For many players of the current generation, their introduction to video games happened at an early age, usually through the help and advice of a parent or, perhaps, a friend. Over the course of the last four decades, gaming has become part of our general cultural background: it feels natural for someone who has been into video games since childhood, like watching a movie or listening to an album.
However, introducing someone to gaming at an older age may – indeed – turn out to be quite an elaborate experience. There are many ways in which a person can be introduced into gaming but, as opposed to other hobbies, it just might not work to advise someone to just play it while passing along a controller or, worse, mouse and keyboard. Video games, being an interactive medium, can easily feel intimidating and the learning curve quite daunting; indeed there might be, several wrong ways to approach the subject. In order to yield successful results, patience and knowledge of the medium are two important requirements. First, let us ask ourselves: what do “video games” mean to someone who has never really played one?
Despite the negative stigma on gaming being slightly less common in 2021, it is still a thing. It might be a familiar experience for many, in my personal case I’ve been getting: “oh you’re a gaming journalist… I see.” An appropriate response, instead of an understandable offended reaction, would be explaining how the gaming world goes way beyond the usual violence against sex workers and demon-slaying simulators that people imagine being the recurrent dynamics our hobby revolves around.
Usually, people’s expressions change as soon as one mentions interactive experiences involving a parent’s experience with cancer, politics, toxic relationships with work and the people around you, treatment of mental health patients and, naturally, family issues.
Once that initial loftiness has been overcome, comes the moment to directly introduce the person to gaming. It might be, perhaps, difficult for an experienced gamer to imagine just how much of an entry barrier there is for someone that has never touched a controller before. Naturally, many people’s first idea, along with mine, would be to let the person play with our favorite titles.
This approach might yield results like an inexperienced person ending up in Dark Souls or Cuphead or Grand Theft Auto IV (or, in my case, an obscure 16bit Sega Genesis RPG). It is an approach to reconsider, especially because one of the often-repeated causes to abandon gaming after a quick try would be fear of failure. With that fear, consequently, comes the added shame of failing in front of others. Sharing a game directly, either via co-op or perhaps alternating between levels is a good way of getting the other person to feel on the same plane as the experienced gamer, in order to alleviate said fears.
Researching online on various opinions on the topic, some people consider titles like Portal or Firewatch potentially ideal starting options. It is a slightly common opinion that the greatest issue for a newcomer would be the difficulty level. While there is surely some truth in that, through personal experiences and research I have found out that difficulty may, in fact, not always be the biggest barrier. The main issue seems to be the overall complexity of grasping gameplay mechanics, especially in a relatively short period of time. For example, something that might feel second nature to many gamers, like playing an open-world title similar to Assassin’s Creed or Skyrim, might end up being too complicated for someone inexperienced. Let us not forget that in those titles it is necessary to keep track of tens of different controls, understanding sneaking or climbing mechanics, map system, health and/or mana bars, etc.
While most games nowadays – as opposed to the 80s and 90s – do indeed feature tutorials, helping to navigate and understand said mechanics, I wouldn’t consider them to be an efficient solution. Tutorials are generally designed to aid an already experienced gamer in understanding how to play, they’re ill-suited at easing someone into video games. That is why I wouldn’t consider suggestions like Firewatch or Portal to be ideal games for someone who is just starting: both feature mechanics that could easily feel daunting to a newcomer. Also, they involve moving around and interacting in the first-person view, which might also feel counterintuitive.
Starting from simpler mechanics might, instead, be the ideal way to get someone to appreciate the medium, which doesn’t necessarily involve going back to 80s arcade classics. Instead, even a modern title with straightforward simple mechanics or even interactive fiction might do the trick. Fez comes to mind as a good example, since Polytron’s platformer uses few buttons, has no time limit of any kind nor enemies attacking and the story is brief and goes straight to the point. Its main mechanic, switching 2D planes around by a simple tap of the shoulder buttons, is easy to grasp and is used for solving most of the puzzles. Its overall growing difficulty might be, perhaps, a bit too much, so that someone unexperienced wouldn’t probably see the adventure through to the end, but, as a starting point, it definitely feels welcoming.
Getting to know the person’s tastes is also fundamental; while, as mentioned, introducing someone to our favorite titles comes with its own set of rewards, it might be better to take it step-by-step. Still, that doesn’t mean experimentation is out of the question. Personally, I had great success with a title one would never expect to connect with someone who has never held a controller before: The Binding of Isaac. The roguelite title by Edmund McMillen is hardly what one would call “easy”, since it features sadistic mechanics and, with every run randomized, the chances of finding dud weapons or just being plain unlucky are pretty high. Still, the dynamics at its core always remain simple: move and shoot via separate controls.
Granted, there is quite a bit more than that, but as long as one understands and can deal with these core dynamics, Binding of Isaac remains accessible and manages to stay entertaining throughout. Its unique blend of cuteness and disquieting imagery is also visually interesting for someone new to the world of gaming. So, by all means, experimenting by exploring the person’s tastes might yield very interesting results, for example, more interesting results can be had with titles about Norse mythology, classic theater, ancient history or, well, music. Rock Band might easily be considered a potentially ideal starting point for casual gamers all around.
Generally, the right approach is the one that patiently teaches how, in general, gameplay mechanics work and what the current overall gaming experience has to offer. I don’t think it is, generally, essential to understand people need video games in their life, perhaps, they do not or they just would like nothing more than a casual game to while away the minutes waiting for the bus. Maybe, it is a tad utopian to think we can make a “real gamer” out of anyone, maybe we just would like someone to play co-op with; but at least we can take comfort in the knowledge that, by picking the correct approach, we have allowed that person to see and better understand the multifaceted world of videogames.