Thought Bubble: Things I Learned Playing Starwhal with My Parents

My parents are not what you would call gamers, at least not according to the stereotypical definition of the word. They play games – Bridge about once a week and Cards Against Humanity during the holidays – but they’d much rather gather around a table than sit in front of a screen.

I can’t say I blame them, but it does run contrary to one of my most deeply held beliefs. Video games are for everyone. The medium has become so diverse that there’s something to suit every set of tastes, so I’m always searching for games that will translate to audiences that don’t typically play many video games.

However, doing so isn’t always easy. Like most who grew up with games, there are a lot of conventions I take for granted. Even the simplest twin-stick control schemes can be unintuitive without the instinct that develops over the course of multiple decades of gaming.

Or at least, that’s the takeaway after a recent visit home, where I made it a point to introduce my parents to Starwhal and Sportsfriends, two local multiplayer games with blissfully simple control schemes. Both can essentially be played with one button, and while my parents were hardly experts, they were able to stumble through the basics. My mom even won a round of Starwhal when I had no way to counter her ace defensive strategy of spinning in circles.

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Starwhal is an excellent all-audiences game because the physics are so strange that nobody is all that good at it. A complete novice has a chance to win after two or three rounds of play. It’s also great for spectators. Flopping neon narwhals are so damn silly that there’s always something amusing happening on the screen. It makes people laugh even when they don’t know what they’re doing.

Sportsfriends is similarly accessible. The cooperative element makes the learning curve on games like Hokra and Super Pole Riders a little gentler because it allows veteran players to carry those with less experience.

I want everyone to love games as much as I do, so I always take care to match the right game with the right audience. That’s why I enjoy showing other people how diverse the medium can be. Games can be alienating for the uninitiated, so I try to be patient to help walk people through those first few steps.

There are limits to that approach. Though my parents enjoyed their brief time, they don’t pick up on strategies as quickly as I do, nor is local multiplayer likely to hold their attention for more than an evening. I’ve stockpiled a few titles during the recent local multiplayer resurgence because games like Sportsfriends are designed with an eye towards accessibility. They work in party environments because anyone can pick them up and play them.

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But that doesn’t mean that everyone will enjoy them to the same extent. That doesn’t make them bad games – quite the contrary – but people have different tastes and that’s not what my parents are looking for.

That’s the paradox. I still believe that games are for everyone, and I’ve come across countless titles with content that I think would resonate with friends and family that don’t otherwise play many games. Unfortunately, I’ll seldom recommend them because I know the difficulty would be too much of a hurdle.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that there’s a divide between mechanical accessibility – things that people can play, like Sportsfriends and Starwhal – and thematic appeal. What kinds of games would my parents want to play? For the most part, the games they would find most interesting have control schemes that would be prohibitively challenging for them to complete.

I’ve tested that theory on more than one occasion. I took my dad on a walking tour of colonial New England in Assassin’s Creed III (my parents went to school in Boston and still live in Massachusetts), but I didn’t hand over the controller because there’s no way he’d think to climb the nearest rooftop to get a better vantage. My dad would also get a kick out of the dark humor in Portal, but he’d need so much time to figure out how to move around that he’d miss a lot of the aesthetic.

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My parents are smart people. Their struggles with modern games are merely reflective of the fact that they grew up in a different era, and as responsible professionals they have more important things to do with their time. They get on fine without games and games get on fine without them.

The point is simply that games with complex subject matter often have complex control schemes, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. I’d love to see games with the wit of Portal or the thematic depth of Shadow of the Colossus that can accommodate less experienced players. It was neat when L.A. Noire allowed players to skip the action sequences to focus on the cut scenes, especially since it did so without sacrificing much in the way of intent. The slightest nod towards interactivity – making the player an active participant instead of a passive viewer – can still be enough to create an incredibly powerful effect.

Fortunately, the industry is already moving in that direction. The Telltale model has opened new doors for narrative storytelling and there are plenty of developers doing great things with Twine and other innovative formats. As gaming becomes more diverse there will be more games that cater to a wider array of audiences.

I just think it’s important to understand how different games resonate with different players at a mechanical and thematic level. Sometimes it helps to go outside the industry bubble to find out how other people respond to the games we take for granted.

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