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Playing games for the first time as an adult is harder than you think

When you miss the training of your childhood

PS4 controller light Polygon

Gaming subculture is often not inviting to those unfamiliar with the basic framework of the industry.

It isn't just those who occupy spaces within the layered “gamer” identity that bristle at the novices, but the enterprise itself has grown more focused on those who have made gaming language a central component of their lives. The barriers attributed to gaming involve more than the language, and periodically one notices the class barriers that make gaming culture inaccessible to certain fragments of society.

The games we play, and the products that accompany them, are habitually associated with a specific caricature: that of the young, middle-class enthusiast. It costs money to buy all those systems and games to learn how to play and gain the background knowledge that gaming culture so often demands of its members.

While recent data shows two-thirds of American households play some form of video game, we rarely hear about those who are just now wading into the choppy waters of this increasingly insular subculture, especially when it comes to the amateurs who now find themselves stunted by early financial impediments.

I'm one of those people. At times this experience for new players can be reminiscent of those wanting to join fandoms of certain music groups or a television series only to be viewed as being as a kind of infiltrator, someone to be viewed with suspicion due to not growing up with an extensive knowledge of the source material.

How does this happen?

The first potent memory I have of encountering a videogame was sometime in the mid 90s. I walked into a friend's bedroom after hearing the high-pitched pings of what I would soon learn was a Mario game.

She was sitting on the floor in front of her personal television, captivated and swaying from side to side as though she was a part of the game. I asked her if I could have a turn and she said no, so later I stole a small Polly Pocket figure from her dollhouse and stashed it in my dad's Lincoln during the ride home.

He sold the car the next day. I didn't care that I'd lost the Polly Pocket doll because all I could think about was that game and how badly I wanted it. But as a kid you know more than what you should at times about the way things are. And the way that things were at home wouldn't have allowed for something so frivolous and expensive.

I played a game for the first time as a teenager, after buying one of those all-in-one TV plug-in units with 50-plus games. It was terrible, looking back, but the plug-and-play TV devices were cheaper than buying a console and game.

My inaugural encounter with a genuine video game on a brand name console happened in 2013 with Grand Theft Auto 5, of all things. I ended up reluctantly playing at a friend's house after I admitted that I'd never played a video game.

“What do you mean you've never played a game?,” he asked. The question came out like a laugh, because he was expecting me to say that I was joking. He realized I wasn’t kidding after I crashed multiple stolen cars while asking which button did what. It’s been years, but I'm still unable to feel the ease and familiarity that I see when others pick up a controller. I don’t have the same years of training.

Gaming is a hobby, but you’re expected to already be good at it as an adult since your practice years happen as a child. But for those of us just starting out it can feel like people mocking you for not being able to play a musical instrument the first time you pick it up.

It isn’t easy

Playing video games for the first time is similar to learning another language. Everything from the more foundational and classic “noob” and “pwn” to things like “griefer” and “spammer.” It feels as though it gets harder to navigate this terrain without help the older you get, and the terminology is getting more and more specialized. Anyone getting into a game like World of Warcraft is already expected to know the language and how it relates to the game.

Here’s a short look at just some of the acronyms:

It gets thick pretty quickly

There is also the issue of the many popular franchises that assume a knowledge of past games and knowledge of the fan communities that have grown around them.

These devoted fans are not always welcoming of newcomers, and you're often made to prove how much of a genuine fan you are. No one has the time to go back and play a childhood’s amount of games in order to have the knowledge to prove you belong, but gaming sometimes feels like a series of entrance exams.

I haven't yet managed to become that swaying friend I visited as a child, who was engulfed by video games as she grew older. My hands still clumsily tiptoe around every button on borrowed controllers, and I'm not nearly capable of analyzing the composition of the games I play outside of things like visuals and story.

You have to spend a lot of time looking at how everything fits together before you can evaluate it in any effective way. Game developers are often looking for that kind of evaluation though, because if the game can make sense to a first-time player, it’s doing a lot of things right, without relying on past, assumed knowledge.

It’s not that I don’t like games or that I’m not a real fan, it’s that I’m grown up and just starting out. Gaming, as a hobby, often seems to want to crush people in my position more than it wants to welcome them, and that’s a bummer.

Those articles and videos you may mock for being too simple or that explain basic terms and information that you take for granted? They’re helpful for people like me; we click on them or watch them and then don’t comment. Who wants to point out what they don’t know when ignorance is often seen as a mortal sin in gaming?

Still, there's something exciting about being so easily moved by what many have already passed over in their journey toward bigger and better games. I am still unashamedly apprehensive when playing modern video games, many of which are building upon a long base of fans and knowledge, but there’s comfort in the fact that I can step back and pick up the Mario games that left me spellbound as a kid.

I may not be any good at Grand Theft Auto, but I'm one hell of a Mario. And I’m learning.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney-based writer whose work focuses on poverty, race and left organizing.

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