Have you ever thought fundamentally, what is a game? What makes something inherently a video game, how do you decide what you like best about it? Many liken a game to its gameplay mechanics– how they feel, how they control, or how much of a thrill they give you. Others look towards the narrative for guidance– how it touches you emotionally, are the characters well developed, or is the new world you are thrown into worth experiencing.
Next time you boot up some of your favorite games, no matter what it is, try this interesting thought experiment. Take apart the game, and try to understand what it is that truly speaks to you– why does the game resonate so well. More importantly, how did you actually learn to play the game? It’s one that many seasoned gamers take for granted, but we all had to learn the language of games in order to fall in love with it as a pastime. I would be willing to bet, that your favorite games are not only good games mechanically/narratively, but they are wonderful teachers as well. Some call it good game design, some call it building upon common themes of earlier games, and others just good tutorial systems. This is one of the many reasons the first Super Mario Bros. is considered such a masterpiece, because its level design in the first level masterfully teaches the player how to play from the start. For a game to resonate with both new and old audiences, it needs to have that built in “grade A” design that can offer simplicity and accessibility for new players, yet provide the depth of skill and challenge for veterans to enjoy.
Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka explaining level design
As most gamers can attest however, this balance is quite difficult to create, and why, in my opinion, the ones that can accomplish this are hailed not only as classics within the industry, but can also rise to pop culture lexicon status, like Mario for example. For me, the biggest barrier of entry when trying a new game is how easily I can pick up the mechanics and gameplay. This is coming from a seasoned veteran who’s had a controller in his hand since elementary school; I can only imagine how overwhelming many games are for new players. You see this often when trying to teach a game to someone else. But, certain games are so easily teachable, that it almost feels as if they were designed to introduce new players to video games in general. The older I get, the more I believe that for a game to truly be excellent, the game design needs to take into account how to teach itself to new players, so that the game can be more enjoyable for everyone. In order to introduce novices properly to the world of video games, gamers need to emphasize those games that have the wonderfully intuitive, and easy-to-learn mechanics that change learning something that is strange and alien, into a joyful experience.
Often for me, I find myself looking towards the experience surrounding the game as being just as important as both the gameplay and narrative when determining whether a game truly extends from the doldrums of a “good game” to the loftier echelons of a “great game” in my gaming library. Maybe this is why many of my favorite titles are those that emphasize local co-op as a core experience. For those of you lucky enough to be raised with a twin brother, like me, or a sibling very close in age, co-op was the salvation to the almost immeasurable childhood fights over who got to play with the controller. Many of my earliest and fondest gaming memories revolve around waking up early, sneaking downstairs with my brother, and playing a whole host of games together.
As I got older, the allure of marathon single-player gaming sessions grew and grew, but at the end of a long day of playing solo, I always felt as if something was missing. Even if the game itself was a brilliant piece of work, not having someone there to share the experience with, both the ecstasy of victory, or the shame of defeat, seemed to leave a less memorable experience upon later reflection. I craved a partner when I played games, so after high school, when my brother and I unfortunately had to separate for the first time, I decided I needed to find another gaming partner. If need be, I was going to teach someone how to play my favorite games. As I glanced over my library of titles, trying to determine which games would be the most fun to learn, my hands instinctively reached towards The Super Smash Bros. franchise.
I first met my friend, Vineel, during orientation for our MBA program at Chapman University in late 2014. We quickly became friends because of our cultural similarities; he was from India living in America for the first time and I was a first generation Pakistani-American. In a perfect storm of serendipity, this was also around the time that Super Smash Bros. Wii U/3DS came out. Vineel never heard of the series, but seeing how thrilled I was about the game in the weeks leading up to its much anticipated release enthralled him to play the game with me. This only excited me more, because not only did I have someone to potentially play the new game with, but it was the first time that I could introduce the series to someone new since the days of my brother and me playing Super Smash Bros. 64 with our little sister.
I started slowly, teaching him bit by bit, introducing the fundamentals incrementally as he learned. From demonstrating the basic kick and jab system (how every character has the same variation of basic attacks), to the special attacks (how for the most part each character has unique specials that you need to learn to really understand how to play a character), and eventually more skillful mechanics (grabs and throws into aerials), spending hours upon hours with him practicing each movement never felt wasted or tiresome. Breaking down the game like this really allowed me to see just how brilliant the design scheme behind the franchise was, leaving me with an even greater appreciation, something that I did not think was possible. While teaching him, I found myself learning more about the franchise from perspectives I had never truly considered before. Smash is outwardly complex, with characters flying across screens, seemingly performing any number of Nairs, Dairs, shines, DIs, and a whole host of other intricate techniques. But behind this complex exterior laid a very simple progression of straightforward basic movements that when built on top of each other, could lead to truly mesmerizing play.
Like a proud parent, witnessing Vineel’s progression from where he began, to where he is today, was arguably more entertaining and enthralling for me, than actually playing to better myself at times. It was a completely different experience from what I imagined when I first downloaded the game so many months ago; I was watching someone become a fan, watching them revel in an experience they had never felt before. It was such a rush, albeit a different rush from actually playing the game, but it tickled the gamer within me, to be able to introduce someone else to a franchise that I had treasured for so long, and watch them fall in love with it as well.
For those of you hoping to hear a finale to this story, know that Vineel still plays Smash with me regularly, and he continues to get better and better. And his appreciation for the game now transcends beyond the game itself, his journey culminating with the two of us traveling to Genesis 3 in San Jose as spectators to spend 18 hours watching everyone else play the game we adored around us. From learning the difference between a down smash and a forward smash, to eventually cheering Mango’s name at the top of his lungs desperately hoping for a thrilling tournament finale, I could not help but reflect on how much fun the journey had been for the both of us. It won’t be long until the student becomes greater than the master, I am sure.
I will be the first to admit, that because I am not the best, or for that matter, even that good at Smash, I may not be the best teacher, but in the grand scheme of things, it truthfully does not matter. The mechanics of a game like Smash make it so inherently easy to introduce the game to someone willing to learn, that as long as you do not overwhelm them, it can work. The patience of the teacher is key however to making sure the relationship works. The teacher needs to be as invested in teaching the player, as the player is to learning the game, for any game to click—it’s just that for us veteran gamers, our teachers were the games themselves. But new players have the advantage of having us to teach them, and I highly recommend that you, as advocates of video games, take the time to do so.
Take the time to teach your friends and family, if they are willing, about your favorite games, no matter how long or tiresome it might seem. But ease them into this wonderful hobby of ours by finding games that emphasize intuitive game design so that they can learn themselves why we all love video games so much. Because trust me, the light at the end of the tunnel is worth it. Seeing a close friend, who had never even heard of Smash Bros, to within a year, chanting and screaming a competitor’s name after spending hours and hours of nothing but watching other people play a video game…there’s nothing truly like it. At worst, you find something your friend or relative doesn’t like and you move on. But at best… you find a player two for life.