There was this one time in high school when someone actually passed to me in a game of basketball. This didn’t happen very often, but this time it was on me to make the shot, and I was excited for the chance to prove myself. I aimed… and just as I bent my knees to throw, my cousin knocked the ball out of my grasp.
I burst into tears, mystifying everyone. Did I get hurt? No, I was just humiliated.
Sports aren’t exactly my thing. Gym class was always the most dreaded part of my week. Only in the last five years have I actually started to occasionally enjoy watching sports on TV (when required to do so out of social courtesy). Up until a week ago, I had never played a sports game. At least, not unless you count Wii Bowling and Jack Nicklaus Golf. Sports are a thing I’m bad at. Games are a thing I’m good at. I generally like to keep the two separate and keep my pride intact.
I reassured myself as I inserted the Madden disc into my console and watched the intro video. ““How hard can this be? I mean, football is basically an adventure game, right? You assemble a team, then your team tries to beat the bad guys. I can do that. I’m sure there’s even a tutorial. It’ll be fun!”
It occurred to me that I didn’t even know what “Madden” referred to. I resolved to look it up later.
My favorite team? Um. Living in New England, I presume that my default choice should have been the Patriots. After giving it some thought, though, I settled on the Eagles. Eagles are majestic, and that seemed as good a reason as any.
Then it was time to choose which teams would battle one another. Wait, I thought I was the Eagles? I guess not? Time to choose two more teams. Dolphins, those are nice. And, um, Panthers? Sure. I’d like to see some panthers fighting some dolphins. Much to my disappointment, I couldn’t give my team pink uniforms, but I could mix retro 70’s socks with retro 80’s pants. That was something, at least.
When the announcers started talking, I didn’t understand any of the sentences they were using, so I just tuned them out and waited for the game to begin.
What do you mean there are different ways to do a kick-off? Don’t you just kick the ball? Okay, I kicked it in a direction, and hey I caught it! Now what? I guess I should try running with it toward the…. goal line? Touchdown line? Oh, right. End zone!
“Nice completion!” Hey, the announcer said I did something “nice”. I DID A THING RIGHT!
“Help!” I posted to Facebook. “I don’t know what I’m doing!”
“Turn off the play clock,” a friend suggested. “Set it on rookie and do the practice stuff.”
Since I didn’t know how to do either of those things, I ignored his suggestions and went back to the options menu. After some searching, I was pleased to discover that the game included a digital user manual. I was dismayed, however, to learn that said manual included fourteen (!) pages of control instructions alone. The six pages of Kinect voice commands looked promising, until I realized that they didn’t mean anything to me either. The random words I was shouting at the Xbox may have made something happen, but it certainly didn’t get me closer to scoring any points. I did eventually find “practice mode” but apparently that is practice for people who find the main game too simple, not for people who can’t figure out how to pass the ball.
Playing a half hour of Madden gave me a taste for how my non-gamer friends must feel when I put a controller in their hands. I consider myself a pretty well-rounded gamer. Even with those games I’m terrible at, I can at least get some sense of what I’m doing after a little practice. But this was an entirely new experience. The typically familiar controller felt useless in my hands. The language was foreign to me. The choices I made didn’t seem to correspond to any meaningful consequences. This was a doomed enterprise from the beginning. It was demoralizing.
I understand that strategy puzzle games and hardcore platformers aren’t for everyone, but I had forgotten that even something as obvious to me as “A = jump” isn’t obvious to everyone. Even a D-pad can be confusing and intimidating. Trying to run to the right and press the correct button to jump on something as innocent-looking as a Goomba without looking at the buttons could be nigh impossible for someone without that instinct and muscle memory. Not only is it not helpful to be told something is “pretty easy” when you’re starting from nearly nothing – it can be humiliating. It was sobering to realize that my attempts to encourage others may have simply turned them away feeling frustrated, inadequate, and angry.
Maybe it’s okay to be bad at videogames. But since my failed attempt to understand Madden, I’ve been eyeing Rockstar Table Tennis. I may be terrible at football, but I have to redeem myself. How hard can it be?