Dear Dave

Friday 25 July 2008

No, Lara, left. Left!

Dear Dave,

Computer games have changed rather a lot in the twenty-five years since I started playing them. Back in the day, guiding a green spludge (that was allegedly a frog) up the screen, avoiding 'trucks' (long blue spludges) and leaping onto logs (long brown spludges), was the cutting edge of interactive entertainment. Now I can control incredibly detailed heroes through vast three-dimensional cities, exploring, stopping time and setting zombies on fire. (Ooh! Look at the reflections of the flames in the puddle!)

That's quite a change.

I've changed, too. I noticed hair growing out of my ears the other day. (This isn't such a welcome development.)

One thing which hasn't changed, however, is the strangled cry of frustrated rage I hear every so often. It usually comes from a young boy around about the time that whatever they're playing produces a definite GAME OVER noise. This tends to be something like a sinking scale on a trumpet: Wah, waah, waaaaah, waaaaaaah! It's not quite as iconic as the shrill scream of Lara falling off a high cliff but you can't miss it. The child concerned has been banished back to the last save point. They're not too happy about it.

I remember that cry from my own youth. It's the natural reaction when a green spludge dodges its way through a horde of long blue spludges only to drown in the middle of a river because there aren't anywhere near enough long brown spludges. (Surely if it really was a frog, it could swim? Oh, the injustice...)

I suppose there are two main types of frustration associated with computer games. The first is where you simply don't know what to. This is best exemplified by those old text adventures:

>You enter a dank cave. It is dark and smells bad. You see a goblin.
>I don't understand.
>You can't do that.
>You can't use that.
>You don't have the knife.
>You can't chop an axe!
>It doesn't fit.
>You blunt your scissors.
>I don't understand.
>There is no understand.
>Hah, hah! That's impossible.
>Are you sure?
>That's interesting.
>The goblin doesn't want to help you.
>Please specify a direction.
>You can't go that way.
>As if. The goblin looks at you and licks its lips...

Fortunately, the days of this kind of annoyance are mostly in the past. A quick google can reveal that THROW AXE AT GOBLIN is the solution. Simple, eh?

The other main type of computer game frustration is where you know exactly what to do but can't manage the thumb gymnastics.

OK. I need to jump across the gap, grab the ledge, swing over there, dodge the spinning blades, turn, shoot the target, turn back, jump the other gap and roll through the doorway before it closes and crushes me. Easy...

First Go: Jump, grab, swing, mince, re-load checkpoint... ... ... Try again.
Second Go: Jump, grab, swing, dodge, turn, shoot, jump the wrong way, splat, re-load checkpoint... ... ... Try again.
Third Go: Jump, grab, swing, dodge, turn, turn, mince, re-load checkpoint... ... ... Try again.
Fourth Go: Jump, splat, re-load checkpoint... ... ... Try again.
Twenty-ninth Go: Jump, grab, swing, dodge, turn, shoot, jump, roll a milli-second too late, CRUSH, re-load checkpoint, fling controller through screen, call fire brigade, explain to wife, evacuate building... ... ...


(STOP PRESS: I've just played the new Alone in the Dark. There is a third way for a game to elicit teeth grinding from a player. It involves having to use a clunky control system and struggle with insane camera angles in near-total gloom... while being chased by zombies. Double grrr...)

So where's the attraction in computer games?

Well, the truth is that these moments of frustration are actually pretty infrequent. Most games are no longer punishing tests of reaction time and manual dexterity. Advances in design and technology have brought the opportunity for exploration, discovery, creativity and immersion. There's still a sense of achievement from overcoming obstacles and puzzles but it's no longer merely about being able to press buttons quickly enough.

In general, games are relaxing and cathartic. Occasionally, however, the balance between challenge and entertainment gets messed up, resulting in those familiar cries of irritation. I suspect this will always be the case and, even though these moments are annoying, I wouldn't want them to disappear entirely - finally beating the big robot that just won't die is rather exhilarating. It's like putting the last pair on top of a house of cards, winning a game of pool and getting a sofa up a flight of stairs without injury, all rolled into one.

I might have to sympathise with half an hour of annoyed grunts from one of the boys every so often but the ordeal nearly always ends in shouts of delight, the thunder of feet rushing to find me and a little dance of delight as the child in question tells me about the monster he's vanquished.

Is it teaching them anything? Let's see:

Patience. Yeah, right.
Concentration. Maybe.
Coordination. Nope.
Maths and reading. Oh, yes.
How to work the system. Definitely.

That's not bad.

It's probably worth it just for the little dance, though...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS I had an email about something called Dancing Cherubs in London. It's supposed to be like a night club for families, with dancing and extra activities. I've no idea if it's any good (and we have ceilidhs for that up here, anyway) but if you're in the area...

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