Minecraft, Girlfriends and Learning to Walk Again

This article was originally a feature on Bitmob.com

I take my motor skills for granted. I am lucky enough, generally speaking, to be able to travel in any direction I desire and arrive at my destination quite easily. Sometimes the odd road or fence conspires to slow my progress, but I have enough control over my mind and body to be able to assess these obstacles and plan my route accordingly.

This skill transfers itself quite readily to my time spent playing video games. Granted, games often give us a much wider array of movement choices than we would normally use in our day-to-day lives, but the core options are almost always present. I also take these motor skills for granted.
It was to my great surprise, then, that my girlfriend found the simple act of walking in a straight line so complicated when we sat down to share an hour of Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition.

Apart from breaking her leg on some stairs a year ago, she has always proved very proficient at walking. She has, however, never played a first-person game before or many games at all for that matter.
That is what led me to the choice of Minecraft as our "let’s give bonding over video games another shot" game -- relatively simple controls with a relaxed and danger-free brand of gameplay. With enemies turned off, I imagined the fun we’d have digging our way into exciting depths, mining minerals, and hopefully finding a saddle to give to our pig friends; she liked the idea of riding a pig.

While I awaited her arrival at my modest camp, I set about crafting up a couple of the bare essentials: a pick, a few torches for her, and a second bed so that I won’t look like I forgot all about her when I’m spending our time apart digging virtual holes. She’d be here any minute; all she had to do was head toward the tower of sand I’d left as a reminder to myself.

As I glanced over at her half of the screen, all I saw was the empty darkness. Had the game cruelly spawned the first-time adventurer in a hole as some kind of joke, poking fun at her naïve lack of video game experience. A punishment for my evenings of solitary gaming?

No. My fresh-faced companion was staring at the ground. I gently readjusted her line of sight, reminding her of what the right stick did and we continued our gruelling journey towards one another.

“I can see you!” she yelled after a couple more minutes of travel. Which was very strange, considering that I was swimming in the sea and that she was on top of a snowy hill; although, her enthusiasm was as unexpected as it was welcome. In this enthusiasm to maintain a forward-facing perspective on the journey, she had inadvertently altered the camera (conveniently placed on that troublesome right stick), and was in fact yelping at herself. I was becoming nothing more than a mirage of a boyfriend, my loved one stranded in the unforgiving snowy desert of procedural generation.

What I had initially thought would be an inviting first step into the world of co-operative construction was being severely hampered by a lack of communication between the mind and body. Something as simple as looking where one is walking is fundamentally altered when the motor function associated with it is changed. As a gamer I know that my vision is controlled with my right thumb; it is a reflex built into me from childhood. To my girlfriend, however, it is alien and as such something that takes her great thought and concentration.

This was fully on display when it came to climbing out of a hole that she found herself at the bottom of. Unable to control both her movement and vision for very long led her to jump up a couple of blocks only to fall back down. Staring at the sky or ground was very common as she attempted to turn corners or assess her surroundings; her vision seemed constrained to gradations of 90 degrees as she knocked the right stick around. Her frustration was palpable. Although, she seemed unable to move both thumbs in harmony, she knew what to do but somehow couldn’t. The disparity between the act of moving her thumb and the effect of altering her vision was too great in such a short play time for her to wrap her mind around.

Given more time, I’m sure that she would have adapted to the control scheme perfectly. When we began to actually mine a little, her skill with the game had already improved dramatically. The constraints of small tunnels meant that she could concentrate on movement or vision independently, thus making it easier for her to grasp the different effects her thumbs had on each.

For years I had wondered why many games still contained the "look up, look down, do you want to invert?" section at their beginnings. Here in my girlfriend was the answer. The opening act of simply allowing new players to experience camera or vision controls without being burdened with other responsibilities, such as movement or interactions, could prove to be not just useful but vital in allowing them to make their first tentative steps with games.

As her guide, should I have broken down my instruction to more than simply "this does this and this does that"? Maybe then we would be deep within some subterranean cave instead of still wrangling with the controller.

Perhaps, then, it was fitting that while inadvertently looking at the ground, she dug us both into a hole we couldn’t get out of. Stranded; in my eagerness to play games with her, I had neglected to properly teach her how to play. This is a difficulty shared by both new players and designers themselves. I failed at my introduction to Minecraft because I didn’t think like either group. I took my abilities with games for granted, projecting them onto my girlfriend who ultimately gained very little for the entire experience except the knowledge that, yet again, "games just aren’t for me."

Next time, I’ll have to be much more prepared, or we’ll forever remember the last time we played games together as the one where I beat her to death trying to climb out of a hole I ultimately dug for myself.