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Thought Processing: Geriatric Gaming

Welcome to the fourth installment of Thought Processing, a not-very-regular feature here at GameCritics.com. The goal of this series is to raise issues, start discussion and hopefully get you thinking in new ways about topics relevant to today's gamers. It will also give you, the reader, a glimpse of insight into the mental processes and inner workings of the mysterious animal known as the "Game Critic." If you have an opinion or some comments on the things we'll be discussing, we invite you to join the conversation on our forums. The topic today will be:

Geriatric Gaming

Thought Processing - Virtua Racing (Arcade) (top), Streets of Rage (Genesis) (bottom)
Virtua Racing (Arcade) (top),
Streets of Rage (Genesis) (bottom)

While the title may be overstating the case a bit, it's a fact of life that time marches on. A select group of people have been fortunate enough to be in a very unique position—that of growing up and growing older with videogames. It's not often that an entirely new form of media is created and assimilated into a culture, so those who cut their teeth on Atari and have remained with the hobby until the present day are a vanguard of sorts.

Much like the way radio and television were once new and unexplored territories before becoming the staple outlets they are today, videogames have yet to exert their full impact on our society, and we as the people playing them still cannot clearly predict the role they will eventually come to play. In this installment of Thought Processing, we look at videogames from the perspective of the "older" generation blazing a trail into this brave new world.


 

For reference, here are the Critics' stats:

Erin Bell: Age 23, post-graduate student, long-term relationship
Mike Bracken: Age 30, self-employed, long-term relationship
Mike Doolittle: Age 24, full-time college student, swanky bachelor
Brad Gallaway: Age 27, full-time job, long-term relationship, father of two children
Thom Moyles: Age 26, full-time job, long-term relationship
Dan Wong: Age 26, full-time job, email me if you're single

To start things off, let's get the obvious out of the way: since you're all over 18, how are you perceived by others, and how do you feel about being an "older person" playing videogames?

Brad Gallaway: Everybody that knows me knows that I'm big on videogames. I don't go out of my way to bring it up, but it's not a secret, either. When people I meet or work with find out, they're usually quite positive, or at least curious. Every once in a while I'll meet some crank who still thinks games are strictly for kids, but if I ask them about it, it usually turns out that the last time they actually played one was back in the Atari days. For some unfathomable reason, they assume that the industry hasn't changed a bit. (By the way, movies have sound now, too!) As for how I feel, I feel great. I love games, I've been playing them since I was about 6, and I plan on playing them for the rest of my life.

Erin Bell: I'm quite happy to pull out my Game Boy in public, whether it be to kill time at the doctor's office or while sitting on the rush-hour train with all the Bay Street businessmen. Most people are fiddling around with Pocket PCs,

Bushido Blade 2 (PSX) (top), Final Fantasy III (SNES) (bottom)
Bushido Blade 2 (PSX) (top),
Final Fantasy III (SNES) (bottom)
cellphones or laptops anyway so I'm just one more person with her nose buried in a gadget. I do get quite a bit of "oh yeah…I used to have a Super Nintendo!" when I mention videogames to people, and I've had my share of videogame store clerks who don't quite know what to make of a girl who isn't just trailing after her man. But it only takes a few seconds to inform them that I'm aware of the fact that Monster Rancher Advance won't work on the Game Boy Color.

Mike Doolittle: Really, I don't get much heat for enjoying games. Most all of my friends do, and I've actually found it to be a pretty useful social tool when used judiciously. I've even found that, contrary to what the popular assumption may be, girls are just as enthusiastic as the guys when they're included in the gaming. I think there are enough people playing games, the way it's penetrated popular culture, that it doesn't really seem weird. I suppose the only stretch for would be telling people I'm actually a game "critic," which garners some surprised looks. I think I find a nice balance in my gaming so that I've ample time to pursue it while not neglecting other responsibilities or engagements, so barring embarrassingly long sessions with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I think most Joe and Janes can relate.

Dan Wong: The only people who have ever reacted badly to my gaming habits were my parents, and they've laid off for quite a few years now. It might be different for Erin, but as a guy, I think everyone probably expects me to play videogames, or at least expects me to have played them before. I suppose that these days it might be weirder to find a guy my age that doesn't play videogames.

Growing older, what would you say have been the biggest things to impact your game habits?

Brad: Work and kids. After joining the ranks of the employed, I was able to buy more games once I started getting paychecks. Prior to that I had been renting games (begging my parents for the money) and asking for games at birthdays and Christmas time. I ended up trading in a lot of my games for credit towards new ones, since I just didn't have the bones. What kid does? That was a pretty big shift and I was able to really expand my game horizons. As for the kids, I like to give them my full attention when we're all at home because I work quite a bit during odd hours. In general, the consoles stay off until the kids are in bed so that I focus on them when they're up, and on games when they're not. As I'm sure you can imagine, I'm a total late-night gamer.

Mike D.: Being in college means that workloads happen kind of sporadically. I also feel this is an important time for me socially, so although I'm not like John Belushi in Animal House, I make it a major priority

Thought Processing - Mario Kart: Super Circuit (GBA) (top), Pong (Arcade) (bottom)
Mario Kart: Super Circuit (GBA) (top),
Pong (Arcade) (bottom)
to stay close to my friends and meet new people. I also just have an instinct for when I need to get out. I love the outdoors and am very physically active, so I'm not a big fan of sitting still for hours on end. When I catch myself playing games for a long time, I try to call a friend up, work out or just get out of the house for a bit. I probably play considerably less than I did when I was a teenager, but I feel that I enjoy gaming quite a bit more. It's like steak—if you eat it every day at every meal, you lose your appreciation for it.

Thom Moyles: I'm a much bigger gamer now that I've ever been before. Part of that is the fact that as a child, I wasn't allowed to have videogame consoles and during college, I was really too poor to do much aside from play videogames at other people's houses. So once I actually had a real job, one of the first things I did was go out and get me some videogame consoles. Since I have been working, I generally don't have a whole lot of time to play videogames, unfortunately. What helps is that my social circle consists of a number of people who enjoy gaming themselves, so it's a pretty regular thing to have people over and play videogames, or just have somebody playing a videogame while we hang out. It's pretty rare that I get a large chunk of time to just sit down and saturate myself with a game, but every once in a while I do get to indulge myself.

Dan Like everybody else, I'm struggling to find the time to actually play games. But getting older, I'm also noticing that I care about things like sound and picture quality. I've gotten the gadget bug, and I really enjoy running my game consoles through a sound system—having 5.1 sound in a game is also something that affects my purchasing choices. I also worry about things like whether I'm using an S-Video or component cable. Actually, S-Video is the bare minimum I'm willing to put up with when I'm playing games. None of those things seemed to matter as kid, but they definitely factor into my gaming experience now.

For those of you in a relationship, what is the impact of games on that relationship? Are games accepted by your significant other, or are they a bone of contention?

Mike Bracken: Laura doesn't mind my gaming at all, which is a far cry from how things were with my ex-wife. The ex hated my gaming with a passion and had no interest whatsoever in the medium. Laura doesn't have much interest in gaming in general (I can get her to play Bombastic but that's about it), but it's okay. I don't really want a significant other who games—I want one who understands that I do and lets me do it.

Brad: My partner is totally OK with my gaming status. She knows that it's just "what I do" and she never gives me any grief over it, which is something I really treasure about her. She's told me several times that she'd rather have me gaming at home than be out at bars, or clubs, or whatever, and that works out well for me. She's

Thought Processing - Syphon Filter 2 (PSX) (top), Ehrgeiz (PSX) (bottom)
Syphon Filter 2 (PSX) (top), Ehrgeiz (PSX) (bottom)
even gotten into a few games with me, Mr. Driller and Animal Crossing most notably. She's not anywhere near the game fan that I am, but it's not an issue that ever comes between us. My ex-wife was a very different story, though… I think Mike B and I may have been with the same woman.

Erin: I'm lucky to have found someone who's as much of a gaming nut than I am; even moreso actually since he's willing to do things like shell out $150 for the Turbo Duo version of Castlevania: Dracula X. We enjoy a lot of multiplayer games like Mario Kart, Pocky and Rocky, UmJammer Lammy, Frequency, and Amplitude. We've even made it through the multiplayer of the Nintendo Entertainment System's (NES's) Battletoads without breaking up, which is as good a relationship test as any.

Thom: My girlfriend is a gamer herself, so that goes a long way in terms of games not becoming a real issue. Additionally, we're both people who enjoy watching somebody else play games, so we can spend time together even if only one of us is playing a game. The only conflict we have is when we both feel like playing a game and we have to hash out who gets precedence. That, and there aren't enough good cooperative multiplayer games these days.

Dan: I'm pretty single right now so I can't answer, but my email address is listed on the bio page. I just wanted people to know that.

Thanks, Dan. Let us know if you get lucky. Now getting back to the questions, have any of you noticed shifts in your preferred genres between now and your younger days?

Brad: Oh yeah, definitely. Back when I was in Junior High and High School, I basically had infinite time on my hands, especially during summer. At that point, I was really into RPGs and would really try and tear them

Thought Processing - Donkey Kong (Arcade) (top), River City Ransom (NES) (bottom)
Donkey Kong (Arcade) (top),
River City Ransom (NES) (bottom)
apart. You know, find every secret and do all the sidequests. Now that I'm older, I really don't have the time to play long, drawn-out games anymore. The majority of them are filled to the brim with busywork that's designed to take as long as humanly possible, and 40 to 60 hours is too much of a commitment to make between work and family unless it's really outstanding. Final Fantasy X and Shadow Hearts are recent titles where I felt that the time invested was well worth it, but on the whole I limit myself to two or three RPGs a year. On the other hand, my love of short games has really skyrocketed, with 20 hours being the upper limit of what I'll usually tolerate. Oh, and anything that lets you save at any time also gets major points with me.

Mike B.: I find that I'm a far less patient person than I used to be. Like Brad said, free time becomes more precious after High School, and I resent any game that I feel is wasting my time. The funny thing is that I don't mind spending 40 hours on an RPG as long as I feel that I'm making progress with it. What annoys me the most these days are action games that force me to replay large chunks of the same level over again if I die, or any game with ill-conceived saving.

Thom: I've actually become a much bigger fan of action games. When I was younger, playing games like shooters or even platformers became very frustrating to me - as soon as I died, I'd turn off the game and never come back to it just because I couldn't be successful immediately. Now that I've matured and become more comfortable with the idea of learning things over time, I play a lot more genres that just drove me insane when I was younger, including shooters and other games with a higher level of difficulty in terms of skill.

Mike B.: The biggest thing I've noticed is that I'm a lot more open. I used to be strictly an RPG guy—I just didn't have time for much of anything else. I played around with other genres, but I rarely bought games that weren't RPGs. Now, I'm the opposite—I buy and play everything. I'm just as likely to be running through a first-person shooter as I am to be saving the world in an RPG. Plus, I find that being open to a variety of games not only makes gaming in general more interesting, it also helps make one a better reviewer. Genre lines are crossed regularly now, and being aware of the conventions of games from different categories can be integral to writing an effective critique.

Mike D.: Oddly enough, I hate all the same junk that I did when I was a kid. I still have a preference for action-adventure games, but like other Mike I am overall much more open than I was even just a few years ago. I

Thought Processing - Xenogears (PSX) (top), Super Mario Advance 2: Super Mario World (GBA) (bottom)
Xenogears (PSX) (top), Super Mario Advance 2: Super Mario World (GBA) (bottom)
used to loathe role-playing games with a passion, but now I can generally tolerate and even enjoy them from time to time. I also find myself more open with regard to content. Thematically, I enjoy a more broad array of games regardless of their target audience.

Have there been any physical changes brought on by aging that have altered your gaming habits, for example, any change in your preferred difficulty level as a result of slower reflexes, or other reasons?

And while we're on the subject, with many current games sporting relatively low levels of difficulty, do you think this is a good thing, or is the younger generation just a bunch of weak-kneed diaper-babies?

Brad: Well, outside of some nagging repetitive motion injuries (from past jobs, not gaming) I don't think getting older has really taken any toll on my game skills yet. As far as this talk of games getting easier goes, I do think that in general games are getting easier for a variety of reasons, and that's totally fine by me. I'll sometimes set a game's difficulty to Easy if it really kicks my ass, but not for physical reasons. I used to make it a habit to go out of my way for big challenges and to and "prove" myself by beating something formidable, but those days are over. Because adult life is chock-full of pressure, I'm all about relaxing and having fun with games now, not getting stressed out or angry. I also don't need to sweat and defeat some totally artificial difficulty curve to feel good about my skills any more. In my opinion, it's rare to find a game that has a stiff level of challenge without resorting to cheapness or taking advantage of the player.

Erin: : I was never a big twitch-gamer to begin with, so if anything my reflexes are getting better as I get older simply because I've been consciously trying to expand my horizons by playing titles with higher levels of intensity. I absolutely cannot play first-person shooters without getting motion-sick, which may or may not coincide with the fact that I can no longer go on the same roller-coasters that I did when I was younger.

I don't think the younger generation is soft, though. For example, most of us cut our gaming teeth in 2D side-scrolling environments using controllers that had two buttons and a d-pad. Kids today not only have to navigate 3D, but must do so with these incredibly sophisticated controllers that make possible a mind-boggling number of moves and combos.

Thought Processing - Super Street Fighter II Turbo: Revival (GBA) (top), Bushido Blade 2 (PSX) (bottom)
Super Street Fighter II Turbo: Revival (GBA) (top),
Bushido Blade 2 (PSX) (bottom)

Mike D.: The only time I notice slowed reflexes is when I stop playing twitch games for while, which is pretty rare. I'm not big on games that tax the brains at the expense of the thumbs. But usually, with a little practice, I'm back in the game. I think it's safe to say that down the road it'll get tougher to come back from a layoff, but at 24 I can still hold my own against young wipper-snappers.

I suspect that part of the lack of difficulty stems from a desire to make games more accessible. I think that as veteran gaming enthusiasts, we sometimes take for granted the difficulty of mastering a 14-button controller, or the fact that all our experience factors heavily into our prowess. But most games at least offer more challenging difficulties, so I'm not complaining.

Dan: If I don't play twitch games for a while then things get stodgy. But they always seem to 'wake up' after a bit of fumbling. That being said, I do set my games on the easiest level every now and then. It doesn't have anything to do with any kind of physical ailment—sometimes I just don't feel like killing myself over a piece of software, and this is kind of a tricky question to answer depending on how you look at things.

Lots of games these days are about head to head competition between human opponents, and it seems to be a big trend. The PC has always thrived on multiplayer games, but now consoles are starting to get in on the action. Even many of the most popular Game Boy titles use the link feature to enable competition. Playing against the computer is good practice, but for a lot of people, nothing compares to the deviousness and cunning of a skilled human opponent. Is the younger generation going soft? Not if they're playing Counter-Strike on a regular basis.

On the other hand, there's probably an argument for single player games getting easier. But like Erin said, games these days are more complex and game worlds more detailed. They challenge players in different ways now, especially with more 'open' style games like Grand Theft Auto III and Deus Ex, players are encouraged to explore and find different ways to progress in a game. I honestly think games are still challenging for players, but the interesting games now are the ones that challenge players to be creative.

Mike B.: As the old man of the crew, I've got a pretty wicked case of rheumatoid arthritis. I don't think it was caused by gaming, but it can certainly play havoc with my game schedule. When a big flare-up occurs, it can be hard to even

Thought Processing - Brave Fencer Musashi (PSX) (top), Final Fantasy I/Final Fantasy Origins (NES/PSX) (bottom)
Brave Fencer Musashi (PSX) (top), Final Fantasy I/Final Fantasy Origins (NES/PSX) (bottom)
hold the controller—let alone play something like Ikaruga. Other than that, though, I've been pretty lucky—having something happen to me that kept me from physically being able to play games would really suck.

About the difficulty, I'm torn on this one, honestly. On one hand, I think this generation of gamers is soft. One only needs to pull out the NES and spend a few hours with Contra or games like that to see how much simpler games have gotten these days. On the other hand, at least part of the reason those games were so hard is because they're really primitive in comparison with today's titles. I mean, the controls on the NES era games are just awful in comparison to what we have today—floaty jump physics, games with no diagonal movement, etc. all make the older titles tougher. So, I don't know that developers are personally making things easier, I think that the technology advancements have made games easier.

I'm equally ambivalent about whether easier games are a good thing or not. On the one hand, it makes games accessible to people who may not want to spend hour upon hour mastering one game—that's good. On the other, it means guys like me fly through games and never really get challenged. Whenever I talk about really difficult games or bosses, it's invariably a title from the Super NES era or earlier. That's sad—we haven't had a real ball-buster game in two generations? I think the solution is simple, though—developers need to include difficulty settings in every game—including RPGs. Make the same game, just vary the difficulty of the game's enemies and everyone finds a level of challenge that makes them happy.

It's good to hear that physical aging issues aren't a concern. (We'll check back in ten years.) Before you all fall asleep in your rocking chairs and get tucked in for the night, one last question: Any feelings on so-called "mature" games, either for yourself or for younger gamers?

Brad: I'm still waiting for developers to include tasteful romantic content, or games that really explore relationships. Today's usage of "mature" is misapplied. What it actually means is blood, violence, and a few swear words. I don't view such things as being inherently mature, but that's a criticism of ratings in general, not just the ESRB. Overall my tastes haven't gone either towards or against the "M" rating…it's all about whether the content contributes to the whole, or if it's just there for shock value. As far as kids go, I would definitely let my kids play almost anything they wanted, as long as they could handle it and knew the difference between reality and entertainment. I can confidently say this knowing that I'm going to be right there beside them playing the same games and making informed choices. Being an absentee dad isn't in my nature.

Erin: Well you could consider most strategy games "mature" since they would baffle the average nine-year old, and just aren't designed to cater towards kids in the first place. As far as the empty violence in "mature" games goes, as twisted as it sounds I think that it too serves a purpose. If videogames are to be considered "mature" in the sense that Brad is referring to, they have to outgrow the notion that they're automatically an

Thought Processing - Streets of Rage 2 (Genesis) (top), Ehrgeiz (PSX) (bottom)
Streets of Rage 2 (Genesis) (top),
Ehrgeiz (PSX) (bottom)
effective substitute for Barney videos. If it takes gratuitous, shocking violence to convince this to parents, then so be it, I guess. That being said, I would absolutely discourage my children from playing games like Grand Theft Auto until I thought they were ready. I feel lucky that my gaming experience has made me into such a competent consumer when and if children ever become involved.

Mike D.: I'm not a big fan of the stereotype, but clearly there are games geared toward younger gamers. I have lost most of my interest in titles that are cartoony. I don't crave violence or anything, but I prefer games with subject matter that is better suited to my age and interests. I still enjoy the more child-spirited games and often find an appeal that bridges any age (such as the Rayman games), but generally I want a kind of drama that may not be fitting for young gamers.

Dan: I think there's just too much controversy on Mature games as of late, and because of that, we're looking at categorizing games according age appropriateness (i.e. how much sex and violence is in it.) It would be nice to see a game using the tasteful romantic content that Brad mentioned, especially since a game like that would probably appeal to a range of ages, as well as cross the gender gap. But comparing Nintendo's image to Sony or Microsoft's image seems to say it all. We're pretty stuck thinking that outside of sex and violence, all we have left are sports simulations and games full of cute little critters. Not many people these days have the imagination to consider that there might be something between that divide, and that's unfortunate. I guess that's why PC gamers get things like Roller Coaster Tycoon, Japanese gamers get things like dating sims, and us? Well, we don't.

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