LANDodger: How Stupid Are You?

BY Andrew Miesner / March 29, 2009

How Stupid Are You?

Written by Mike “LANDodger” Luxion

(This is an editorial piece. The opinions in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of compLexity Gaming or its parent company.)

Every once in a while we run into things that make us wonder what the hell somebody was thinking. That sounds negative, but sometimes it comes from a positive inspiration. We look at art and listen to music and read a novel and we can’t help but think about what was going through the creator’s head. We marvel at it and try to dissect it to better understand how it came into existence. 

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes we wonder what people are thinking because all signs point to them being really, really stupid.

Unfortunately, it’s the latter that made me think of this intro. The impetus is probably something most people are already familiar with because it happened on the second episode of The Ultimate Gamer. For anybody that hasn’t seen it yet, in this particular instance the show was winding down and the Elimination Challenge, the win-or-go-home portion, was getting underway. The game for the night was Virtua Fighter 5 and a few seconds into the match the narrator interjected, imploring us to notice the health bar and subsequently giving us an explanation of said feature like it was some kind of newfangled doohickey that truly pushed the edge of technological innovation.

A health bar? Really?

There are some things that need to be explained. I think it’s fair to say that you can’t expect the average person – or even the average gamer – to understand the intricacies of a Counter-Strike match or even the “counter” system in DoA. Not just by watching one match, anyway. But explaining the health bar while somebody is being hit and the bar is (mysteriously?) shrinking? Isn’t that like Norman Chad coming on a 2009 World Series of Poker broadcast and immediately explaining that tens are higher than threes while we see, right there on the screen, a guy with a pair of tens cheering, a guy with a pair of threes looking like he’s about to vomit because he just lost on a pair of threes, and the dealer shoving a pile of chips towards the happy person? At some point, things become self-explanatory.

Before we go any further, two more notes on this.

At this point, Joel begins explaining to us that the green bar at the top is the health bar, every round, THE ENTIRE MATCH. It’s unbelievably obnoxious.Note One: Just so we’re clear, I’ve always thought that there were two kinds of people in the world: those who knew what a health bar was, and those who could intuitively figure out what a health bar was after about two milliseconds of watching any match involving a health bar. I was absolutely stunned to find out that somebody, somewhere, might believe there is a third kind of person out there – one who doesn’t know what a health bar is and is too stupid to figure it out without being told.

Note 2: For what it’s worth, I couldn’t agree more with Weenus’s comments on this part of the show. In his blog about the second episode he said: “At this point, Joel begins explaining to us that the green bar at the top is the health bar, every round, THE ENTIRE MATCH. It’s unbelievably obnoxious. I understand that the producers believe that these shows are going to appeal to senior citizens who are flipping to Sci-Fi between episodes of Dallas and MASH but I’m pretty sure that anyone who is interested to stay longer than thirty seconds will be able to comprehend the life bar system after one explanation Joel, thanks.” Amen, brother.

Anyway. I understand if you feel like I’m blowing this one small thing out or proportion. After all, it was only a few seconds of a forty-two minute show, and it wasn’t even part of the main action. Yet here I am, writing six hundred words about it.

But the reason I’m calling so much attention to it is that I feel like it’s just the latest small indication of a bigger issue: people in gaming tend to think people outside gaming need everything explained or dumbed down.

Stephen King once wrote, “one of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell [the audience] a thing if you can show us, instead.” While he was obviously talking about writing fiction (and specifically things like using stilted dialogue instead of telling us a character didn’t do well in school), I think you could substitute the word “story-telling” for fiction and it would be just as true. You don’t go into any movie, or pick up any book, fiction or otherwise, expecting to be literally told the identity of the hero and the villain. They don’t wear little name tags like “Hello, my name is PROTAGONIST.” What’s more, such a ham-fisted, heavy-handed device would put a pretty big downer on even the best stories.

In the context of The Ultimate Gamer, or any other gaming show, explaining such self-evident details is boring, repetitive, and honestly it’s insulting. Think of it this way: somewhere, somebody asked themselves, “How stupid is the audience? – How stupid are you?” and came to the conclusion that you needed the health bar explained or else you might not understand Virtua Fighter 5.

I understand the reasoning behind it. I’m sure you do, too. The worst possible outcome for them (and for the CGS, who had more than their fair share of similar idiocies) is that people are turned off because they can’t understand the action. The people behind the scenes are worried that the people in front of the screen won’t be able to follow the action, so they’ll need other things to keep their interest while the action is slowly, with small words, explained to them.

But at what point do we stop and ask ourselves how far is too far? When can we take an honest look at who we’re explaining these things to, and for what purpose?

I think if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we’d realize a few things.
First, we’d realize that there are very, very few people between the ages of five and fifty have never played a video game, seen somebody play a video game, and have no predisposition for technology. There just isn’t. People either have first-hand experience, or their kids are growing up with the stuff, or they play arcade games in bars. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a large group of people that have literally no experience with video games of any kind.

And even if there is some huge block of non-gamers, I think we’d realize that people don’t mind not understanding things right away. Complexity and depth aren’t things to shy away from. Sports are complex. Movies, books, and TV shows are complex. Why do we think people will turn of gaming if it’s complex? And the basics, like health bars, are just that: basic. They don’t need to be explained any more than people need to be told about the card hierarchy in poker games.

Most importantly, we’d realize that we need to stop telling people why gaming is exciting and how it works, and we need to show them those things and let the games themselves do the talking.

There’s a great back-and-forth in an episode of the West Wing. The exchange deals with election-year politics, and how small, insignificant stories (in this case the story was that the fictional President disliked green beans) supposedly swing voters. CJ, the press secretary, tells Charlie Young, the President’s personal assistant, that “everyone’s stupid in an election year, Charlie.” To which he replies, “No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year, CJ.”

Most importantly, we’d realize that we need to stop telling people why gaming is exciting and how it works, and we need to show them those things and let the games themselves do the talking. I feel like we’re running into the same faulty thinking. I’m not arguing we should leave the games totally barren, because that’s just as foolish. I’m all for shoutcasters, announcers, editorialists, pundits, experts, and gaming personalities in all shapes, form, and fashion. It’s just that whenever we try to reach people not directly tied to competitive gaming, I feel as if we treat them as totally unfamiliar with gaming at all. And if that wasn’t enough, we treat them like idiots — people that we need to keep stringing along with superfluous eye candy and distracting narrators because we think they aren’t capable of understanding what makes gaming so appealing in the first place: the competition itself.

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