Philosony: Gamers - natural born learners

Bear with me as I'm about to list all of the games I played for the first time in the past two weeks: Team Fortress 2, Puzzle Quest, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Linger in Shadows, Lego Batman, Warhawk, Supersonic Acrobatic Overly Superlative Adjective Cars, and Motor Storm: Pacific Rift. The last four of these are demos, but as inconstant readers of this column may remember I have a bit of a "thing" when it comes to demos, so I spent a fair bit of time with them. This list only includes PS3 and PSP games - there have also been a good half dozen little browser-based games vying for my attention.

Why am I spilling out the sordid details of games I recently deflowered myself on to you? Because in learning how to play all of these games I made an interesting if obscenely obvious discovery - I learned how to play no less than 12 games in a mere 14 days! While that may not sound strange for an avid gamer it sounds odd put in other contexts: learning to play 12 musical instruments in two weeks, learning 12 new sports, learning the ins and outs of a baker's dozen worth of operating systems. Such feats are certainly doable, but rarely does anyone have the drive to add that many new wrinkles to their brain. What is it about games that makes us so willing to learn entirely new systems of play on a regular basis?

Back when I was a kid and games were not yet the big deal they are today I probably played, at most, two games per month. I'd have mom drive me around to the local video rental stores in search of the newest hit, pore over the instruction manual, and spend the first hour or so just getting used to what were usually simple run-and-gun style controls. Once I felt I had the interface down I would embark upon a week to 10 days of playing nothing but that game. My pre-adolescent mind believed that going through the trouble of learning a game and training my eyes to differentiate one low resolution power-up from another meant I had damned well put that training to use.

That's not so much the case today. Download a demo. Give me a tutorial on the fly. Let me get in there and play it. I'll figure out it out - that's half the fun! I want to see what this game is all about, how it differs from everything else out there. Trying out a new game isn't just about the graphics, the art direction, or the story. Trying out a new game is about having a new interactive experience and that means trying out a new way of affecting what's happening on the screen.

Humans we are very adept tool users. We have an uncanny ability to become so proficient at using tools that they become natural extensions of our own body, virtually indistinguishable from the "natural" equipment we were born with. Andy Clark has written a book about this in which he argues that this makes us natural-born cyborgs - the ease with which we use, say, a pencil is no different from the ease with which Nathan Spencer uses his bionic arm. If we have the desire and the patience we can make just about anything second-nature - think about driving a car, or executing a dragon punch.

Enough with the theory. Sure, with enough patience we can make just about anything second nature, but why are we willing to do this repeatedly when the reward is largely non-productive entertainment? Most people are reluctant to learn the minor interface tweaks of an updated word processing program despite the potential gains in efficiency. By all rights, shouldn't we be still working on our mastery of Battle Arena Toshinden?

This trait seems fairly unique to gamers among other hobbyists. While film buffs, bibliophiles, music lovers etc. enjoy diversity and new things just as much as we do, for us trying new things involves learning how to do something new, not just experiencing something new. "Learning curve" is a common phrase thrown around in gaming circles that you don't hear many other places. For example, when literature was faced with a new electronic interface it met with a ton of criticism that it's still trying to come to terms with. Your average reader just isn't interested in learning a new way of reading.

Of course, gamers have their conventions that are difficult to break from. The games I mentioned learning at the beginning of the article fall into well-defined genres with control schemes that are roughly equivalent: Team Fortress 2 uses general FPS controls; Puzzle Quest's mechanics are as old as Columns, Lego Anything is virtually the same beat-em-up we learned years ago. Anyone who's played a Japanese import (or an MGS game) knows how frustrating it is to have to unlearn the convention of using X to confirm and O to cancel. Still, the fact that your average gamer has so many genres in her repertoire shows how willing we've been to learn new styles of play. One blogger even makes the case that being uncomfortable with the controls and learning how to fight can be an integral part of the game experience itself.

I'm not entirely sure why this is, so this post is more about raising the question than attempting to answer it. Do you think we're more willing to learn how to do new things in the pursuit of our passion than others are? Why?

Just remember the next time you're downloading a demo from the PSN that you're not just about to entertain yourself - you're going to learn a complex (if not entirely marketable) new skill.