Games are weird things. Not the concept of a game. We don’t need to get into some anthropological discussion about what it means to play. Playing is natural to humanity, blah, blah, blah, preparing for battle or something, cross-cultural yadda yadda yadda. We all get it. We’re all here for games. Great.
The thing is, games themselves are complicated as hell. Whether you’re talking about video games, board games, or tabletop roleplaying games, learning how to play is hard, man. We just forget that because a lot of us have spent our entire lives absorbing the mechanical grammar and unspoken rules of playing. The idea of a ‘phase’ in a board game is as natural to us as ‘WSAD’ being associated with movement.
Whenever I talk to someone who doesn’t play games – and, again, I’m referring to both digital and physical – it’s often because they’ve felt overwhelmed. Usually someone tried to teach them but became impatient or made it seem easy without doing anything to show why it was easy. And, let’s be honest, how the hell is an adult who hasn’t picked up a controller in 30 years going to understand twin-stick looking and movement? What the fuck does “worker placement” mean?
We often introduce people to our favorite games because we think they have the most appeal. Mansions of Madness seems simple and it’s a blast – why not start there? Among Us is so simple, even an idiot could play it. You just find out who’s sus! What’s so hard about that? “Here’s how you move and do this and push buttons but don’t click here except only when you find what you need to press there.” That’s what we all sound like introducing someone to a game.
Eyes glaze over. “I don’t think this is for me.” We feel silly having shown off something that might have been in a foreign language, they feel silly because we make it sound so very easy to pick up “if you just tried!”
‘Foreign language’ is key here because, largely, knowing how to use your hands when playing a game is its own sort of language. Not just the names of the buttons, but physically how to move your hands. Why certain things work a certain way. The decades of gameplay mechanics. The thousands of ways those mechanics dramatically shift from one game to an otherwise nearly-identical other. It’s like juggling without being able to look at the balls.
We’ve picked this up over time, or at least we know how to watch a YouTube video. Not everyone has. Not everyone cares enough to learn how movement works in a first person shooter versus a platformer. And the fact we often teach it to them in the most confusing way possible doesn’t help. It just makes us sound weird, man. And frustrated. “Jump! No there! No, jump onto the ledge! No, if you hold jump, he’ll climb himself up! No, jump!” That sounds like nonsense.
Don’t introduce someone to a game you like just because you like it. Someone who’s never played a game – or who rarely, if ever plays them – isn’t going to pick up Elden Ring overnight. Shit, they might like watching you play it. They might be great companions, but if you give someone a quick runthrough on how to play and say, “It’s easy!”, the chances of them actually finding it easy are nearly fucking none. Nor do I want to see your tweets with your own anecdotal counter-examples because this is my opinion and frankly, I just don’t give a shit.
If you want to introduce someone to games, you have to start at their level and with their interests. Rather than beginning with Gloomhaven, maybe work your way up with smaller games with fewer moving parts. Rather than jumping into Apex Legends, maybe walk them through a game in which movement and action don’t need to involve lightning-quick reflexes. Don’t just explain the controls, teach them.
And, for the love of god, don’t get frustrated. I’ve got so many friends and older relatives who gave up trying to learn a game because someone explained the rules motherfucking once and then acted like it was a personal affront when that person didn’t understand how to move a mech across a hexagonal grid.
It’s unintentional gatekeeping. We don’t want these people to become disinterested, but in our eagerness to play and our eagerness to have a new person to play with, we forget just how complicated all these interlocking systems are. What’s a “Health Bar”? What’s an “Action Point”? Saying these things doesn’t make them clearer.
And for the love of god, teach people games they’d actually want to play. A lot of people don’t want to be warriors fighting in an eternal war in space. Some people want a gritty noir. Some people are fans of an IP like Back to the Future. Find those! Find areas of interest. A game with a good story will probably do far more than a game that’s just gritty barks from idealized angry boys.
In fact, that would be my advice to you: Find a theme they like in a format simple enough to understand. There’s a reason Stardew Valley is such a great gateway game – it’s an understandable setting, a friendly environment, and its complexity gently builds over time. One could argue it’s an extremely deep game, but it still doesn’t make you feel like an asshole if you can’t run and gun right out the gate. Or ever. Because y’know, it’s Stardew Valley.
Rather than complex role-playing games, start someone with a visual novel that keeps track of stats like Citizen Sleeper. Introduce concepts over time. Give them a rules-light board game like Munchkin to build up to a rules-heavy game like, I don’t know, something other than Munchkin. Don’t assume someone understands a concept because it feels easy to you or me. Don’t assume someone’s having a bad time simply because they refuse to understand the difference between high punch and low punch.
But for god’s sake, remember that people want to enjoy games. If you’re trying to teach a game and the person is confused, that’s not that person’s fault. Don’t get frustrated with them and don’t assume they’re just not cut out for it. Actually consider what it’s like to learn a game from their perspective and build from that. Just because it’s easy for you doesn’t mean it’s easy for someone else. Even the most basic concept in a game like an inventory can sound confusing if it’s just thrown around without context.
That’s all to say, introducing someone to games is about them. It’s not about you. It’s about helping them have fun, not just giving you a person to play with.
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