On Game Literacy – “Passage” with my parents

Recently, I had the pleasure to play the now-famous art game Passage (at Brenda’s suggestion, as usual). I found my reactions to be very similar to hers: I felt compelled to travel with the woman, I tended to disregard my score, and when my wife died, I was struck dumb and lost all interest in exploring further–I remained near her grave, feeling lost, waiting for death. The game, if you’ve not played it, is the first real example of a game as art I have ever seen, and it is a remarkable work. The metaphors and allegories are not subtle, but the power lies in the way the game uses long-standing gameplay conventions and assumptions to tell its story: it speaks the game language and uses it to express its art.

When I returned to my parents’ house for the holidays, I asked them to give it a try. My parents are in their fifties, their professions are minister and schoolteacher, and they are by no means gamers. They played board games once, when my siblings and I were children, but they are of a generation before gaming became mainstream entertainment. Thus, they have none of the “literacy” with games my generation takes for granted.  So when they sat down to play Passage, I was curious to see how they would interpret the work from their ‘external’ perspective. The results were very interesting…

I told them nothing about the game beforehand except how to move. Each played it twice, in much the same way both times. What I found was that the full effect of the art of Passage was inhibited by their lack of familiarity with game mechanics. Most players who grew up on RPGs and adventure games like Zelda know what to expect from a 2D maze: clearly, the objective is to explore everywhere and find all the secrets. Treasure chests are a well-understood symbol for reward and success, as is the score. And most of all, the implications of increasing your characters’ bounding box by traveling with the woman are immediately obvious to a player who knows how environmental puzzles behave in sprite-based games. These assumptions are critical, because it is these conventions that the game challenges in order to present its message.
But my parents’ lack of literacy meant they approached the game from different assumptions. My mother didn’t understand that bumping into something meant acquiring or activating it until she had done it a few times. She didn’t immediately see the connection between treasure chests and her score, nor for that matter the importance of the score at all. The first time through, she was busy enough just trying to figure out what she was supposed to do that she completely missed the aging of the characters until the last stages. My dad was a little quicker on the uptake, but not by much. He more readily accepted the formalized “explore and discover” directive as the de facto point of the game, and thus was more attentive to the ways in which the game challenges that endeavor. But the consequences of this distance between them and the medium was undeniable. When the woman died, both my parents plodded on, believing this is what the game meant for them to do. Neither one was struck in the same way I was by the loss of the companion, I suspect because neither one fully appreciated just how remarkable that companionship was. With no frame of reference from past experience, all the game mechanics were new–and thus none were extraordinary.

When I talked to them about it afterwards, it was clear the game had not impressed them in the same way it did me and Brenda. I tried to explain the position from which gamers would approach this and how the game was designed to act on the set of assumptions a gamer would bring, and they understood a bit better… but I still doubt they’ll ever really appreciate the full depth of the work without a gaming background. I find their experience fascinating–a window onto the evolution of games as an art form. If, as most game designers believe, games are an art form, how will it be understood by the masses who are not game literate–people like my parents? Will they ever be able to see games the way we do? Will our art forever be lost to them?

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4 thoughts on “On Game Literacy – “Passage” with my parents”

  1. David,

    This is really fascinating, something that surprises me and doesn’t surprise me all at the same time.

    I have watched people befuddled by the Wii (today, in fact), confused about how to walk in a virtual world, and confused by the use of a mouse. To me, it is not surprising that your parents would spend their initial run through Passage trying to figure out what was going on while missing the message in the game.

    What is surprising to me, though, is that I take this for granted in myself. Your post here suggests that you did the same.

    I wonder if we can compare it to someone who approaches a Pollock or something and says, “The guy spilled paint all over the place.” They don’t have the necessary knowledge in order to appreciate the art. This reminds me of Clint’s article that I suggested to you earlier in which he attempts to counter Ebert’s thesis that games aren’t art. Ebert lacked the necessary literacy to make an accurate assessment.

    I don’t know that your parents will see games the way we see them. My older relatives don’t, and I don’t know that they ever will. Not everyone gets Pollock. Some think Faulkner should take grammar lessons. I think this is the nature of art appreciation in all mediums, perhaps.

  2. I had an almost exact same reaction with a close friend of mine who I pleaded with so he’d try the game. His immediate reaction, somewhat disappointing to me, was “What is this thing?”

    I had to coax him to play for the full five minutes and only after explaining the metaphor that Passage was referring to–the passage of time.

    The thing was, even after that, he still didn’t understand it. It was like talking about samurai with a chef. I had to run him through and explain each thing–how treasure chests represented life’s various attempts at gaining riches and the failures and successes therein–how you could encounter a mate or simply live the rest of your life out alone, how you couldn’t do certain things once you got married… and it wasn’t until three days later that he came back to me and said that “my game got [him] thinking,” and he had decided to spend more time with his family, since he didn’t know how much longer he would have with them.

    It was at the same time a good experience and a bad experience for me to try to share it. Bad, because I realized that the metaphor was a lot harder to understand than I’d imagined, and that not everyone could understand how beautifully brilliant and simple the game is. Good, because I saw a positive note come out of someone out of interaction with the game–someone who generally regards games as a “time-wasting” activity, and who generally is led to believe they’re really not all that important.

    I should try it with my mother.

  3. That’s funny. Although I’ve been a gamer since childhood and currently have been studying game design – which sets me as game literate – my first, and only, contact with Passage wasn’t 100% properly… mm… felt. Not even half of it, I would say.

    I think the problem was the fact that I was over my mom’s, using her computer, in quite a hurry. I read Brenda’s post and downloaded and started the game. Maybe I was too eager to experience the game she had recommended, trying to see every detail of its design, to understand every piece of its UI, to discover its mechanics, that I couldn’t appreciate the game as a gamer.

    I felt confused when my partner died, didn’t get it why the character position on the screen wasn’t always the same, and only noticed the aging process near the end of the game.

    As I was in a hurry – don’t remember why, I didn’t had the opportunity to play it again, but I’ll do. And as a painting that hangs on the wall of a hallway that you pass by every day, but never pay attention to, I’ll stand in front of it for five minutes and give it a thought.

  4. interesting!
    I tried to get my parents to play it over the break, but they didn’t bite. Which is unfortunate, as I’ve gotten them to try other, (frankly more complicated) games.
    But now you make me question whether or not they would have been game literate enough to appreciate it. It’s an interesting question that I too will have to consider now.

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