The fastest way to make someone a gamer is put a gun in their hand.
Regardless of your social background or gender, at some stage you picked up a stick and shouted ’bang!’ It almost certainly wasn’t even a particularly straight stick. If you’re my age then you probably didn’t even pick one that had the right knobbly bits where a laser designator, sound suppressor, front grip and grenade launcher would have been. Call of Duty has ruined sticks, by the way.
Both boys and girls have done this for centuries, and anyone who grew up too poor to afford a stick simply made do by straightening their first two fingers and the thumb pointing straight up, and then poked one of the rich children until they gave you their stick.
The 21st century has saved us from the onerous task of every having to go outside again. Today's stick is the lightgun, and it is the gateway drug par excellence of the gaming world. My own beloved Player Two had a passing acquaintance with Mario Kart, was on nodding terms with Bomberman, and probably knew enough Super Smash Bros to feel awkward sharing an elevator with it like she really should say ’hello’ or something. I can draw a direct line between that happy-go-lucky casual gamer, thanks to the re-emergence of light gun games on the Wii, to the fearless Player Two Spartan who schooled the Covenant from Reach to New Mombasa. Who watched my back through both Left 4 Dead apocalypses. Who together put us on the very top Co-Op Leaderboard slot in our country’s Dead Nation ranking. I owe this all to the little white stick that you can just point at the screen, pull the trigger, and it’ll go ’bang’.
The two biggest obstacles to a novice player joining in with one who has a few more hours (read decades) of playtime are their own expectations, and what they believe Player One’s expectations to be.
The first element of this is in the joypad controller itself. Every Player Two is perfectly aware that they want to put a bullet in the head of yonder zombie, but every time they do they seem to end up emptying their clip at their own feet, or the distant uncaring clouds. Their own expectations of what they want to do, defeated by the unfamiliar joypad, fast builds frustration. Ninety-nine percent of budding Player Two’s will never go past that first blush with games because of their frustration with not being in control. Double shame on any Player One who expressed dissatisfaction on them at this point, as they just shot themselves in the foot more certainly than anyone having their first encounter with X-Y axis sticks.
The Wii took away that interface frustration, and did it for more 'hardcore' games than just Harvest Moon. Player Two was now every bit as familiar with how to shoot the undead as Player One , as both had an equally solid grounding in picking up sticks and saving the imaginary day. But this was not the only way in which the lightgun feeds the burgeoning Player Two’s appreciation of gaming, how connected they feel to the experience. Outside of the terrifying niches of bullet hell and impossibly difficult puzzle games, we want to be made to feel like the hero. We only want to pretend to be James Bond if we get to be a magnificent licensed-to-kill agent. To truly hook Player Two the game must have them kicking ass and taking names from the outset, untrammelled by getting stuck behind a low sofa, becoming lost in a closet, or being stymied by where to press the ‘open door’ button. The Wii, through the medium of the on-rails shooter, took away everything that stood in the way of lining up enemies to destroy, without diminishing the excitement of being a hero. Nothing is left but the immediate cause-and-effect of shooting the various nefarious. Victory was had through a control system that was instantly useable, along with the delicious, indelible taste of real gaming. Not planting crops or tickling a virtual kitten or teasing out the last jenga block, but the incomparable sense of annihilating alien scum. A game without a sense of place and character and story is just a collection of pretty lights that make interesting noises and is quickly forgotten. It is thanks to the B-movie lunacy of House of the Dead Overkill that a player can be introduced to the raw fun of not just beating the enemy but blowing them to comedy smithereens. Particular appreciation should be given to Dead Space Extraction as a title that proved that the lightgun format was no barrier to an engaging plot, genuine characterisation, and a storyline that you genuinely wanted to play through to the end.