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A Journey Across the Main Stream: Games for My Mother-in-Law
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A Journey Across the Main Stream: Games for My Mother-in-Law

September 1, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

The Unknown Is a Dangerous Place

So, I explained to Subject M that Sam and Max were not going to find the cheese on their own, that she was going to have to get involved in the process now. I told her that clicking on things in the room would make various things happen, and that she should try a few at random.

She wanted me to tell her which things she should try.

In fact, Subject M was extremely hesitant to take any action at all without explicit instruction. I should mention that we are talking about a curious, curious woman here.

A former newspaper reporter, she wouldn't think twice about crashing the wedding of a complete stranger, accosting the bride, and asking her questions about her politics. People do not scare her. But at some level, games do.

A friend who taught computer classes for elderly people once described the trepidation her students tended to feel when faced with a computer, an object that its designers feel is friendly but which was, to them, impenetrable and incomprehensible and resolutely foreign.

They simply didn't understand the first thing about how it worked, and because of that they were afraid they were somehow going to break it by doing the wrong thing. If the computer happened to take a moment to think about anything, they were often convinced that they had done just that.

Games can feel similarly fragile and unsafe if you're not used to them (and perhaps even if you are). Anything can happen, and probably will. A bit of hand-holding is required to reinforce the idea that you can click around on things with impunity, that exploration will not hurt you, at least not without giving you fair warning first. Come on in, the water's fine! No sharks. I promise.

Exploration Is Relative

With some encouragement, Subject M began investigating Sam and Max's office. What we tend to expect from a player is that they will be somewhat thorough about this, engaging in a period of exploration just to find out what options are present in their immediate surroundings.

Subject M did not do this. She only investigated objects if she could think of a specific reason to do so, ignoring anything that was not obviously relevant to the problem at hand (finding cheese). The fact that clickable objects in the room attempted to portray themselves as interesting by displaying pop-up text whenever you moused over them did not work as a lure.

Even after the more obvious options had been exhausted and she wasn't sure what else to do, Subject M chose to stop interacting and to instead sit and think about the problem, rather than investigate the remainder of the contents of the room.

It is not uncommon in game design to assume that the player will eventually explore all of the clickable items in an environment. Clearly, this is not a safe assumption. It is also not uncommon to attach vital information to these explorations. We do this at our own risk.

Why Does He Keep Doing That?

While Subject M was directing Sam to explore the environment, Sam's partner Max was wandering randomly around the office, periodically playing amusing animations, just to liven up the scene a bit and keep the player entertained. Theoretically.

"Why does he keep doing that?" Subject M wanted to know. What she was specifically talking about, it turns out, was the fact that one of Max's amusing incidental animations depicts him picking his teeth. Subject M became convinced that Max had eaten the cheese she was meant to be looking for, and wasn't sure what to do about this.

As designers, we put a lot of thought into how to best portray information which is important to the player. We don't tend to put a lot of thought into how not to pollute that information with conflicting false leads. Pretty much anything you see on screen can be interpreted as being significant, and something you see repeatedly is almost guaranteed to be taken that way.

It's Right There, in the Closet!

Although she was being focused rather than thorough about her exploration, it would still surely be only a matter of time before Subject M tried the closet door. It was among the largest items in the room, clearly tagged with pop-up text, and an obvious, obvious place for something to be hidden. Absolutely impossible that she would not click on it. And yet that is exactly what happened.

After she had stopped exploring and had been sitting and thinking for a bit, not clicking on the closet door in front of her, I asked Subject M about her current goal and strategy for achieving that goal.

She said she was looking for something yellow.

It turned out she was playing the scene more like a find-the-hidden-object-in-the-picture game, although I had also seen her try some drawers and other non-yellow objects that might be used as containers. Further questioning revealed that it simply had not occurred to her that there might be more to the game than what was on the screen. She wasn't thinking of it as a world; she was thinking of it as a picture.

The idea that there are places and things that you can't see right away, even the inside of a closet, may not be immediately evident to the beginner. And assuming that the player will try to solve a problem in what you believe to be the obvious way is, of course, a terrible blunder, particularly if you haven't taken the time to establish what sort of game this is. Simply printing "adventure game" on the box will not help someone who does not know what that means.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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