Even Your Mom

One of the commonly used phrases in tech and games to describe a foolproof ease of use is ‘even your mom’. “So simple even your mom could do it”. That’s where this article starts. ‘Even your mom’ could play this game. But what do we mean by that beyond touch-based or click-only interfaces, and games produced for the often dismissed ‘casual’ market? And, actually, how hard is it to learn to play a game? I decided to run a small experiment: let’s be ambitious, let’s introduce my mother to 6 PC games – and not just ‘easy’ games – a mixed bag of different genres, control systems and approaches. Let’s actually sidestep those assumptions about a huge part of our (Western) world communities, and see what it is for a mother, my mother, to play popular independent PC games.

“Don’t quote me saying stupid things.”

OK, I promise. So, would you like to introduce yourself?

“I’m, Linda Nicklin, your mother.”

And how would you describe your character?

“I think I’m an early adopter, I’m a sucker for gadgets, independent thinker. And I love learning things, and I like art and science and travel, I’m not really interested in domestic things, I’d much rather be outside”

And are you ok with us saying how old you are?

“When’s it going out? Say I’m 62.”

It’s probably going out before your birthday

“Good. I’m 62 then (laughs)”

My mum’s previous gaming experience wasn’t limited to casual games, although she does love board games and logic puzzles. She’s played a lot of Civilisation, enjoyed Monument Valley and Kentucky Route Zero on my recommendation. She finds games on her own too – pointing to Love and Hate in the app store. And Plague Inc.

“Plague, oh I like Plague don’t I?”

The one where you’re a disease?

“Yeah, I’m a disease, and I get to kill people (laughs) but in hot countries, by outwitting the scientists.”

You’ve got related expertise to that, haven’t you [because of your work in health and social services]?

“Yes, and also I’m interested in how the World Health Organisation works so it’s amusing to see it actually not working right – playing with transport infrastructure, something like that, because I come up with a virus that thrives in different environments. So – I think it’s actually set on some quite reasonable premises, it’s quite accurate.”

The games I chose to ‘review’ with my mum represented a wide variety of different levels of polish and controller accessibility; interactive fiction with First Draft of the Revolution, a tiny little indie concept pieces in Wish Fishing, the digital toy Mountain, but also more polished work; up and coming survival sim The Long Dark, a platform puzzler with an anthropological heart to it: Never Alone, and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead.

“I need to talk to you about the problem of being a zombie”

You have a zombie rights argument?

“No, just in that circumstance I’d think ‘well bite me then’ and now I’m a zombie and I can have some fun. If I’m going to spend my whole life running away I might as well be a zombie and kill some people, you know? Which kind of spoils the game, rather, but to be honest I can’t see the point in all that escaping, and fighting. It seems a fairly – the odds seem fairly poor, (laughs)”

I thought that the visuals were very good. The animation was nice, it was a bit alarming to find out that how I responded to things would affect the game – have consequences so early on, because I didn’t know what I was doing. The graphics were excellent […] but I got fed up of dying. […] the little girl was there, but it would have been too much for me to take on keeping a little girl safe. I thought she would be better off with someone else playing that game.

It’s a good game. But it’s not my game, it absolutely isn’t my game. I’m not prepared to put the emotional energy into escaping from inevitable death.

So I guess you didn’t like the Long Dark…

The Long Dark, this is probably the one I’ve enjoyed the most.

This is about inevitable death, Mother!

I should explain that one of my earliest memories is of sitting around an Ordinance Survey map of my home county with my mum, colouring in the contours of the land, yellow, orange and green depending on where the waters would rise when the ice melted. My mother (she says) dreamt about the Bhopal Disaster the night before it happened. She bore me and my brother in the heart of the era of the cold war, Thatcherism and Chernobyl. She can build a house from scratch, has been briefed as a health and social service respondent in case of global pandemics, grows and scavenges for food, and has a dog called Penny that has her own survival pack. My mum is a survivalist, just in that National Trust, 80s Greenpeace kind of way. Not ammo hoarding, but learning how to grow your own anaesthetics, mixing your own moisturisers, and making nettle tea. So she was surprised when she liked The Long Dark’s sandbox mode, primarily because she expected to not know how to use the controls, but I wasn’t.

“I liked it because it was just me vs. the world.

I chose the simplest level because I didn’t want to start fighting off wolves and things, and because I was learning how to use the keyboard and the backpack and the inventory and picking things up. So I think I had 5 goes. The first go I dropped my bedroll by mistake, and I couldn’t pick it up. So I died of hypothermia. The second time I landed near a railway line, and found a tippled over railway car, but couldn’t get in, even thought the door was open I couldn’t get up the steps to get into it. Don’t quite know why, so I got bored with that, climbed the hill to see what I could see – and fell and hurt myself, and then quite quickly died of hypothermia (laughs). The next time I actually came to in a really quite – a two storey cabin, that was quite nice – apart from the corpse (laughs). And I could light the fire and I was moving about and I was doing quite well but then it got dark, and I had 8 hours, and I spent about 20 minutes in the dark, trying to find the fire, or get downstairs without tripping over the corpse. (laughs) […] and now I’m in a cabin – a cabin on a hill, but there’s not a lot of food about so I’m going to have to go out soon and find some. So…. I died a few times, but I am surviving better than I was. I’m quite enjoying that.

I’m getting fairly good at using the keyboard now, so I think I will go back in and play it again from time to time. I quite like the survival against the elements, and pitting your wits, rather than fighting. And the travel thing. Because I’m finding locations, like the railway line, I’m mapping it. So I can see that’s got legs, that one, for me.

Because my mum’s an avid reader, and currently doing a Creative Writing MA, I was eager to include some interactive fiction into the mix, I’d really enjoyed First Draft of the Revolution when I played it – focusing on the inventiveness of it in terms of interactive fiction mechanics. And my mum expected that to be her favourite too.

“The one I thought I would like most was the one I liked least – the one about editing letters. That was just like being at work and endlessly editing reports. I suppose if it had grabbed me right at the beginning with a really good hook […] Maybe the idea was all right but the hook didn’t hook me.

And while my mum really enjoyed Wish Fishing, and it was technically very easy to play, the slightly discovery-based setup of the glossary for wish interpretation being in the folder you download the application with was simply beyond her experience. These are the small details which really did present accessibility problems for her.

I didn’t think it was about fortune telling, I thought it was just thought provoking. I thought it was quite an intriguing thing, I liked the fly fishing part basically, I liked how the line went down to everyone else’s wishes, I liked seeing everyone else’s wishes.

So this is like the I Ching, then, isn’t it?

Yes, exactly like the I Ching, it’s divination.

[Mum explores the glossary, reads out her symbols] I might play with this for a while, I think it’s quite a charming idea. I’ll come back and look at it later.

You know that’s not your fault, right? It’s because that person [developer] has perhaps decided to be a little mysterious, but equally when – you didn’t know the tradition of readme files, did you?

No, I just thought they were computer speak – I don’t read them. So it’s made a jump of expectation, on its audience.

But you enjoyed it anyway?

Yeah, I did. Nobody died. I liked it being black and white, and the fly fishing thing, and the music – and the concept. But in the end it didn’t let me in.

Shall we talk about Mountain?

I had shown Mountain to my mum before, intrigued as to how she’d find it, she stopped playing it pretty quickly that time, because it was struck by a traffic cone and that bothered her… my mum does not like littering.

“The first time I played it got littered and I didn’t like that, this time I just got a knife, a sword in it, that was fine.

It was a beautiful little thing. Of no particular purpose. Easy to do. It didn’t like me turning it upside down. I just got the impression that wasn’t a good thing to do, it didn’t like it. It was nice to be able to navigate it, to pull back, and look at the stars and everything. You know when you had tamagotchis or whatever they were called and you could go away and leave them and come back and see what had happened? It would have been nice to have visited from time to time and see things had changed slightly. It would have felt more like my mountain if I could have done that I guess.

This kind of thing shows me that games are all kind of things, not just what you see in Game. There’s all sorts of beautiful and intriguing games out there. I think I might recommend Mountain to other people.

And then that brought us to the final game, and the one I thought would most suit my mum, who enjoyed Monument Valley, and Limbo, who likes puzzlers and Logic, but also travel, and learning. Never Alone is a platform puzzler closely based on the mythology and culture of the Iñupiaq community in Alaska, achievements in the game unlock short videos which make up an episodic documentary about the lives and stories of the Iñupiaq.

That was lovely, I really liked the depth of it with the people talking, and learning about their life and stuff, and the mythology, generations past. I thought it was a really nice depth to it, and she’s a lovely little girl, the actual little character. That’s the one I was motivated to go online and Google hints for – when I got really stuck and couldn’t see what to do. I’ve not done that on any of the others, so I was more determined with that one to progress. And it’s fairly simple to do, the commands aren’t that complicated. But I felt quite – because of the depth of it with the film clips, I felt like I wanted to get on to find out more, so that engaged me quite well.

[Never Alone and] The Long Dark were the ones that I would have thought were the most beyond me, to play, but in fact they’re not.

The biggest barrier, for my mum, at least, wasn’t the controls, in fact it was the idea that these things were for her at all. And the small assumptions – noticing there was a glossary in the download folder of a game, knowing that you could re-cap controls by finding them in the menu. And the one that she liked the most? The one both of us suspected she would like the least: The Long Dark.

For The Long Dark I wrote all the controls out on a piece of paper. But I didn’t even know before that you could go into the menu and look at controls and get the list of what to do to do what.

So what is it about The Long Dark that connected with you, then?

The narrative I think. In the others I’m an observer. In The Long Dark I can hear my footsteps and I can see my frosty breath, I was listening to them as I was dying of hypothermia, listening to my footsteps getting worse, as I was dying.

And that was another thing – dying. Half way through the time she was playing all the games my mum called me up worrying about dying so much and I realised how much I treat dying as a learning mechanism, as part of a tutorial, while for her, she was being asked to invest in characters, so watching them die, she thought it was her being bad.

[People my age are] an invisible market, we’re invisible, and it could be absolutely massive. But if game designers were going to do something they would have to be very careful not to stereotype. They’d have to work with people my age to design them. Because I don’t think someone who’s 25… I don’t think they’d know what people my age are interested in spending their time doing. […] Because you don’t see old people in games, except for when they’re dead and a zombie. Don’t assume we’re sat in a rocking chair knitting, OK?

If you could design a game, what would it be?

Well I’m quite interested in this whole thing about getting people to question their own ageing journey and take control of it. I think that people – actively… to make a game that connected people more to their lives, to have less negative expectations and stereotypical attitude to their future; to free people. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? To free people from stereotypes. Some joy, some ambition, some hope, some resourcefulness. A game that challenges people and proves to them they have those capacities. Not ‘age appropriate’, but that intrigued people of all ages. We’re getting into something quite political then aren’t we, people questioning their life tracks, the path as presented to them. Revolution. We need a game about a revolution. A revolution of thought.

It’s one of those things – I try to think ‘don’t you define me, I am who I am’, but then I’ve allowed the games media to define me. So tell them to back off, and stop it. [laughs].

Have you got enough there to write an article with?”

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46 Comments

  1. Tacroy says:

    You should have her play Passage

  2. GallonOfAlan says:

    Hey that was interesting to read. Also interesting to contrast with my mother who can’t change Sky channel. She does have a Mahjong game that she plays though.

  3. RuySan says:

    Do you know when Amy Schumer tried to teach her mother how to use the computer? That’s exactly my experience

  4. Jac says:

    Get her to try the Witness. One out of one mums I have loved it.

  5. Tsumei says:

    My mother plays mostly games that are marketed to her, many pad-based mobile games, but also things like Diner dash and more complicated management sim games on the PC.

    The level of detail in them mirrors what you would find in particularly well done newgrounds games in the 2000’s; and she’s a total achievement hunter, redoing levels over and over to get the full star allotment.

    My mom is a tryhard just like me.

  6. bigredrock says:

    Really enjoyed this. Great to see people treated as people rather than stereotypes, and fascinating that controls weren’t the problem.

  7. MiniMatt says:

    “My mom asked me how to screenshot on her phone. I laughed and then remembered she taught me how to use a spoon and toilet.”

    Lovely article, and one not falling into the common lazy stereotype I’d typically combat with the above quote (I add that merely because it makes me giggle).

  8. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    My mom “finished” Animal Crossing. She became intrigued watching me and my siblings play so she gave it a shot. There were days we couldn’t even play because “mom was playing.” She even began teaching us the intricacies and secrets of it.

  9. amateurviking says:

    This was great. My mum is a huge fan of Sim City, she started on the SNES version (which is SO good) and then moved on to 2000. Also Theme Hospital. She doesn’t play much these days though – I think she would if she still had a laptop – she doesn’t like touchscreen games. Dad is the master of Free Cell.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Cvnk says:

    You’ve got a cool mom and she’s got some interesting insights there. Maybe as the average age of the active game development community inevitably continues to rise we’ll see more games that try to appeal to older folks (which could help address the somewhat rightfully earned stigma that games are meant for adolescent types).

  11. Heliocentric says:

    My mother is a complete Luddite from Luddington upon The River Ludd. There has not been a single technology released past her birth she has ever even cracked the shell of, but worse than technological ignorance, she literally sees games as a waste of time and is completely unwilling to expend any effort on them. I am glad generic store brand mammas and papas are being furnished with casual games, but mine is perfectly happy to rub sticks together to generate warmth.

  12. Cosmo D says:

    A revolution of thought.

  13. Deviija says:

    This is so good and lovely. “It’s one of those things – I try to think ‘don’t you define me, I am who I am’, but then I’ve allowed the games media to define me. So tell them to back off, and stop it.” Amen! A revolution of thought. Thank you for writing it up!

  14. serioustiger says:

    “Have you got enough there to write an article with?”

    Oh, more than. Outstanding article Hannah, I think the best I have ever read on RPS.

    RPS – more like this please.

    Hannah – is it wrong of me to say I’m a little bit in love with your mum?

  15. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Dark Souls, obviously. Also Counterstrike. And Dwarf Fortress.
    And for relaxation: Minecraft, Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Witchers.

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      Haha, this was my thought too. Really nice article but if I were in her position I’d have not been able to resist throwing some Dark Souls at her. 2 bosses minimum, you can’t leave the sofa until it’s done xD.

      • zaldar78 says:

        I think she would have thrown her out of the family at that point…

      • syndrome says:

        I think this Mum would rather prefer to be maxi than miniMum

  16. GWOP says:

    Ugh, now I want to head over to your mom’s with a bunch of games to hear her thoughts on them.

    Great read! Make it a series!

  17. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Great article!
    (Great mom, too)

  18. MrFinnishDude says:

    cool mom

  19. Sarfrin says:

    This was great. An interesting idea, executed well and turned into a thought-provoking article. More of this sort of thing please.

  20. Premium User Badge

    hemmer says:

    I agree with whoever proposed her playing The Witness, might be interesting. Can be frustrating, but she seems to be fine with seeking help, so…

    Ooooh Portal, whichever one, but I think the second might be more approachable? Not sure.
    It IS videogamey though.

    Journey would be nice too, but hard to pull off in a reasonable timeframe I think.

    Anyway, great mom! The medium could profit a lot by catering to more mature audiences. I fear it will take a few years yet though.

    It is often said that the future of videogames lies in xyz (freedom of choice, virtual reality, sandboxes, more pixels, etc), but I think your mom hit something. It might be about defying expectations and stereotypes, resulting in variety/diversity. Can’t imagine anything healthier.

    So go make her a videogame design consultant! DO IT NOW!

    • Harvey says:

      After reading a few dev commentaries by Valve about how they teach mechanics through gameplay I got Portal for my mother.

      After some initial frustration (my fault, I thought she would prefer a controller) she got her hands on the KB/M setup and she was up and running on her own. She became quite addicted actually! In the beginning, I kinda freaked out from her serious sounding messages (“Hi son, I need you to call me please”) that turned out to be about the game, whether to vent about how tough the level was, or to celebrate a victory, or to “a hint, but not the whole puzzle” from me.

      She has since beaten Portal 2, and I’ve since taught her how to download the fan-made puzzle challenges from steam.

      She bounced off of Braid, (too platformy) but I’m thinking Talos Principle, Gone Home or 80 days for her next.

      • Josh Grams says:

        @Harvey: If she likes the puzzling, you might try The Swapper? I’m tempted to recommend Waking Mars too for some reason…

  21. Dominitus says:

    Lovely article. :)

  22. JeCa says:

    A very enjoyable read!

    On the topic of making games for older people (or any stereotypically non-gaming demographic) without being condescending; I wonder if the best method isn’t to simply try to make a well designed game which isn’t explicitly unapproachable for you demographic and hoping it will stick. That way you don’t risk insulting your audiences intelligence, and the chance of other groups finding and enjoying your product will be greatly improved too.

    This feels like it should be similar to how if you make a drama with a strong message that you want to reach people of a different opinion, your highest priority is to make a good drama. First of that will make the viewer more likely to sympathise with the message, but more importantly if you don’t then people who don’t already share your opinion have no incentive to take part of your story.

  23. aircool says:

    It’s the Rollercoaster Tycoon games that hooked my mother.

  24. ansionnach says:

    <>

    Brilliant!

    Also:
    <>

    Amusing read, thanks!

    • ansionnach says:

      Gah! Those quotes…

      ‘“Don’t quote me saying stupid things.”
      OK, I promise. So, would you like to introduce yourself?

      “I’m, Linda Nicklin, your mother.”’

      and…

      ‘”You have a zombie rights argument?”‘

  25. malkav11 says:

    I’ve tried to get my mom to check out games but aside from getting surprisingly into the Amazon Fire TV Stick implementation of Zen Pinball (wonky remote-based control and all) she hasn’t been interested. She’d much rather spend her free time doing something that she considers to be creative and add to the world around her. She reads and watches movies and TV (the latter two more than she really thinks she should), but the former is something she often does in bed before sleep or as an audiobook while doing something else, and when she’s watching things on TV she can be knitting or crocheting or whatever other lap-friendly crafting project. Games are too interactive to allow for that sort of multi-tasking.

    My dad’s been a long time Civilization fan (and back a couple decades occasionally played other things), but he left off with Civ IV, I think, and really hasn’t felt like getting back into them. Again, he feels like other hobbies like playing the guitar are more productive and thus worthwhile.

    I can’t really argue with that, but I’ve never much cared whether my leisure time was spent productively. I just want to enjoy myself and have worthwhile experiences, and games provide plenty of both.

  26. AlexStoic says:

    Wonderful article. I was one of the developers on The Banner Saga: our programmer’s mother took an interest in it, and even though I’d say it’s a fairly complex game, she spent months learning the intricacies of it. She put more hours into Factions (our multiplayer standalone) than we have, and she played Journey literally hundreds of times because she loved guiding other people through the game in her white cloak.

    I say all this in past-tense not because she died or something, I just have no idea if she’s still doing these things. Point was, they absolutely can play and enjoy these games if they want to. It’s really encouraging that some do.

    • anevilyak says:

      Assuming you’re referring to John Watson’s mom, she is in fact still playing Factions :)

  27. stoner says:

    Thank you for not playing to stereotypes of seniors. I’m 64 and have been an avid gamer since I wrote my first game on an HP time-sharing system (I’ve been a developer/programmer for over 45 years). I really hate the old people trope that we can play only games like Farmville (never played it).

    Your mum seem absolutely delightful, witty, charming, and intelligent. Tuned into the world situation via her profession.

  28. Renton says:

    My mother, at 54, is uses the computer at home and at her work extensively. She didn’t start using until maybe 10 years ago, when her office got computers. She still has issues every now and then but I maybe get a call once a year at most about technical help. She’s no gamer, though, she tends to stick to Solitaire or Mahjong if she does play any video games.

    My father (62), on the other hand, used to be an avid computer user and gamer since the mid-80s but somewhere along the way somehow completely forgot how to use and play. He mostly browses news sites and plays breakout clones.

    They’ve managed to meet in a halfway point of computer literacy despite coming from completely different ends of the spectrum.

  29. Ingall says:

    Any chance you could get your mum to write some reviews? It would be great to read a few game reviews by someone coming at it with fresh eyes.

  30. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Thanks for the article. Enjoyed it greatly. :o)

  31. Barberetti says:

    Really enjoyed this article Hannah, especially the last bit. Thanks for posting it.

  32. zaldar78 says:

    Acting like Thatcherism is somehow equal to the cold war made me laugh. Boy – out of touch with America and a lot of Britain aren’t you?

    Anyway interesting idea though your mother doesn’t sound like what I would call an average mother. Certainly my mother hasn’t played civilization. Does your mom play online? I’d love to play civilization against her or with her at some point.

  33. Jetsetlemming says:

    Wonderful article, and I really hope it gets a sequel. My mom and her sister loved the Atari when I was a kid, especially the games like Bowling that used the trackball controller. Later, she played Tetris on my Gameboy, and bought herself a Playstation just for fishing games since she was getting too old to go out to do it for real frequently.
    Also my step-mom loved a Shoot-em-up Gameboy game called “Solar Strikers”. I remember trying for months and failing to beat her high score after she was finished with it.