This morning I was doing some research for an article I’ve always wanted to write about Jordan Mechner’s magnum opus, The Last Express. Among the wonderful treasures I found, including an unfinished script for a prequel to TLE, was a link to Michael Chabon’s NY Review of Books article titled, “Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood.” In the article, Chabon laments the disappearance of a form of childhood that all of us (in our 30′s and 40′s and older) remember with conflicting emotion. The kind of childhood where a kid, even in the most urbanized environment, would freely explore every dark forest, alleyway and abandoned lot with a pack of her or his friends. It was a childhood experienced as a neighbourhood of familiar and tempting and scary things. In this article I want to take Michael Chabon’s wonderful article and turn it towards gaming, and see how the disappearance of “exploration” and “excellence” has influenced a new generation of gamers.
I’m sitting in my 13-year-old cousin’s room, my back leaned uncomfortably against the foot of his metal bedframe, watching him play Jak 3 – a 3-D shooter/racer/adventure platformer. He finishes a level and we watch the intro cinematic for the next quest; the on-screen drama unfolds slowly as the characters discuss what to do next. We are 30 seconds into the cinematic, and already I can hear my cousin becoming restless, thumbing the ‘x’ button so he can skip the cinematic and cut to the chase.
(Herding Leaping Lizards in Jak 3.)
Damas enters stage left and addresses Jak and Daxter (and of course myself and my cousin) in a paternal tone, ”You have a reputation for being rash. Didn’t your father tell you to pick your battles wisely?”
Jak responds, “I didn’t know my father.”
Damas continues, “My point is, sometimes you face your enemy head-on and, sometimes you wait until his weakness is revealed! Patience is a warrior’s greatest weapon.”
(To any seasoned gamer, the discover-the-end-boss’s-weakness-by-experimenting-and-observing-it-at-a-distance tactic has the cornerstone of battle for over 20 years.)
At this point, my cousin who is normally a patient and curious child, is becoming irritated with the “unreasonably” long 1-minute cinematic. I realize that he has listened to nothing in the cinematic, he even misses the crucial mission briefing, “I want you to go into the desert and herd a group of lizards into a waiting transport.”
And he’s off, driving around aimlessly in the desert. At some point the game prompts him with a message, “Drive up close to a Leaper.” After chasing a pack of lizards for a few minutes he is becoming frustrated. The lizards dart off in every direction and his thumbs respond in kind, directing the stick toward the Leaper Lizards, but not quickly enough. They get away. After several tries, he manages to land Daxter on one’s back, unsuccessfully trying to direct it toward the village. The lizard has a mind of its own and resists him, he fails to jump over a small cactus, and the lizard dies. The level resets to a few moments earlier. I can hear him slamming the thumbsticks helplessly as he becomes discouraged, and he eventually drops the controller on the bed.
“See? This game sucks. It’s soooooo hard. Let’s play something else.”
It is the last time he ever plays Jak 3.
I shrug sympathetically and pick up the controller to give it a shot. Despite never playing the Jak series before, my fingers find themselves singing an old song, and I begin exploring the territory with the dune buggy. I get a sense of the geography, the pitfalls and mission targets, and the surprisingly agile driving model. I spot a pack of lizards in the distance and my fingers instinctively accelerate and steer the dune buggy toward them… I accidentally pancake two lizards (the speed of this thing!), but Daxter manages to saddle himself on the third survivor. The encumbered lizard drives like a cat-drawn dogsled, and I laugh as I feebly try to direct it toward the mission goal area.
Eventually, I succeed. It is a silly level and a silly game, with no real consequences for failure – cute and inoffensive. My cousin is astounded that I complete the level, and shuts off the PS2. Months later, we are talking about the recently-released Prince of Persia (2008) - he is ecstatic about the gameplay feature that prevents the Prince from dying, owing to an infinite number of “saving” catches that Elika makes, preventing any kind of failure.
(feel free to hum along to the amazing tunes of Space Harrier )
I realize at that moment, my cousin and I live radically different childhoods. Mine is populated with memories of Black Belt, Police Quest 2, and Prince of Persia. All of these games, for different reasons, were exercises in utterly inhuman frustration – whether due to a demand for obscenely quick reflexes, a talent for guessing at verbs in a command parser, or repeating the same level twenty-five times just to discover the “trick” to finishing it. Finishing a game enabled a sacred rite of bragging among friends at school; it was a badge of honour and a sign of manhood accessible to only those elite who had done the same, like knowing the secret password for the neighbourhood treehouse. (We even demanded a photograph of the end-game screen of Space Harrier when my friend finally beat the game in grade 10 because it was so unbelievable a feat). At the same time, those experiences came at the cost of sheer uncontrollable rage. When I was 12 years old, after three hours I flawlessly got to the cavern level in Choplifter and was summarily blown out of the sky by the ejecta of an erupting volcano – I tried to break the controller in half unsuccessfully and instead threw it against the wall leaving a 3-inch hole. I am not, and never have been, a talented gamer.
But for my cousin, none of these experiences are possible anymore. Jak 3 does not inspire frustration or rage, but disappointment and discouragement. When a game becomes difficult it is not a challenge to his identity as a gamer, and because of which inspires no tenacity in him. If he cannot continue with a game, he turns to a different one. He has never finished a game in his life, nor experiences a desire to do so and would rather try the next new game that captures his attention.
I’m trying to avoid being unfair to my cousin whom I adore. He is a very bright teenager, he desires a sense of accomplishment, and he is surprised and enamoured when he sees an old hand effortlessly flying through Super Mario 3 and Mega Man 2 - games he sees so beyond his skill-level that they inspire only fear. But despite owning game systems his whole life, if they were taken away he would simply watch TV or play with his iPod touch instead. Even the thought of losing my Genesis or Nintendo would have chilled my heart as a boy.
But why would this even matter? Isn’t my cousin’s experience of gaming just “different” than mine, and I’m just a gamer-veteran levying my adult judgments on him? Maybe. But maybe it’s something else – along with my childhood and all of the dramatic emotions, skilful practice, and social confrontations I had in relation to games – that my cousin’s world is just a little less colourful, a little less distinct, and full of nameless fears that discourage him from really feeling a deep connection to the games he plays. The Jak 3 story would have enraptured me as a child – an Oedipal story ripped right out of Star Wars about a boy who comes to learn the identity of his estranged father. But my cousin, as a boy raised in a world of confusing gender identities at home and school and on TV, is not grabbed at all by the story; as Baudrillard writes, “The Oedipal drama is not played out any longer.”
So, why are our childhoods experienced so differently in terms of the games we play, and how we play them? This is where I want to leave things open for debate. Michael Chabon suggests that it is because parents have become too safety-oriented, too afraid of the unknown lurking in the urban world. Roger Ebert believes that we live in a fear-inspiring society that discourages us from becoming “free range children”. J.H. Van den Berg believes it is because children and adults are estranged from one another’s lives, and children no longer can mature naturally. Baudrillard believes it is because post-modernity has turned the child into a fetish-object.
Those all seem to be sensible parts of the whole shebang. Yet, rather than finding ways of maturing kids through the games they play, we now craft games to suit a flattened kind of childhood, one with no real consequences for death, or even the chance to die unfairly. It’s a kind of liberalistic ideal: Everyone should win. A game like The Last Express, by definition, will not interest my cousin because it is based on the idea of exploration for its own sake.
I’m not sure what the answer is here, for in my generation my parents were never involved in gaming in any direct way. But for this generation the answer will be in the realm of good guardianship I think: letting your kids fail, letting them get frustrated with the harshness of the world, and gently encouraging them to keep plugging away at it until they grow that kernel of accomplishment and develop a sense of courage for themselves. Otherwise, the games they play will forever remain a distant dark continent that does not inspire them to jump off of their carefully-padded ships and explore them heroically.
Am I being too naive or idealistic about childhood? Has your play style evolved over the years? Or do you have a child/relative/friend that plays games in a radically different way than you do? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!