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February 29, 2012

My (30-Second) Life as a Mentor

A while back, I met with an old friend of mine.  Being in college, we both had our obligations, and countless projects mucking up our schedules.  But somehow, we’d managed to hammer something out, and met one cool Friday afternoon.  We talked about a lot of things – our schedules, majors, teachers, our mutual disdain for Twilight

“I’m just gonna throw this out there,” I said with a laugh.  “Have you ever thought about taking up video games?”
"Also, try the dark arts!  They're oodles of fun!"

She giggled and raised her eyebrows.  “You know, I actually have played them a few times – I just wasn’t very good at them,” she answered.  “I played that game Halo, but I couldn’t aim at anything so I just spent like five minutes staring at the sky.”

I nodded in appreciation; her aiming was better than mine, at least. 

“To be fair, there are a lot more games out there than shooters,” I offered.  “You might like RPGs – role-playing games.  They’ve got good stories, and they rely more on your head than your reaction time.”  I nodded to myself, pleased; if there was ever a genre that could suit her needs (a “brainy” genre, since she’d been smarter than me since elementary school), that would be it.  “If you ever get the chance, you should try out the Persona series.”

“Oh, that’s great,” she responded.  “I do like driving games,” she added quickly, “but the fast ones are really tough for me.”

“I know what you mean.”  I turned aside; what driving games could I recommend?  “Well, Burnout’s a good one…but it’s absurdly fast.  Like, zero to one eighty in about five seconds.  This one time, my brother was playing online, and everybody was hitting top speed.  So then they all have to make this right-angle left turn, and EVERYONE crashes in the same spot at once!”

“Seriously?!” she said with a laugh, half-shocked, half-delighted (she sounded a little too excited about the idea of twisted metal).  “You know what?  You should meet my boyfriend sometime, he loves video games!”

“Oh ho, is that right?  Well maybe we can go head-to-head someday!” I said boisterously.

We will engage in the venerable sport of horn-butting.

After that, we moved on to a different subject – but, a few days later (when the hindsight/remorse can really settle in), I wonder if I made the right choice.  There I sat, a hardened, veteran gamer, conversing with someone who could very easily jump into our favorite pastime with a bit of prodding; did I steer her toward a hobby full of delight and excitement, or merely shove her, inexperienced and innocent, into a sea of soulless drivel?

Who knows?  All things considered, she might not even become a gamer.  Her greatest experience at the time had been the original Sims on the PC, and she shamefully admitted that she’d spent hours playing around with her virtual sea monkeys.  And with a college schedule, a boyfriend, and several other community activities going on in her life, I doubt she’d have the time or drive to regularly slap down cash for a fifty to sixty dollar video game – and that’s assuming she at least had a system.

But suppose she had decided to start gaming.  Suppose she’d turned to me in her time of need, a man of valor and passion she could trust.  What would I do then?  How could I have explained to her, in the breadth of a few quick quips, the necessities of the complete gaming experience?

I started with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 when I was about 5.  For her to understand and appreciate games as I did, I’d have to track down a fully-functional Sega Genesis and pad (mine might work), and have her experience an age-old game that probably won’t have any of the significance it had for me or other gaming vets.  But as a long-time player, I’m obligated to show her the path to glory, right?  So did I do the right thing, or fail miserably?

I suspect that the average visitor of, say, Destructoid has a negative opinion of the casual gamer.  Whether that opinion ranges from begrudging indifference to plans of genocide varies from person to person; even so, I think we can all agree on the fact that, given the chance, we’d want to show new gamers that there are countless worlds outside of the assumed borders.

That doesn’t mean that those games are necessarily bad.  With Sonic the Hedgehog 2 long gone, and the blue blur barely recovered from a tear-inducing slump, it’s a little unfair to expect new gamers to hop in to our own preferred games.  So games like Wii Sports, Guitar Hero and other simple titles (barring a 100% run of “Through the Fire and Flames”) can be the gateway to something more.  By the same token, a new gamer can start with a simple game, and – with a new console in their living room – work their way through the ranks of their system’s library.  Word of mouth and advertisements would probably put games like Halo and Call of Duty at the forefront; ideally, the rush of combat would be enough to capture their hearts and minds.

And inspire her to put on a hundred pounds of muscle.

But what about the skill gap?  As a complete noob in the shooter genre, I can sympathize with not wanting to get headshot every five seconds.  But scoring a kill, or being on the winning team, or capturing a waypoint can deliver a thrill that we’ve been experiencing for years; taking a few headshots here and there is a small price to pay for that excitement.  And if they play regularly, there’s no telling how good they can get – just last night, I scored my first five-kill streak against my brother and a friend, both of which are much better shots than me.  And my single-digit kill count rises to the double digits – twelve, on average – regularly.  A month from now, who knows what I’ll be able to do?

It’s not like those are the only games out there, either.  Developers are doing their best to accommodate inexperienced newcomers, too – laugh and scorn them if you will, but it’s something that I support.  Prince of Persia, Soulcalibur 5, Ninja Gaiden 2, Gears of War 3, Devil May Cry 4, Street Fighter 4 – all of these have mentioned efforts to make jumping in to the game easier than ever, while offering higher difficulties for us old men of gaming.  The old saying “easy to learn, hard to master” is in full effect here.
The problem, then, is the cost.  Fifty to sixty dollars new, and anywhere from a cool twenty to forty used.  A new system, which could set a newcomer back two hundred dollars.  Pads, Wii remotes, and/or nunchucks that could cost as much as a new game (and buying a cheaper, unofficial product opens the gates on poor quality).

Buying a Guitar Hero set for the first time, which could burn a wallet to ashes.  We may be – grudgingly – willing to put up with it, but a new gamer may find the prices unappealing.  And with good reason: why should he buy a game and all the fixings when a friend could do the same, and all he has to do is pop in from time to time to play?  It’s only compounded when the age of the player shifts; depending on his or her access to their favorite retailer (or funds, or obligations), getting around to picking up a new game and slapping down the cash may not exactly be second nature.  And what would the neighbors say, seeing Mary Jefferson launching a tactical nuke to end the match?

There’s not much that can be done about that, I’m afraid – but if it’s cost we’re talking about, there are a few solutions.  True, an Xbox 360 or a Wii may cost a pretty penny, but going for last-gen games is probably considerably cheaper.  My GameStop of choice has used GameCubes and PS2s at a highly discounted price, and the PS2 still has a bit of life left in it.  And the games?  Massive libraries, some of which go as low as five bucks.   Six games for the price of one! 

Enough savings to give you a heart attack!

Some may say that time is a major factor in a gaming schedule, but whether that holds up is up for debate.  Sure, games – RPGs, especially – take some time to finish, but there’s no rule saying that it has to be handled all at once.  Chipping away at the thick hide of a game is just as viable as a forty-hour marathon run; also, if a gamer’s committed to finishing what he’s started, then he will.  A good game is like a good book: it pulls you in, and you don’t want to let go.

All right, it may be easy to jump on the casual bandwagon, but a new gamer can always find something that strikes his fancy if he’s willing to look for it.  Ever heard of a little thing called the internet?  A quick Google search here, a gaming site uncovered there, and voila!  That bargain bin stuffed to the breaking point with cases suddenly becomes a treasure trove of classics!  Even so, word of mouth speaks for itself; that’s why it’s our job, we veteran gamers who know the trade inside and out, to show our friends and family the right path.  We owe it to others to show the world the exciting worlds that lie on our favorite discs; we’d be betraying the past, present, and future if we didn’t.

I’m not saying that we need to kidnap our friends and force games down their throat.  All I ask is that, as a collective, well-informed audience, we offer our services as needed.  We should do what we can, to the best of our ability, to open minds.  If we’re not part of the solution, we’re a part of the problem.

Hmmm.  Maybe I should send a certain someone an email…

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