• Some important questions about video games and how we learn. Seriously.

    I’ve always been a pretty good video game player. In my adolescence, I was great. My brother and I could zip through Super Mario Bros, fly through Star Fox, and no one, I repeat no one, could take me in Mario Kart. I was so good at Golden Eye that patients would seek me out to play late at night when I was a resident (which is a whole other story). As I’ve gotten older, and as gaming systems have advanced, I have remained a pretty good player; but I’m not nearly as good as I used to be.

    It’s not for lack of practice. The number of hours I’ve spent in Tamriel and Ferelden is borderline shameful. We own plenty of first person shooters, too, and I can hold my own in the campaigns. But when I play others… it’s not pretty anymore.

    Even my boys (13 and 11) can take me handily in all sorts of games. The last few versions of Mario Kart, from which my legend was born, have even been an uphill climb. I rarely win, and sometimes I find myself in the middle of the pack.

    These aren’t games with huge learning curves. We know how to race cars in games. Right out of the box, they’re kicking my butt, and no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to catch up.

    I assumed it was something to do with getting older. I figured that my reflexes are slowing, or that video games are built for younger nervous systems. But two things have made me question all of this, and I wonder if there’s something bigger going on here.

    The first was that we dug up our old Nintendo 64 recently. My whole family (even Aimee) has been playing old school Mario Party (1,2, and 3), and Mario Kart 64, simply the greatest racing game of all time (DO NOT DISPUTE ME). And in those games… I am absolutely reigning supreme.

    I don’t mean I’m doing well. I’m unbeatable. It’s frustrating my boys to no end. Any course. Any class of engine… I’m crushing them. It’s like it used to be. I just know what to do. Same with every Mario party mini-game.

    The second is that we just bought Super Mario Maker. This game… it’s unreal. Using simple mechanics, you can design your own boards in any version of the Super Mario Bros franchises. You can test them out, and even upload them for others to play (my first real attempt is 1581-0000-0087-A01E, so go play it).

    Once again, no matter what board we play – I’m the king. I can make Mario do anything. I can fly through a board in a near-panicked sprint and never worry about missing a jump. My kids are amazed. My timing is flawless, my reflexes lightning-fast. I have the hands of a twelve-year-old.

    So here’s the thing. In the games of my youth, I am still amazing. Even with practice, my kids can’t catch me. But in new games, I can’t perform that well, and I can’t learn my way into being better. I have a couple hypotheses here, and I’d like your thoughts. Even better, I’d like some evidence to help me decide what’s right:

    1. New games are fundamentally different than old ones, and favor different skills. Maybe I’m a certain kind of player, and games of yore were pitched to me. Today’s games are different, require different skills, and are better suited to my boys. We will just be better at some than others. This would require there to be some fundamental shift in how Mario Kart 64 mechanics work vs Mario Kart 8.
    2. My kids haven’t had enough time to learn the older games, and when they do, I’m going to lose. I don’t think this is the case, though. After all, racing games are racing games. But I can’t win at Mario Kart 8 (or 7 or 6), and I can’t lose at Mario Kart 64. Vice versa for my boys. I can’t win in any recent version of Madden NFL, but I was a champion in Tecmo Bowl.
    3. Whatever skills I laid down in my childhood remain with me into adulthood. This is the one I’m excited about, and the one I hope there’s evidence for. Maybe whatever I learned in some critical period of my development stays with me long after. Maybe I no longer have the ability to learn how to play Halo like a champ, but learning to be world class at controlling Mario and Luigi remains programmed into my brain. Is that possible?

    Or, maybe it’s something else. I’m open to suggestions. My hands and eyes still retain whatever skills I had at the games of my childhood, and those seem not to be as developed in my kids, who excel at more modern games. What’s going on here?

    I’m going to open comments here for a bit, but I also encourage you to discuss with me on Twitter.


    • Your children will likely never learn the games as well as you did due to a lack of social context providing equivalent motivation. Newer options are generally more appealing for more people, so while Mario Kart 64 and Goldeneye were the height of living-room entertainment almost twenty years ago, it’s a much tougher sell today. Lacking this motivation, they likely won’t dedicate the time nor the neurons to mastering the intricacies you did.

      You did skim over the issue of your not getting as good at the newer games as your children are getting. The new games are certainly different in an important way, they are designed to be more chaotic in order to reduce the importance of skill in outcomes. By increasing the power of chaotic elements, lower-skill players are better able to compete against higher-skill players. They have basically taken the blue shell concept and cranked it higher. You can see this in games like the Smash Brothers series where low-skill accessibility is emphasized over competitiveness.

      So, the newer Kart and Party games are different, but you are probably not developing skill in them nearly as voraciously as your children are capable of. While I suspect that popular conception over the reduction of plasticity of the brain is overblown, there is another angle to consider here. When you go back and play these games you got very good at, you get similar pangs of nostalgic recognition as you do when you listen to music from your youth or smell foods you enjoyed in the past. When you experience the new things, they are similar enough that your brain goes into comparison mode and simply due to the fact that the new ones aren’t triggering the nostalgia that the old ones are, you will judge them more poorly. This judgement reduces motivation to excel at them and therefore you are going to devote less time and mind-space to developing the new skills required for these somewhat different games.

      • I’d agree to the chaos components if I could win some of the time. But that ain’t the case!

        • The chaos in the game doesn’t negate skill, it subtly changes how skill is applied. How offensive and defensive you need to be. In mastering the older games you have learned things which are not directly applicable to the new ones. Your ability to learn the new ones is frustrated by the conflict with your old knowledge. You think you should take an inside line when you should be going middle. You mis-value power-ups. The basic rhythm of the game is different from the rhythm which your mind learned from the old one and your brain resists setting the old one aside since it is so familiar.

    • Are you sure it’s not just a matter of putting in more hours in both cases of new and old?

      I grew up playing all those games and stopped playing video games for a long time.

      Then I picked the hobby up again with games like Call of Duty. I was absolutely horrible for a very long time, but with enough practice I became pretty good.

      The people who have played the most hours on any game will win in that game, IMO.

      • Oh, I’ve put in plenty of hours into some newer games, and I can’t beat kids who have put in far fewer…

    • I vote for retained skill memory. Here’s some anecdotes: I played trombone through my 25th year. Then I changed tracks and went to medical school and didn’t play for the next 10 years – at all. I was pretty good when I stopped – I didn’t have a job in a big orchestra but I was getting there. When I picked it up again, it was like I never stopped (minus some muscle strength and flexibility which came back fast). My face just remembered what to do. I can still whip plenty of young’uns even though I never practice anymore. And my old teacher was famous for never practicing and outplaying anyone and everyone. Once you learn very specific skills – especially when young – the skills are retained.

      Hence, you’re good at the games you learned/spent time with when young. Now you’re old (I can say that – you’re my age) and you just wont’ pick up new skills as quickly or efficiently and your kids will.

      Why can’t they learn to whip your butt on the old games? My guess is that they will never spend as much time NOW on them as you did THEN, because all the games that do exist NOW are there for them to play as well, and they are somehow different in the fine skills needed. If they had nothing else to play but old Mario Kart, I bet they would eventually equal you.

    • Sounds like you’re having problems with the dual-joystick format. It radically changes the mechanics. You have to be able to “feel” your way through a game, and your vidya intuition is based on the old analogue controllers. Your kids have played very few games with a retro controller.

      • Interesting. Hadn’t considered this.

        But Super Mario Maker is played with modern controllers!

        • Don’t you move with the D-pad?

        • It’s the difference in intuition that I’m talking about. The second joystick adds a new dimension of gameplay that must be “felt.”
          While goldeneye was a great FPS, maybe the best, it lacks the feeling of fluidity when I play it. I’m also terrible at Mario Kart 64, but I do horrible things to the n00bz in online FPS games.

    • Virgin ears… that’s what we call it.

      I work for a company that makes very sophisticated software, primarily for military applications. Other companies make similar software.

      When training new users (i.e. new recruits) they learn very quickly. However, if they’ve previously been trained on a competitors system then often have a great deal of difficulty in the “conversion.” My colleagues in the military (and even at some of our competitors) tell me the reverse is also true — that if they learned our system first it’s very difficult for users to convert to their system.

      In short, it seems to be a lot easier to acquire a new skill than to change an old skill.

    • #3 would also require that #1 be true. If the games are fundamentally the same, then the skills to play the game must be fundamentally the same. Your old skills should work on the new games if, as you suggest, racing games are racing games.

    • Have you considered peer input? When you were younger you paired with siblings and/or friends over new games and, knowingly or not, collaborated to learn the nuances and tricks of the games. Even if you were competing you were talking about them among your peers as a social thing in other contexts. You may have even read the tips books at the bookstore then. Do you do that now?

      If I understood you correctly you are in a competitive stance with your sons over games (new and old) which is not the same interaction. I’m not trying to be offensive when I say the word patriarchal came to my mind. It reminds me of those moments with my sons where I realize they fundamentally communicate with me differently than with others. That is true even when I try to teach them things. An established pattern always wants to emerge.

      Have you tried altering the play session and made it more of a mutual challenge to overcome? Divulged your knowledge like a peer? If not, try remembering how you talked about it and played it with when you were with mutual childhood friends. Then try replicating that interaction over the old games for your sons and see if they come up to speed.

      • Oh, there’s no competitive attitude. I love when they beat me at games of all types. Nothing but pride!

    • I have often wondered the same! My standard was Smash Brothers, being able to consistently win (at least a proportionately high amount of the time) on the 64 version, but never able to beat my younger brothers on any later version. And not for a lack of trying.

      My other old standard was Super Bomberman. Unbeatable 🙂

    • I think you’ve hit the mark with your third hypothesis. Examples:

      Skateboards then (remember banana boards?) versus now (my first car wasn’t as big!)

      Computers. My first was a Vic 20. You had to save your code to cassette tape. My kids don’t have that skill. Or the patience to learn. BUT they could thumb type this message faster than speak it. Me? It’s taking FOREVER.

      Cars. I excel with a stick. Only one of my three ever got the hang of it (several years after getting her license in her dad’s automatic) and has to relearn every time she drives my car.

      But my favorite?

      Roller skating. Being a teenager circa 1980, I spent a lot of time at the local rink. I mean A LOT. When my kids were young (about the same age I was when disco was dying), it was all about roller BLADES. I couldn’t make it across the driveway on the blasted things and was lucky not to have seriously damaged body as well as ego. I made the trip to my mother’s just so I could dig my old skates out of the attic. While my kids were rapidly learning turns and jumps on their inlines, I was running circles around them and boogieing down. Can still do it, too. And now the good old roller skates have become more readily available again, my daughter can’t get her feet to move in them well enough to keep up with her 4-year old.

      The circle is wonderful. At 50, I’m having a blast and teaching my granddaughter how to do the hustle.

    • The general consensus in the literature is that adults perform much better than adolescents or children in tasks requiring cognitive control. Adults perform make fewer errors and respond more quickly. Cognitive control paradigms generally involve suppression of prepotent responses, such as reflexes or highly-trained stimulus-action mappings. In my own data I see this as well. Furthermore, in almost all cases, the experimental tasks measuring cognitive control are entirely novel to participants, young and old alike. So, in as much as these video games require cognitive control to win, you have the advantage.

      More speculatively: adolescents are probably more sensitive to rewards, and possibly more willing to take risks. They might explore the state-space of the game more thoroughly, or more randomly (because they take risks? because they do not have as much control perhaps?), and so might not get stuck in “local maxima” like you. You may be employing heuristics that work well (very well) in your old games, but no so well in the new games, while your children do not. Also, newer games are often more visually complex. I do not know, and have not consulted the literature on this, but young people might be better at processing these more complicated visual fields. In the older game, not only would these performance differences matter less, but you have familiarity to aid you. Finally, there may be an issue of motivation. You have achieved mastery in the older games; you pride yourself in that mastery. You have a lot to lose by losing those games. You may not feel the same pressure to prove your self in these newer games, especially when playing your children.