There is a scene in the fourth and final season of Halt and Catch Fire that features a video game so fiendishly difficult that beta testers trek through its mid-90s 3-D graphics landscape for hours, trying in vain to solve puzzles that more often than not just return the player to the beginning. In one sense, the game is a minor variation on one of the show’s ongoing themes: the characters of Halt and Catch Fire consistently fall just short of capitalizing on successive tech breakthroughs of the 1980s and early 1990s. The ground-breaking juggernaut puzzle game Myst, never mentioned in the show, is mere months away.
In the scene, Donna, one of the show’s protagonists, is exploring the mechanics of the game, one hand on the mouse and the other on a glass of Chardonnay. Cameron, the game’s creator, stubbornly insists to the frustrated marketers at Atari bankrolling this imminent dud that she simply “respects the player” too much to make the game easier. But from the looks of it, Donna is the only other human being on the planet who can get past the first puzzle. Donna sits alone at her computer, moving her character gingerly across the landscape. The expanse is vast, but she moves as if on tiptoe. She senses something different here and pauses, observes, takes a sip of wine. There’s a slight glimmer of red just above her. With a few slow, coaxing movements, she teases out a hidden veil of rose petals reaching into the sky. Her eyes widen. She climbs upward, the roses forming a secret ladder out of the barren field, away from the tedious traps leading her back to where she started.
My son has started playing video games — though my wife insists on calling them computer games, based on our divergent experiences with consoles (me) and educational PC games (her) in childhood. I haven’t paid attention to video games for years. I associate them with compulsive behavior and a temper that only video games knew how to wrench out of me. As a non-consumer, I’ve noticed as video games have become more immersive, more impressive, more collaborative and connected. But some part of me always sensed that this just made them worse, that immersion and awe were the very things that made video games so painfully distracting and transporting for me, taking me to places that were hard to come back from.
But my son has a lot of time on his hands and he’s bored. He’s in Zoom school for seven hours a day. He is six and still honest with us, so he tells us each day the games he has been sneaking in during class time. At first he was lost in the morass of junk that I am familiar with from my years as a teacher — “educational games” labeled as such to make it past K-12 web filters, lots of animals collecting coins or race cars going through hoops in the name of learning addition and subtraction (or something). I told him there were better games, so he might as well play those. I did some research, and I found that, in fact, there are much better games.
We started with Monument Valley, which takes advantage of forced perspective to create Escher-like environments that can merge and disconnect as you shift your perspective. A chasm seems to separate two squares, then you rotate your view and collapse the space, and you walk onto the next square as though it were right there next to you.
You could call the game “educational,” with its self-described “sacred geometry.” Although, as with all media, the education value rests in the relationship between the learner and the thing that is ostensibly being taught: concepts can sometimes teach themselves, but we shouldn’t expect it. That is to say, engaging texts can activate auto-didacticism, allowing some people to figure out how to teach themselves without the presence of formal instruction. I am cynical enough about the dubious value of so-called “educational gaming,” however, to recognize that my main criteria for finding kid-friendly video games, as it is when introducing new music or movies or television to my children, is whether I actually think the thing is any good. And what “good” means, in the context of what I want to model for them, is bound up not in what it’s called or what it claims to do, but in its opportunities to pause, to observe, to test, to figure things out for themselves.
In that respect, I was concerned Monument Valley might be a little too challenging for my son, since I had trouble with a few parts of it myself. But then, I am a brute force player, the kind of player who would have made no progress in Cameron’s game. I can remember exactly where I got stuck and abandoned games whose solution I could never see, usually for lack of attention to details. (I never finished Myst.) But it turns out that my son is like Donna, able to assess the rules and features of the game meticulously and methodically, tiptoeing this way and that, until solutions reveal themselves piece by piece. He beat Monument Valley in a week and beat its sequel in a day.
Because there is such a glut of games now, and so many of them are bad, I find myself caught in a thicket of junk trying to find something worth offering. Eventually my son will find his own paths into video games, and his own tastes will guide him, as they do now in music — he’s moved on to Disney Channel movies about sexy teen zombies. The world of popular culture is his to navigate now, with less and less guidance from me, as it should be. I wonder how he’ll make heads or tails of all of it.
I was born in 1984, so by the time I was a kid it was possible to have a working knowledge of the entire history of video games. I was old enough at an early enough stage in the development of video games to keep up to date with new innovations across platforms, studios, and trends. My friend Frank Kogan once remarked on how the range of American popular music albums was a bit like that for him as a kid in the 60’s — graspable, if large — whereas by the time I was young, it was literally impossible to keep track of popular music in a way that even gestured at completism. Now I listen to about 1,000 new songs a week, many for mere seconds at a time, and I engage with only an infinitesimal fraction of the output of recorded music, let alone a firm grasp of music history. Having kids has helped me finally throw up my hands at even pretending to keep up, though I probably listen to more new music now than I did when I was a teenager hacking my way through music history via Napster and the BMG Music Club as I played video games in the basement, a continuation and acceleration of my instantaneous access to music online.
Video games are more like music in that way now. So I’ve stuck to what I consider a mode of gameplay rather than any strict criteria about platforms or subject matter or restrictions (though there are a few) or perceptions of “educational value.” I usually look for those Cameron games, the kind of games that you need to untangle your way through, making small adjustments until the solution reveals itself. These games tend to eschew the competitive and violent elements of the vast majority of video games I’ve played. Their objectives can be somewhat obscure and the pleasures require patience. They don’t have a specific subject to teach, but they cultivate an orientation to what games are — spaces for unhurried problem-solving. They tend to have no time limits, no “lives,” no traps, no dire consequences. When you aren’t solving them, they wait with you, humming quietly as you think.
My son loves the Vectorpark games, especially Windosill (my favorite is the uncanny Feed the Head). Vectorpark specializes in touchscreen games in which most visual elements have some interactive quality. Things can be knocked over, spun, squeezed, and otherwise jostled by touch, but you can’t just click around any way you like. I was stumped at the game’s final level, in which you need to open a series of tiny doors in a specific order and timing, and, poking around it on my phone, started to feel some of that frustration that I used to feel. But one day after school my son came down and explained that he’d figured it out, then described at great length every door you needed to open, when you needed to open them, which doors will stay open for how long, and on and on.
He has taken to this kind of breathless description of game mechanics, remembering exactly the ways in which he solved the puzzle and patiently (and sometimes pedantically) explaining what to do. And because he is exploring these games when the alternative is to attend to school work he has already completed, he can start to hone his skills in the game and come back with new solutions that are faster or more interesting: “It turns out you can hold the bird’s head — you could take 59 years to go through the door and he still wouldn’t be able to get you!”
Ultimately video games teach you how to play video games. As with reading comprehension, there are a few, but limited, transferable skills (using a controller or joystick, understanding certain tropes). Savant-like ability in one game does not necessarily transfer to another. But I do think there is something a bit different about games whose express purpose is to learn its own rules with patience and care. So many games of my childhood, and so many simple apps that I’ll test out now, are essentially brute force games — go faster, fight harder. You increase your power as you go, and as your power increases, your tasks get easier. These games make it easy, and sometimes preferable, to flat-out cheat. I wonder if, had I mastered this other orientation to gaming, I would have actually internalized the lesson that patience can be a virtue. In so many video games, patience is, in fact, not a virtue at all, and in many cases even a moment’s pause will cost you everything.
The whole point of Pilgrim is that the world is not quite as it seems, and you need to understand the contours of the game, the totality of what’s around you, before you can see what’s been right in front of you the whole time. You need to wait. You need to think. In a game whose graphics are remarkable (and perhaps a bit anachronistic) for the early nineties, the temptation is to see how far you can run, how high you can climb. But it is the player who is observant and painstaking who reaps the rewards. There is a way to approach gaming that diminishes conflict and competition and violence and privileges the ways in which games can focus us, reveal new things to us, let us try to think differently, by taking in a fuller picture of what is before us and seeing it in as many different ways as possible. Perhaps this is ultimately a way to learn how to be still, be observant, be patient. This seems like an important thing to have models for, and something that can be difficult to teach, especially if the teacher has trouble embodying it. I wouldn’t have thought to look for these lessons in video games, which so often model a roiling conflict and perpetual distraction. But some can model a world where, if you tread lightly and take the time to rest and think, you might see that there were answers everywhere you were careful enough to look for them.