"Oh," said Jameson, "no, it's not really the kind of game you can beat."
"So what kind of game is it?" my mother brightly inquired.
There was an awkward pause as Jameson and I both anticipated the confusion that would soon result from this conversation.
"It's an MMORPG," Jameson said. "That means 'massively multiplayer online role-playing game.'"
Mom looked blank.
"It's like. . . . Remember when I used to MUD all the time?" I said. "On Magrathea? An MMORPG is kind of like a MUD, with graphics."
"That was like D&D, right? So there are dungeons?"
"Sure," I said quickly. "Only, planets. And stuff. Star Wars dungeons."
Mom nodded thoughtfully, and snapped a piece off the hollow chocolate Santa we'd been working our way through all evening. "So you have to wait for your friends to be free, then? To play?"
Now it was Jameson who looked blank, probably trying to figure out why one would wait for one's friends to be online before grinding through levels on the kind of hack and slash DikuMUD we used to play, where the limited role-playing that actually took place was through the notes system, and not in real-time.
"No, he can play any time," I said, sidestepping the "how text-based real-time virtual worlds are actually quite different from tabletop RPGs in many ways" sub-conversation entirely. "The multiplayer part doesn't mean it can't be a single-player game. I mean, it's not a single-player game, because that means something else. Sort of. But you don't have to wait for people with an MMORPG—it's not like a single-system multiplayer game, where everybody is using the same machine, because everyone is logging on remotely to, well, the same servers, but from their own machines. Except when they're not, which is when you're not waiting for them. Unless you're doing an instance together or something, in which case you pretty much do have to wait for everyone to log on."
Both Mom and Jameson looked blanker than ever in the face of this stunning display of linguistic clarity on my part.
And then, thank goodness, my dad came back downstairs with the champagne, and we switched to debating whether we cared enough to try to toast on the actual stroke of midnight, or whether we should resume the activity that had been interrupted by the champagne fetch-quest—which was, oddly enough, playing a video game together.
The 2011 version of You Don't Know Jack for the Wii was my Christmas present to my dad this year—one that I actually picked out myself!—and he and Mom had already given the disc a workout. I knew they'd enjoy it, because we used to play the mid-90s YDKJ games on the family computer, and they were always a hit. We played other computer games together, too, and party games on my parents' Wii have been a fixture of get-togethers since they got the console.
So you see, despite the confusion of the MMORPG conversation, my mother is not actually a total gaming n00b. And I'm certainly not—I don't even remember a time when I wasn't playing computer and tabletop games, and I played arcade and console games starting pretty young, too—but only a couple of Christmases ago I had a blank-look-heavy conversation of my own about a game concept.
I have never enjoyed platformers (mostly due to being terrible at them), but I was on a quest to give a fair chance to some pink-box games, and was actually having a good time with Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses on my DS. Until I got stuck on a balcony.
"I think I hit a glitch or something," I complained to Jameson. "I jumped up on this balcony, but there's no way down."
"Did you try jumping down?" he asked, not looking up from his laptop.
"I can't. There's nowhere to do it—this railing goes all the way around."
"I mean jumping down," he said.
"You're not being helpful," I said, and then stared resentfully at his forehead for a while.
Eventually he looked up, at which point he raised his eyebrows at me and said, very slowly, "Jump? Down?"
"I'm sorry," I said. "Who's on first?"
Jameson sighed. "Hold down on the d-pad and then jump."
I tried it. Miraculously, my tiny, pink-clad avatar . . . jumped down. "It worked! But how did you know that?"
"It's how you always get down from something in platformers." Jameson shrugged. "Everybody knows that."
Right, just like everybody knows what an MMORPG is.
The reality being, of course, that gaming knowledge has to be learned, just like anything else. And while a lot of it can be learned through the gameplay itself—one of the things that makes playing games so satisfying—everyone has to start somewhere. The tricky bit here being that everyone has to start somewhere with every new game.
My mother can play board games, several of the common types of minigames and party games for the Wii, traditional card games, and certain kinds of dedicated deck card games (thanks to a long, strange evening wherein Jameson and I introduced her to Munchkin), but though she is aware of RPGs of various flavors, the actual mechanics are a mystery to her. And I am comfortable with an even wider range of games, across multiple genres and media, but had never played enough platformers to master the very basic, building-block level concept of jumping down.
Luckily for me and my progress in Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses, the learning curve on the platformer genre is very nearly flat. I hadn't ever figured out jumping down before because I'd never mastered jumping up enough (I know, it's sad) to want to keep playing any of the offerings in the genre for more than about ten minutes at a stretch. But it's probably just as well that Mom isn't really interested in RPGs in general, online gaming in general, or MMORPGs in particular, because while running around a not-really-a-dungeon and training up skills and acquiring better equipment comes as naturally to Jameson as jumping down, he's building on an entire gaming lifetime of experience in the relevant genres.
And that lengthy background can make it easy to not even notice what you've learned versus what is actually intuitive or obvious. I mean, the whole jumping down through solid objects thing doesn't really make a lot of logical sense (of course, neither does jumping up through them, but I'm trying not to beat myself up too much for missing the not-quite-obvious), but platformer players have been doing it for so long that the weirdness of it isn't a barrier at all. They've internalized a set of rules for how a bunch of similar little universes work without even noticing.
Which sometimes ends up making a player in the know—in the following example, me—look like a jerk.
Jameson and I tried to teach my friend Karen to play Chez Goth, and she was having a lot of trouble keeping the order of actions in each turn straight.
"This is really complicated," she said, at one point. To which I instantly replied, "Not if you've played card games before."
Karen, quite rightly, pointed out that she had in fact played many card games, and I clarified that I meant collectable card games (with an implied "duh," because I am just that classy), as though not having a background in a subset of a subset of a type of game was a moral failing of some kind. Of course, what I actually meant was that Chez Goth isn't hard to figure out if you've played a Steve Jackson Games (the publisher) card game, or better yet, Chez Geek, the original of which the gothic version is a spin-off.
And it's not actually a CCG, either—Chez Goth is a dedicated deck game (though it is true that a background in something like Magic: the Gathering would help with the whole stages of individual turns concept), adding an extra layer of jerkiness to my rude response. Way to go, me!
I'm not sure if Karen will be interested in trying Chez Goth again. Which is a shame, because it's a fun, easily portable, quick game that reliably cracks me up (coming up with descriptions of tattoos for extra gloom points never gets old), and I'd like to share that with my friend. Next time I introduce someone to a new-to-them game, I'm going to have to keep the things I've been talking about here in mind, and remember that one has to learn to jump down.
Or I guess I could just play single-player games exclusively from now on. By which I mean actual single-player games, rather than games that can be played alone but are actually designed to be . . .
Uh. Never mind. Champagne, anyone?