Monday, 25 June 2012

If You Build it, Let Them Play

You know what they say about assumptions and asses and all that jazz.

I touched upon something quite a while back, when I talked about dumbing down games and why it seems that now more than ever we're getting our hands held throughout the medium. Well, there's been another recent incident that has once again spurred me to talk a little about all of this. It might not be a shock, given all that's been happening these days regarding games and women, but when a friend on Facebook linked me to this article, written by Katie Williams about her less then stellar E3 experience, my first thought was "wow, it's incredibly awful that anyone would do that to a female gamer."

My second thought though, was, "Wait, isn't this what the game industry has collectively been doing to us all the time in the last couple of years?"

Ms. Williams does a fantastic job of elaborating on the details and the wrongness of the situation that she experienced. The most resonant part of the article was the first -- but sadly not last -- of the moments when someone decided that because she was a woman that she apparently couldn't play their games right:

So I sat down, fingers falling perfectly across the keyboard. Before me, yellow grass swayed in the wind, and leaning on the W, I began to move slowly through its blades, watching the brush give way to glimpses of crumbling buildings and battered vehicles. It was a meticulously detailed scene and I wanted to absorb all of it.

This was how the PR representative found me a few minutes later, though it seemed he mistook my marvel for a slow-witted lack of comprehension.

“Do you play PC games?” he asked, frowning.

One of the publications on my media badge was listed as PC PowerPlay. It shouldn’t have been necessary for him to ask such a question, but I answered. “Yes.”

“Well, OK.” I sensed a disbelief in the guy’s voice. “But do you play shooters?”

I remember the silence that filled this space beyond this question. I was horrified that anyone could even ask such a thing. Here I was, sitting with my fingers spread across WASD, admiring a game world — and somehow, for some obtuse reason, being assumed to be someone who didn’t know anything about the world or how to interact with it.

“I think I better play it for you,” he said finally, prying my hands away and turning the keyboard towards himself.

I absolutely cannot imagine how frustrating this experience would be, at least not firsthand. Frankly I would be lucky if I acted with any modicum of restraint, and I honestly applaud her restraint regarding the situation, although I gather that she probably didn't have much choice. No one should ever have a game taken away from them because they "aren't playing it right". Her personal tale is more proof that the industry needs to grow up a little when it comes to gamers and gender. Her article makes the point well enough on its own, which is why I feel that I should make another.

It doesn't happen to all of us all the time, but I think that more and more often players are being punished for failing to conform to what the designers and developers consider the "right" way to play their games. As I expressed before these people have an understandable emotional stake in the game, and they probably want people to experience it in a certain way. At the same time though there's absolutely no logical reason why a person, man or woman, young or old, hardcore or neophyte, should be told that the way they play is somehow faulty.

I have a favourite XKCD strip, it's this one, and I believe that the message delivered in the fifth panel can be changed to suit my needs in this case as well. Rather than communicating badly, I would say that if you make a game, then act indignant when someone doesn't play it the way you want you're not doing them a favour by stepping in and hold their hand.

To make it as simple as possible: let people play the games they buy the way they damn well want to play them.

If someone wants to take their time and admire the world you've built, then where the hell is the harm in letting them do so? It's not like the only thing they're going to do is sit and admire the particle effects, and frankly even if that is all they wanted to do that's their own damn choice. Is it really that difficult to let something go and admit that maybe the way you envisioned people engaging with it isn't the way they ultimately will? If not then perhaps you should reevaluate whether or not you should be making games in the first place.

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