I think video games are fascinating: as works of design, as a medium of art and as a development of cultural importance. As a consequence, I decided to attempt an experiment recently.
We now have an entire generation of adults who have grown up with video games as a part of their lives. Many of those adults design video games themselves, and so certain concepts tend to establish themselves as assumed knowledge. No-one has to explain anymore that touching a scowling enemy does you damage. Players already know what a save point is, and that red canisters explode when you shoot them, without so much as a peep at an in-game tutorial. It occurred to me that watching someone play with absolutely no experience of these things may yield some interesting observations about what we take for granted, and inform some of my own design ideas.
Which is why I asked my mother, a 60 year old Polish emigre, to come over and play Sonic the Hedgehog with me.
Sonic the Hedgehog was my first ever hero. As a child, the energy I devoted to him was a limitless source of exasperation to my mother. She gave me the pocket money to buy the games, she cleaned around me as I watched the Saturday morning cartoons. She raised an eyebrow as I devoured even the British novelisations of his adventures, and nodded encouragingly at my collection of Sonic-related juvenilia, mostly consisting of half-finished platform level designs. But not once was it ever something we participated in together, and so one afternoon I invited her over to my London flat and fired up the original game, a few weeks shy of the 20th anniversary of its release.
My mother smiles as we hear the three snare reports that signal the introduction music. ‘I remember this’ she says, with a fondness that I find encouraging. After an explanation of the (minimal) controls, I take a deep breath, pick up my notepad, and let my mother loose in Sonic’s world.
The cobalt hedgehog leaps high into the air, and lands perfectly on the spot where he started. A pause. My mother looks down at the controller, and back up to the screen. Another jump on the spot. Flowers bob and spin in the digital breeze. More jumping. Silence. She looks at me plaintively.“I don’t want him to jump, I want him to go somewhere.”
It’s after I explain the concept of horizontal movement that the Motobug chugs its way into view – the first of a menagerie of robotic assassins whose sole purpose is to enslave the eponymous hero and his friends. Squat, red and slow, for years I barely noticed it as I careered through the first level of the game.
Through what I suspect is a muscular spasm, Mum dispatches the enemy by jumping on it.
“So all the guys he is meeting, I am either supposed to be jumping up, or killing, or whatever.”
“Well, this is unfriendly.”
I admit to myself that she’s probably right, as she runs straight into a robotic fish leaping from beneath the first bridge. A muffled timpani sound effect kicks in and Sonic’s corpse drops off the screen. Another plaintive look.
We don’t get much further than that first motobug; Mum runs straight into it again and again like a wasp against a window. But after the title screen whips away for the 6th or 7th time, something wonderful happens.
She leaps over her assailant and starts to build up momentum. She spins over a bridge through a line of golden rings, and suddenly Sonic is tearing his way unmolested through the garish hills with all the speed that fascinated me as a child, soaring over spikes and around loop de loops.
In awe, I wonder how on earth she picked it up so quickly. I instantly leap to conclusions about how universal and intuitive video games really are. I imagine that the last 20 minutes of failure have suddenly seeped into her cerebral cortex and made an epiphanical new connection somewhere. Slightly surprisingly, I’m consumed with overwhelming pride.
My mother looks at me plaintively again. Beyond her I can see that Sonic is still negotiating the level perfectly. I look at the pad and her fingers aren’t even touching the buttons.
There’s a moment of genuine deflation before I’m able to laugh at the fact the game had kicked into demo mode. So far had she been from engaging with it, that she’d forgotten to even press start. We decide to take a break and have a cup of tea.
As we chat, I wonder what I exactly it was that I expected of the experiment. It feels as if I imagined she would connect with the game in an entirely different way to a seasoned player, rather than just being really bad at it. I’d probably spent so much time convincing people my own age that video games are an interesting cultural force that I’d forgotten how much harder it would be with someone 35 years my senior.
I spend another half hour noting how Mum grapples with in-game physics and predicting enemy patterns, before deciding to call it a day. I ask her if she had fun, and she bobs her head from side to side in a combination of a nod and a shake that tells me she’s trying to be diplomatic. Surprisingly, she didn’t find it as frustrating as I did to watch her. Would she play it again? I ask as I kiss her goodbye at the front door. Her response is delivered with a characteristic lack of intentional humour:
“Perhaps, John. If I was in prison”.