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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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?”