said, a gleam in her eye.

“Don’t you want to finish this?”

“No, I’m over it. Come on. Let’s go be robots.”

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles and can always be found on Twitter.

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  • http://twitter.com/xiombarg Kirt D

    I feel sad that I don’t have the patience to teach people like that. Well, at the very least I make a strong effort to avoid the “kick kick kick” behavior.

  • http://twitter.com/Ultrafem Ultra Fem

    Haha! “Let’s go be robots.”

  • http://twitter.com/webbot15 Daniel Luke

    That was beautiful :’)

    It reminded me of the time my Mum decided to learn HTML. She’s a primary teacher and was making a class blog. She had so much fun with marquees and animated gifs. And I’ll never forget the one (and only) time I corrected her spelling, because a bgcolor tag won’t work when spelt ‘colour’.

    It’s fantastic to be able to share something so close to you with someone so close to you.

  • Anonymous

    This is wonderful, thank you for sharing. I remember just last week on SW:TOR I watched several players go on a diatribe in the general chat about new players and the whole “learn to play” mantra and it was frustrating. I am not a new gamer, but I was once (my first MMO was Warhammer: Age of Reckoning), but I feel that gaming should be a fun experience for everyone, even new players. I know I still do things “wrong” (I’m a quickbar clicker, not a key binder), but I’m able to play the way I’m comfortable. I recently introduced my girlfriend to gaming through SW:TOR and saw the same sort of learning curve the author saw with her mother. My GF still doesn’t use WASD and sometimes loses track of my character as I dash off to the next objective, but she’s improved greatly and has become a good companion to play with. I would never subject her to the horrors of a pick-up group though,

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=800095091 Renee Nelson

    Wonderfully written, engaging article. I seriously love this blog and the writers they hire.

  • David Ramcharan

    I don’t understand people who “flail blindly through an instance” without taking a few minutes to go look for information on their class and role online. I really don’t.

    When I first played WoW, I had a worthless guild that taught nothing and helped no one. That was before the era of wikis and easy online information. I spent HOURS reading up on how to play my class properly, how to specialise, what equipment to get… and also on other classes to figure out how I synergised with them and what to do to help or not help them out.

    I don’t believe in “kick kick kick” either, and I’m very much FOR casual gaming options in MMOs, but I think someone who “flails” their way through a party-based game in which other people depend on them doing their job properly is just demonstrating how little they care for the other people in the party and their gaming experience.

    That said – full agreement with the main point of the article.

  • http://kevstome.wordpress.com/ Kev Tomes

    This article is adorable – and it reminds me of when I taught my Mom to play “Journey”

    She’s an expert in the thing now, and loves guiding other new players through it as much as she loves playing with experienced players.

    She knows all the glyph locations (although she has to keep asking me what they’re called) she knows all of the shortcuts, and all of the glitch locations, most of which I don’t even know, yet alone have memorised – and, again, loves showing these things to other players.

    All of that, its worth pointing out, she learned from other players – with no voice or text prompts… Just Journey’s little “singing” communication thing. She only learned the basic controls from me.

  • Anonymous

    This article outlines exactly how I feel about games. I love games, but I’ve only ever gamed on consoles. I actually have no idea what you meant by WASD. I love the thought of playing an MMO, but people can be so mean that the thought of even attempting to play with others online is extremely daunting. Now knowing that there’s this extensive lingo to go along with the deep-seated hatred of beginners has convinced me to just to enjoy playing my console games solo on easy mode.

  • http://twitter.com/EleniRPG Eleni

    This is great! I wanted to introduce my mom to Portal, because she likes solving puzzles, but she has a terrible sense of direction and was convinced that in the 3D environment she’d just get lost (she does have a Wii and enjoys playing things like Lego Harry Potter, where in a given scene the camera stays at a certain side of the room). It’s hard to introduce people to new games when they assume they won’t be able to figure it out. I’m GLaD to see that you succeeded in hooking your mom, though :)

    It’s funny you should mention SWTOR, because that was actually my first MMO, and while I was familiar with all the mechanics, I’d only ever played single player games and thus hadn’t needed to know the lingo. Had to Google things like CC (carbon copy?), mez (uh, mezzanine?), and pats (go Patriots!). Sap the pat–WTF does that mean? Yes, I was too embarrassed to ask, because I didn’t want to be called a noob.

  • http://twitter.com/LanceBravestar1 Lance Bravestar

    I taught my 13 year old cousin how to play Portal 2. She did the exact same thing with the WASD and mouse controls, and said she preferred it that way. She liked it, but she’s more of a point and click adventure gamer.

  • http://technicalluddite.com/ Hannele Kormano

    That always trips me up while programming any kind of thing – it honestly offends my Canadian sensibilities XD

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1104385569 Christine Watson

    The issue is, a new person probably doesn’t understand the full implications of choosing to ‘flail’ through an instance with a group. Sure, when you fully understand the ways in which a team is supposed to rely on each other, that choice is obviously inconsiderate, but to the newbie that understanding might be completely over their head.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alice.doyle Alice Doyle

    For many the point of a game is to have fun. If the research component isn’t fun to someone but the gaming experience is, we shouldn’t have to sit out on fun just so you never have to take a second to patiently explain something. And, again, lots of people (like, say, the mom of a gamer or friend of a gamer or, like me, sister of a gamer) don’t even understand that there might be a need to research. It doesn’t occur to us, but we want to dive in and try to have fun. Nobody should have to play exactly the way that you play just to get your basic respect in game.

    I’d argue that you can’t be in “full agreement” with the main point of this article if you don’t understand that.

  • Emi Savacool

    This article is adorable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cherylanne-Farley/1256883485 Cherylanne Farley

    Great article. ANother component is learning curve and JUST HOW LONG someone needs to sit still and concentrate. Rarely do us Fe’s get that chance. xxoocf

  • Travis Fischer

    “Once we started on the puzzles, I realized that she lacked another learned instinct: exploration.”

    Oxymoron aside, this is probably the biggest barrier between gamers and non-gamers. That lack of desire, or even being afraid, to simply press buttons just to see what happens.
    It’s probably why we live in the age of the stupidly intrusive tutorial.

    It’s incredibly frustrating to deal with because it’s not something you can teach. You can teach somebody the rules, the mechanics, and the lingo. You can’t teach somebody to be curious enough to wonder, “Hmmm, I wonder what happens when I do this.”

    It’s the difference between trying to teach somebody how to walk and trying to teach somebody how to breathe.

  • Anonymous

    Love this! I’m having a similar experience at the moment. I was an obsessive WoW player for years, but I’d never played an FPS. I’d never even played a game where I had to frickin’ WASD. I got Mass Effect for Christmas this year, and about 3/4 through the game, movement finally comes naturally, I know the scroll wheel isn’t for zooming, and I get what factors affect my weapon’s accuracy. I still suck, mind you, but at least I’m not flailing around panicking anymore.

  • Katie Mae

    This whole article was just like my Portal experience – I was your mom and my partner was you. He was patient with me and helped me be patient with myself. I’m still don’t game a TON, but he’s exposed me to a lot of great experiences.

  • http://twitter.com/bleatingheart Iris Ophelia

    Teaching a parent to game is a really good exercise for gamers who are a little too comfortable with the medium, i think. My mom has also had time tackling WASD+mouse control and we work on it a little bit at a time, I bait her with RPGs in particular. Progress seems slow sometimes, until I look over and notice her playing gory assassin games on her iPad. Loving games comes naturally for most people, once they know they’re not expected to be perfect at something right out of the gate.

  • Carmen Sandiego

    That sentence hit me in the feels.

  • Octochan

    Same here. I’d only played WASD and mouse games that were in 2D before, and Portal was the first time I’ve spend any amount of time in FPS. Unfortunately, any FPS skills I learned in Portal doesn’t quite help with real FPS games. Everything I hear about Team Fortress 2 makes me want to play it, but after playing for a couple of weeks and not feeling like my playing has improved made me give up.

  • Anonymous

    I teach adults to skate, it’s a similar learning curve; without help many people try to skate, go “I can’t do this” and just give up. There’s never a shortage of experienced people ready to be snarky about new skaters, maybe I don’t get that because I only started when I was 31 …

    As for games, I’m an old-school gal (played Wolfenstein when it was new, etc), but these days I play everything on easy-mode as I want to just dip in for fun, I don’t spend enough time on it to be serious … too busy skating, lol

  • David Ramcharan

    @Christine Actually, WoW was my first MMO. All I really knew was that people went out in groups and did things, they had specialised roles – and yep, that was all I knew. The fact that party members had roles and such – I picked up from the game manual or by gleaning details from what was said in group chat or guild chat, because as mentioned, the guild was worthless for new players and taught us zilch.

    @Alice “we shouldn’t have to sit out on fun just so you never have to take a second to patiently explain something.”

    - but this is why modern MMOs have detailed tutorials and carefully made newbie areas. I used oldschool WOW as an example because it did not. And no, I wasn’t told there was a need to research anything – I just realised certain things by paying attention.

    “Nobody should have to play exactly the way that you play just to get your basic respect in game… I’d argue that you can’t be in “full agreement” with the main point of this article if you don’t understand that.”

    As I understand it, the main point of the article is that there’s a rift between gamers and non-gamers because of a lack of proper communication and an attitude of accommodation and openness on the part of gamers. I fully understand -and- agree with that.

    That particular example, however, was a shaky one for me. There are an array of resources online for MMOs – far more than when I had my WOW problem. And being familiar with at least one actual “noob” in real life- not a “newbie” or someone outside of WoW’s core demographic, but an arrogant hothead that refused to learn how anything beyond the basics of his class – I fully understand how players who don’t exert effort at all (as opposed to genuine lost souls) can just turn people off of being helpful. So I get how otherwise reasonable ‘veteran’ players can easily get incensed when they’re doing the one heroic they have time for in their schedule today, and some less experienced player wipes the party three times.

    As for my case, certain players in that guild did end up raising hell over how it treated newbies I was one of them, after I hit level 70 and got tired of seeing players quit the guild literally -every day-. Together, we created an array of class guides on our forums and tried to get the higher ups to modify our policy on dealing with newer players, for the better. Sadly we failed and my best friend on that server and I left.

    It’s a social contract, like the sort that exist in any community. One expects the newer player to try to learn how their actions affect others and how they should interact with people, and the newer player should expect to be treated with fairness and dignity and given assistance if necessary. Does this happen as it should? No. Am I against elitism and elitists and for casual gamer options? Yes, especially when they let people learn the game at their own pace in a way that lets them have fun and doesn’t harm other players’ gameplay experience. So in fact, I think this problem can be at least partly solved with game design.

    But given that most of this article was about single-player gaming – where a player being a “n00b” affects no one at all – I think the MMO example just doesn’t mesh the same way and raises other, different implications that aren’t addressed.

  • http://twitter.com/AlanaBoltz Alana Boltz

    Actually, I think that often people are just embarrassed to admit that they don’t know what they are doing and might not have the time to research the best way to play a game. After all, it’s meant to be a hobby, not a job.

  • fmorgana

    You made me want to teach my mom how to play Portal now. Thank you for this wonderful article

  • Anonymous

    I find the tutorial to be it’s own oxymoron. The way tutorials are often constructed they tend to be rather unhelpful either because they’re overly complex (i.e a screen with a controller and 14 arrows pointing to buttons) or overly simple (i.e. Push X to jump, then Push Y to run, then Push Y and X to run and jump) The Sequalistis on Megaman really does a better job of explaining it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FpigqfcvlM

    In short I feel that our industry has a HUGE problem with new comers. Part of the reason the DS was such as success was because the touch screen has such a low barrier to entry in terms of learning. It’s the missing argument in every gaming discussion. We can talk all day about the graphics and which control scheme is best but little to no consideration is given to those who haven’t been playing games years already.

    On a personal level. I got a key for DOTA2 a while back and one day I booted up the game and the initial screen was so utterly complex I felt far too over whelmed to play. There’s nothing in there that really let me know where I should start as someone who has never played this game or any 3D MOBA before. Contrast with one of my current favorites Awesomenauts a 2D MOBA which while vastly simplified is a rather deep and satisfying experience that begins by teaching you the basics of gameplay.

  • http://profiles.google.com/lowsee Heidi Mason

    Ironically, it was reversed for me. My mother taught me to play video games, and to get excited about them. This is perhaps “odd” for someone who was born in the 1940s, but she really did. She would sit at the computer with me and play King’s Quest. We entered a friendly competition, sometimes playing together, sometimes playing separately, both trying to see how far in the game we could get. She also would sit down and play the Atari 2600 with me, and the NES when we got it (about the time I was 6). Even though I now play things like Portal and Halo without her, I grew up loving that stuff because of my mother.

  • Anonymous

    This is fantastically written and makes a lot of great points! I think even between consoles there is a learning gap. I remember finding the transfer from PS2 to Xbox controllers very awkward and it took me a looooong time to tackle games with dual-analogue controls! I’ve been gaming since I was little and I think before Mass Effect and Assasin’s Creed, the original N64 James Bond was the only dual analogue controlled game I ever played!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.alters.9 Mark Alters

    ” I was an obsessive WoW player for years” ….. “I’d never even played a game where I had to frickin’ WASD”

    ….wat

  • Anonymous

    Let me assure you, you do not need to WASD to play WoW. I sometimes strafed and backed up when tanking, but 95% of game time, I was mouse-moving.

  • laci

    WARE THE FUCK CAN YOU PLAY PORTAL 2 TELL ME NOW PLEASE!!!

  • Schwarz

    Becky, your writing, enthusiasm and attitude towards gaming is what the community needs to push it in a more positive and encouraging direction. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kimtracyprince Kim Tracy Prince

    I’m learning Portal with my 8-year-old. My little brother was the pusher. Now we’re done for. I don’t know a lot of the terms you used above but I have a feeling they’ll be in my future or I’ll be phased out of gaming with my own kid.