I’m not one for having random conversations on public transportation, but every now and then, a random human manages to briefly crack my self-imposed shell. And on rare occasions, the words that arise evoke something interesting.
One such occasion happened to me just a couple days ago. I was on the bus minding my own business and playing Persona 3 Portable when a random dude sat down next to me. As often happens, said random people usually have to situate themselves in their chosen seats, and while this random dude was doing so, he vigorously bumped into me, causing me to drop my tablet onto my lap. He gruffly but quickly apologized; I acknowledged and went back to my game. A few beats later, he suddenly piped up.
“What is that?” he queried, gesturing towards my tablet.
“Umm…it’s game,” I stammered, “…Persona 3…”
He lightly chuckled for some reason and then said, “Oh, a video game? Did someone teach you to play that or did you learn by yourself?”
I laughed uncomfortably, caught off guard by the question, one I don’t think anyone had ever asked me. Ever.
Whatever my answer was going to be, it didn’t matter, because at that moment, he reached up and hit the stop request button. “My stop,” was all he said, and he disembarked. That was that.
The interaction wasn’t long enough for me to gauge social queues, so I’ve no idea if the random dude was genuinely curious or being sarcastic. But it left me with a question that I had never pondered before: is gaming something you can teach someone?
I started thinking back, way back to the days of my Donkey Kong Jr. Game & Watch and Atari console. Did someone show me how to use them, or teach me how to play the game(s) available on them? With the Atari…maybe. Mainly because I remember watching my father play through Pitfall!, Robotron 2084, and Atari Baseball. But he didn’t teach me and my siblings how to play as much as what to do – use the joystick to move and the button to perform [x action]. With the Game & Watch, I’m fairly certain that no one showed me how to play the game. I bet the game came with written instructions, but the thing itself told you what to do – use the “control” buttons to move and the “jump” button to…well…jump. Playing it was more about building reflexes than it was about being taught how to do so.
As games grew more complex, there were likely more chances for “teachable moments.” But most of the “learning” that I recall was either self-motivated – you figured things out for yourself or poured over a manual — or it was group-enforced – playing with a bunch of friends as they encouraged/goaded each other into doing better and better. I do harbor a memory of showing a group of young folk (a couple of my cousins, I think) how to play Super Mario World. Or rather…how to better play Super Mario World, because they bad at timing their jumps. Maybe I was teaching them something, but I see “teaching” as both disseminating information and fostering growth. Perhaps by showing them a new technique I was fostering something, so maybe there’s something to gaming that is teachable?
Then again, I know for myself that nearly every game I’ve ever played has been an exercise in self-teaching. Sometimes you have to figure things about for yourself, and sometime you’re given in-depth tutorials. But what can’t be taught, I don’t think, is that fundamental drive that makes one want to game. And that’s almost what I think that random dude on the bus was getting at (even if he didn’t realize it). While he may have immediately been asking if I had learned how to play Persona 3 Portable all on my own, the root of his question was “what motivates you to play?” And then by extension, “did someone or something inspire that motivation?”
Maybe I’m reading a bit too much into that, but the question remains: was I, or were you taught at a young age to not only accept but also propagate a life that involved gaming? Or did I, you, all of us who game, harbor some sort of intrinsic motivation to game and continuing gaming? Because I’m willing to bet that we all know people who say that they used to play games when they were young but that they no longer do so as adults. As an adult gamer, was I somehow “taught” better to play games than that person?
Let’s think of it very formally, as if a “Gaming 101” class existed. What would it consist of? There’d be classes on consoles/PCs and their care, controllers/keyboards/mice and how to use them, and games and their myriad of genres. There’d be frequent opportunities to try out different games on different systems. And there’s certainly have to be a class or two on understanding game development.
Upon graduation, everyone in the class would receive certificates proclaiming them to be “A+ Gamers,” and they’d be let loose upon the world to partake in and sing the praises of the grand world of gaming!
But what have they really been taught? To understand what gaming is? To know what it is to be a video game player?
I’d argue that, just as with actual teaching in an actual classroom, results may vary. But ultimately, as easy as it may be to show someone how to play a game, to make them understand what a video game is, what can’t be taught is an intangible, internal dynamism that motivates gamers to game. It’s the same thing that keeps collectors collecting, or cosplayers cosplaying, or creators creating. For some of us, we’re not necessarily taught to play, but we learn, from and by ourselves, to game.
What are your thoughts on the question “is gaming teachable?”