I can't count the number of times I've heard people talk about getting bested at a videogame by a kid. These stories typically involve people in their thirties (or much older) playing games with their sons/daughters (or nieces/nephews or younger sisters/brothers or younger cousins or friends' sons/daughters, etc.) and getting totally dominated, which then leads them to write on their blogs or talk to their friends about how they can't believe how good this kid is at playing videogames. We've all heard some version of this, or perhaps experienced it firsthand.
Whenever I hear these stories I think to myself, "Of course this kid is good at games, what else does he/she have to do?" or "Just because you suck at videogames doesn't mean this kid is some prodigy that you need to tell the world about." Maybe it's my own competiveness. Maybe I'm too jaded to be impressed by it. But for whatever reason, the phenomenon of older people expressing utter disbelief at the videogame prowess of kids has always left me a little cold. What's so remarkable and awe inspiring about a kid who's good at videogames? Big deal.
I've been thinking about this ever since my 16-year-old brother moved in a few days ago. (It's a long story, but basically he got suspended from his hyper-religious school and will be staying with me for a while.) Videogames aren't allowed at his school, so he hasn't played much lately. I, on the other hand, have been playing games regularly over the past several years. Clearly, I had the advantage. So imagine my surprise when we started playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl and he repeatedly clobbered me in match after match. Granted, he played the previous Smash Bros. games when he was younger, but not any time recently.
It didn't make sense. I'm a seasoned videogame player. I've won competitions. Is there just something inherent in the way the teenage brain works that makes them better at certain kinds of games? Later, we switched over to Call of Duty 4. (He'll be 17 in less than two months, so I figured an M-rated game would be okay.) Much to my surprise, he really struggled with the controls and barely qualified as a "recruit." This was interesting. He had played Halo on the PC several years ago, but he had no appreciable experience with dual-analog first-person shooters.
I'll be interested to see how good my brother gets at CoD4 (if he decides to keep playing it that is). If he quickly surpasses me in skill, then I'll have to assume that either I'm getting old and slow or that teenagers have some kind of innate advantage when it comes to this stuff, or a little of both. If, however, he plays it a lot but doesn't get crazy good at it, then it might suggest that there is some sort of "critical period" for videogame skill acquisition. Neither my brother nor I played any first-person shooters as kids, so we may have equal difficulty in mastering them.
This makes me wonder if gaming skill operates similarly to language acquisition. Maybe my brother's early-life exposure to previous Smash Bros. games gives him a built-in advantage that my practice will never overcome. It could be that after age 12 our brains can't instinctively master certain gameplay styles that we weren't previously exposed to, hence my suckiness at newer fighting games. I'm not saying older people can't master new gameplay styles, but rather that there might be a developmental cutoff after which achieving such mastery becomes much harder.
I'd be curious to know what others think. Is there a "critical period" for videogame skill acquisition? Do teenagers have an innate advantage when it comes to videogames, besides being blessed with more free time?
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