Video games and failing better

Image by DG-RA from Pixabay

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of failing.

It started with Horizon Zero Dawn. As a video game player, I am, shall we say, not talented. Up until a few years ago, the only games I had played were side scrolling platform games like Super Mario on the original Nintendo (…because I am officially old). Then I was given a PS4 as a gift, bundled with Uncharted 4, and suddenly I had to figure out how to play games with, like, camera movements and other characters yelling at me to hurry up and figure something out already. It took me about six months to get through Uncharted 4 playing in easy mode. Immediately afterward, I tackled all of the other Uncharted games and The Last of Us, which is made by the same company. The Last of Us was hard because even though it functions in ways that are very similar to Uncharted, it was the first game I ever played where I had to gather supplies and craft things. I think I only understood that I could make crude weapons out of the items I was finding three quarters of the way through the game.

I got better at these games as I went along but all of them took me quite a while to finish, even playing in easy mode (which I make no apologies for). They were all difficult at first, but I didn’t quit and eventually I made it through every single one.

Then I decided to try Horizon Zero Dawn.

Compared to the other games I was used to playing, Horizon Zero Dawn was like a different language. For one thing, it was an open world game, which I’d never played before. I had no idea what all the compasses and maps and other crap on the screen were for. I knew about crafting from The Last of Us but I’d never worked with an elaborate inventory before. I didn’t understand how to use that inventory to make strategic choices. I kept losing battles with the machines I was fighting because I didn’t know that different weapons and outfits did different things. And despite the long tutorial at the beginning of the game, I couldn’t keep track of which buttons did what. Also, what the hell was a side quest? I had no clue.

So I gave up.

The game gathered dust in my shelf for about a year, as did my console. I don’t know what inspired me to pick it up again and start over, but I did. The early parts of the game still didn’t make a lot of sense to me but eventually enough small pieces of understanding snapped into place that I was able to make progress without getting too frustrated. Suddenly, wandering the game’s open fields started to feel peaceful even when I occasionally encountered machines I couldn’t avoid. This was in March, just as the reality of the pandemic was starting to set in, so I really needed that peaceful feeling.

Then I encountered a mission, fairly early in the game, where Aloy (the main character) has to sneak into a camp of enemies and blow up a thing without attracting notice. No matter what I did, I kept getting caught and then inevitably killed when I tried to fight my way through the resulting onslaught. I have a tendency to swear like a sailor (and loudly) when I’m playing video games, so you can imagine that my neighbors were getting quite the earful. I must have played this scene twenty or thirty times. I had no idea what I was doing wrong.

At some point, I started flipping through my inventory, wondering if there was something in there that might help. I stumbled on my inventory of outfits. There were only a few in my “outfits pouch” (??), either earned through the completion of earlier missions or purchased from merchants because the game had told me to buy something and the outfits in question were the only things I had the necessary resources to purchase. I noticed that one of the outfits I owned had better stealth capabilities than the basic one I had been using up to that point. Curious, I figured out how to equip this outfit and played the scene again.

It still took me about ten more tries but with the stealthier outfit, I got a lot further than I had before. And I had made my first truly strategic decision of the game. I still had a lot to learn (those stupid Stormbirds were a particularly hard lesson) but it was like something had clicked into place and suddenly a game that had seemed alien to me before made a lot more sense. I ended up playing the game through to the end then sticking around for another 10+ hours of play to complete some side quests I had missed and gather all the collectables. Concepts and components that had made absolutely no sense to me when I first started playing.

It was as though I had crossed a threshold of understanding.

In my library’s metaliteracy-informed information literacy program, we talk to students a lot about “failing better.” Failing is an important part of the learning process. In fact, learning can’t happen without failure. But too often students are taught to fear failure. A failing grade is the worst thing that can happen to them, so they avoid challenging themselves in order to maintain that perfect grade point average above all else.

As a reasonably smart person who works in academia and produces research, I’m not a big fan of feeling like I suck at something. But I definitely suck at video games. Playing them sometimes actively makes me feel stupid. I don’t like that feeling. Nobody does.

But I’ve come to recognize that importance of that feeling because if I work hard enough, it eventually goes away. That threshold is crossed, that moment of understanding clicks into place and suddenly I can progress past that thing that was stymieing me before.

I think about this a lot when I’m spending a lot of time writing, as I am now. Writing about something is a process for understanding it. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing more rewriting than writing as I work toward that understanding, sort of like when I played that scene in Horizon Zero Dawn 20-30 times before realizing that it required a different approach (which also then took time to refine). Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in place or constantly starting over. But, as Terry Pratchett said, “Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Anyway, my video game life these days has involved a lot of failing. After Horizon Zero Dawn, I tried The Witcher but if I thought the inventory and combat systems in Horizon Zero Dawn were complicated, they had nothing on this game. At least having played Horizon Zero Dawn, I basically understood most of what I was seeing if not exactly how to use any of it because even though the tutorial offers paragraphs of information on how to throw a punch and how to play a card game it tells you exactly nothing about how to make a potion (or whatever). I gave up on that for now but I can see returning to it later when I have more patience. Red Dead Redemption 2 was a similar failure, at least for now. The game is beautiful and I liked the characters but the controls annoyed me and I felt like too much information was being thrown at me too fast. I’ve never had to play a game where I had to pay attention to the character’s health (including how what clothes he’s wearing and the weather affect that health) AND his horse’s health too. Ugh. So that’s gathering dust for now too.

Instead I’m playing Marvel’s Spider-Man. This is a game that probably would have made zero sense to me if I’d played it before Horizon Zero Dawn. Like, radio towers that I have to descramble? Lab experiments that can help me earn extra XP? What the hell is XP? But having played that game, I can transfer my knowledge to this new setting and adapt to the differences more easily.

If they handed out GPAs to gamers, I’d be a 2.0 at best and there would probably be talk about putting me on academic probation until I improve in some key areas. But I manage to muddle my way through even when it’s hard and makes me feel stupid because on the other side of that muddling is understanding. I just have to be willing to work for it.

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