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?”
“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.”
“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.”