Up until a few years ago I hadn’t played a new game system since the PS2. Growing up a favorite uncle provided my sisters and I with our video game fix, but as an adult I found myself sticking with old favorites or not playing at all. I can’t say that I’m a hardcore gamer since birth but I’ve always gotten carried away in JRPGs and other less hand-eye coordination oriented games. I was fine with replaying Chrono Trigger over and over and never even gave new games a second thought as they seemed very gun-oriented and intimidating. Like many other females of my age group, I sat in the back of the room watching the boys play Halo, drinking until it seemed interesting. But after my little sister (a much more avid gamer than myself) got an Xbox for Christmas she coaxed me into the current gaming generation by enticing me to try Left 4 Dead with her. The new controls were a bit intimidating and I sucked at first of course, but with her patient coaching next to me on the couch, I soon became addicted to the game and excitedly encouraged my boyfriend to splurge on an Xbox for our apartment so I could buy the game for myself. Couch co-op is the reason I came back to the game world as an adult and it’s inclusion in many popular games is sadly becoming more and more sparse.
Gaming can be an incredibly intimidating thing. When sitting on the couch watching a game that seems really fun, most unfamilar gamers are very likely to shy away. Multiplayer environments can be a horrible place to get your sea legs. The world of playing online, or even against more experienced friends is not a fun place for us with a lesser gamer score. I remember an instance at friends house where I was coerecing into playing multiplayer Perfect Dark and was killed so quickly each round I couldn’t even get a handle on the controls. Gamers can be ruthless, and more often than not without a lot of proir experience, the mutliplayer environment is a place no one ill-equipped wants to venture. However, having your sibling, friend, or significant other on the couch next to you working with you instead of shooting you in the face, approaching a new game becomes a much more enjoyable experience. Couch co-op (playing co-operatively with a person in the same room as you) provides a sort of training wheels for unfamiliar players, and after a period of practice it is wholly conceivable that the training wheels can come off to create a much more confident gamer able and eager to keep playing on their own. One of the reasons there is such a stigma surrounding games, is because it cannot be understood by people who haven’t seriously picked up a controller. The blame for this can easily be put on them, but in truth, the world of gaming is a daunting place for those unfamiliar and it’s much easier to brush it aside than to delve into unfamiliar territory. Even as a casual gamer who is very interested in games, there are many I did not dare to try because without the saftely of my co-operative coach beside me. The multiplayer mode in Assasin’s Creedlooks like it is incredibly fun, but diving into the world of online multi-player without getting to try it in a comfortable enviornment where I could learn the basics deterred me from doing anything but watching others play.
My earliest memories of video games is watching my dad and his friend Greg on the couch playing Double Dragon 2 on Nintendo. Watching them laugh and play as a team made games look like so much fun, but it is not very often today that game designers (outside of dance/party games) acknowledge the importance of this type of social game play. The solo gaming experience can be rewarding in it’s own right, but looking back at my own memories of gaming, the most fun is always had when someone else is in the room with you, even when taking a backseat. Putting a controller into the hand of that backseat gamer can be a great way to include new people in the gaming experience. In a recent lecture at the NYU Game Center, Portal writer Eric Wolpaw explained that the co-op mode in Portal 2 spring forth precisely from the backseat player interest in the game, “After we released Portal we had all these stories about how people played it with their kids or with their girlfriend who isn’t a gamer, and they would sit there and help them solve the puzzles. We wanted to formalise that and get a controller in their hands.” Luckily there are companies like Valve who do strive to create game situations to reach out and include new gamers. In a world where new technology reigns supreme, I realize that providing a segway for uncomfortable gamers is not a main focus for game designers, but it is a complete oversight to think that players absolutely prefer better graphics in exchange for the opportunity to play sitting next to their friends instead of just connecting to them via headset. Although it looks cool and fun, I find myself angrily surfing facebook on my ipad while my boyfriend plays Battlefield 3 instead of playing alongside him. I did not buy Dead Island after looking forward to it for months because I could not have the comfortable and fun co-operative experience I wanted. Screaming as you shoot at a common enemy on the couch next to a friend is, in my opionion, one of the most fun experiences games have to offer. Eliminating this feature is a huge blow to the player experience all for the sake of better graphics.
Products like the Wii have created a comfortable opportunity for people like moms to play alongside their kids, giving them an easy and less intimidating way to experiment with the game world. Watching my grandma and uncles try all the WiiSports games at Christmas was an incredible sight to see. It is games that provide this kind of easy passage that can succeed in bringing new gamers into the market and in the long run help create a community with a much more diverse perspective on gaming. Games like Little Big Planet have done a great job creating an experience where if one player cannot get past a certain obstacle on their own, another more experienced player can do it and pick them up again seconds later at one of many checkpoints without making them feel as if they’ve failed (Stickers and outfits never hurt either to tame the more serious side of gaming). I can speak from experience where games like Little Big Planet allows me to conquer many fears I have had about gameplay, and allow me to try a new gaming experience with greatly decreased frustration. Watching someone else play a video game can be fun, but there is nothing to make you feel like a part of the experience moreso than playing along. The key to getting non-beleivers to understand the unique and amazing experience of playing a video game is to get them to pick up a controller, and couch co-op can be a great way to do that. We just need to hope that modern game designers can think back to how great it felt to kill Shredder with the other three turtles yelling on the couch next to you.