Introducing Games to Non-Gamers

Chess

Last week I introduced a new game to some non-gamer friends. I showed them how to play and then sat back as they experimented for themselves, stepping in only to clarify misunderstandings about the rules and discuss strategy around the different moves.

They loved it. They can’t wait for next week when we’ll be able to play the game again. One of them had previously worked with young offenders (young people who have been in trouble with the police) – she commented that they’d have loved this game and she wished she could have played it with them, since it would suit their competitive instincts.

The game was chess (the clue is in the picture). And what my friends most loved was that it was perfectly balanced, utterly and ruthlessly fair, and that they could already start to think about strategies even as new players in their first ever game. You finish a game of chess and discuss it, and already you are thinking about what you could do better next time.

This reaction was surprising to me. The reason the topic came up was that we discovered an old chess set that someone had donated to the university and since none of them knew how to play, I offered to teach. But I never really think of chess as being fun, I have too many associations with being beaten by much younger kids at school and besides which, surely computer games are more entertaining. Aren’t they? Right?

Reading Dusty Monk’s post about a vision of the future of MMOs (I linked to it yesterday) made me wonder if there’s any juice left in the genre for people who like slow paced thoughtful balanced games with depth and strategy, or whether we’ll end up going back to square one on the chessboard and leave the genre to the guys who want to play shmups with space marines. (Incidentally, I was never big on MMOs for the slow paced strategy, I liked exploring virtual worlds and building virtual communities and societies, but if it has to get gamey, why can’t it include gamey bits that I like?)

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15 thoughts on “Introducing Games to Non-Gamers

  1. Chess is one of the best games ever. It is perfect for the casual player as you can play “5 minute chess” (i.e. both players are given 5 mins to complete all their moves). Serious players can play their “classical chess” (more thinking time).

    Then there is this amazing variant of chess where you play a 2v2 using 2 boards (bughouse). When you capture an opponent’s piece, it goes to your partner who can drop that piece anywhere on their board.

    • There is a sort of spectrum between ‘how many buttons can you hit per minute’ and turn based, though. Lots of MMOs have daily quests — those are sort of turn based although there’s really no strategy in which ones you choose to do. Conversations are turn based (you take it in turn to talk and listen). Playing the economy could be seen as turn based, especially in a game that limits how many auctions you can have active or how long they can run for.

      I don’t say that a combat should take as long as a game of chess, but I’ve seen various attempts to slow things down and make it less dependent on ping times and reaction speed (and hopefully more on thinking but that may be too much to ask :) ).

      • A couple of weeks ago, I was playing Call of Duty with my brothers and my brother in law. And my youngest brother was destroying us. Utterly, utterly destroying us. This unmanned me. It was not because he was better at the game, however.

        It was because he’s ten years younger than me and thusly has reflexes that make my 30 year old man reflexes look like treacle. He’s not any less strategic, but he can enact those strategies first.

        MMO’s are slow and leisurely paced. Sedate even. Just, y’know, not by the standards of the previous generation of gamers.

  2. About which genre are you concerned to offer not enough depth in future? MMOs? Then you might be spot on. What I have seen from upcoming MMOs has this “leave no child behind” approach extended to everyone.

    1. The chance to lose, to get defeated, has almost been banned from MMOs. (…why?)
    2. Quests and the inclusion of more “STORY” (even naming it the x-th pillar of their design for SWTOR) leading to very scripted passages where we simply have to watch instead of acting.
    3. Token systems abound in so many MMOs. Guaranteed gain for usually a lot of time spent playing. To reward skill and effort over time spent playing got almost forgotten.

    I know of a thoughtfully balanced game with depth and strategy though, it is called Guild Wars.

    Let me speculate: Apparently people would not mind some more depth. But not at the cost of the failure and defeat?
    That aversion is something people have to get over.

    I played chess with younger players and later on even trained them, and there was a mother that thought that after half a year her son somehow had worked hard enough to earn a victory over me. But, we had no victory tokens for attendance system at this time…
    A few really beat me fair and square after some two years. I think this is true for most games having some depth. You lose a lot before you finally make it.

    Now imagine the immense pain of a MMO gamer nowadays who did not make it right away? :)
    I did not raid for a long time, but in Molten Core times raiding was not tied to the number of wipes, but to time. Basically, at 02.00 am we had to stop. In contrast to that I have seen guild raids fall apart after more than four wipes on the same boss in SSC or TK in the TBC era.

    I think it was this kind of gamer and mentality that influenced design negatively. This caused easier “normal” modes and an achievement book that told them what silly things they have to do to quality for the hard/heroic mode achievement in WOTLK.

    I wonder if there will be some bloggers who will reflect about this in the upcoming Cataclysm expansion (broad hint).

    • “That aversion is something people have to get over.”

      …except lossy gameplay runs in deep contrast to the obsession with progress, accumulation and achievement in modern MMO treadmills. You can even get away with permadeath in MMOs if you can play whatever content you like with a completely fresh character (raiding on day one, for example) and/or be competitive without a six-month qualification grind.

      • Thinking of DDO and GW, I do not see why this could not happen.

        Especially as so many people flat out state they hate levelling up and are there for the endgame.

        I can imagine a F2P model with RAID PACKs. 1 Raid with some associated dungeons and areas every other month for some $.

        This would also save the developer from creating lots of world areas that go obsolete with the next expansion anyways. It would save a lot of development cost, making MMOs finally cost less than the Apollo project.

        I would like to see that, but what’s next? Cataclysm. SWTOR does not deviate much from the DIKU standards and GW2 somehow had to embrace the level concept for no reason that makes sense to me, despite doing away with the healer (and probably defined tank and dps roles and the trinity in general as well).

        MMOvation seems to takes a very looong time.

      • The long dev cycles and longish game lifespans (gotta pad out that sweet, sweet sub IV drip feed) probably don’t help innovation.

  3. True story:

    The scene: At a friends place for some rounds of Starcraft 2.

    I find an old chess board in the back of a neglected corner in his room.

    Me: “Whoa! You play chess?”

    Him: “Dude, its 2010, who plays chess. Load up SC2, I wanna try a new zerg build order today!”

  4. I love Chess. I think there will always be room for good card and board games (but I’m biased; I design them for fun). If nothing else, they are playable when the internet crashes.

    I’d also love to see more strategic, slower gameplay in MMOs. Turn-based combat is even OK in my book, if not outright better in some cases. (Though I do love games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea, so I’m weird.) It’s also fantastic for the lag inherent in online gaming.

    • I do adore Final Fantasy Tactics!

      I guess one of the things that took me by surprise when I was teaching chess was how quickly the other people started to comment on what a good game it was. They weren’t using terms like well balanced, but they obviously enjoyed that it was. So it’s not really true that non-gamers are naive and unable to appreciate good games.

      • Very true, and something that designers need to remember. I tend to think that the best games “feel” right, even to non-gamers. There’s art and science making that feel work, but it’s not something that requires a degree in gaming to appreciate as a player.

  5. I think of 4 kids, the only person who never learnt was my younger sister. My dad taught me when I was about 7 or 9 Me and my brother would play against each other, or against my dad. I never was good, but practise made me better, and I am suprised how many people i know do not know how to play, but if not for my dad’s patience and his own love of playing I doubt I would have ever learned on my own, it being a very ancient game.
    In Sydney hyde park there is a giant chess set and I used to watch the old guys play at lunch.
    The fun in a slower paced game is in the outwitting of the oponent, that even though you know what ‘cards’ they have left to play,

  6. Chess isn’t that good though. It seems like a good game early on, but it relies too much on a players innate faculties of memory and prediction as you go up. Usually the better player is one who can memorize more situations and extrapolate ahead, and that’s why computers especially are a pain to play against.

    I think that’s why you see a lot of the interest in the game at a low level, but it tapers off markedly as you climb the skill ranks. Most people hit the wall of player capacity early on, and there’s no way to improve from there.

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