9 games for non-gamers

Yesterday, I had the joys of getting one of my non-gamer friends hooked on a game. Getting to watch Mir laugh and stumble through building a lattice to make a bridge for a bunch of wobbly goo balls to cross over was totally worth the teensy $20 I paid for World of Goo.

People who were weaned mostly on games as children, rather than other forms of media - Saturday morning cartoons, sci-fi movies, dungeons and dragons - continue to approach problems from a different perspective as they move into adulthood. For example, we tend to interpret architecture and industrial design different, after subconsciously studying the worlds we previously walked through, built from the imagination of the game creator's mind. There are other nuances within gaming, of course, such as the type of games played (educational, sandbox, interactive storytelling, entertainment, etc), as well as within the different [constantly changing] genres of games - first person, strategic, puzzle, and others.

Whether I'm having a conversation about politics, technology or society with someone, the ideas that get thrown around between people who are (or were at some point) at least moderately invested in gaming tend to take on a distinctly more constructivist approach. This often leads to a more holistic understanding of not only the topic at hand but also the other person's stance on the issue. I take for granted that not everyone I deal with is/was a gamer, and so I often find myself expressing frustration at concepts and context that I assume are common knowledge, when in fact, they aren't. Of course, this reflects more on me being an occasional insensitive douchebag than on them lacking any knowledge. What follows is a list for these people (people who don't play video games, not people who think I'm a douchebag - their list is long enough as it is).

Being able to visualize a problem or object in 3D, in scale and from different angles, is, for me, a critical skill that I use constantly - and one which has been continuously honed through years of gaming. I don't fully understand why certain people have trouble visualizing three-dimensional scenes (beyond the pansy medical reasons like motion sickness, vertigo or epilepsy). The difference in how we absorb knowledge and information from media is very interesting to me as an empiricist, and in my own life I've found that I more readily retain lessons and ideas taken from games than from, say, books, music or film.

While all these forms of media can be used to transfer knowledge, only gaming allows you to experiment with your own decisions about how to approach a problem, and empowers you with the ability to influence the outcome. Most of the time, a three-dimensional universe aids greatly with the belief that we're actually "inside" the game's universe and that decisions we make in there have a very real and measurable effect on this virtual world. This feeling of empowerment can be extremely useful in developing problem-solving skills, especially in children. In conjunction with dynamic storytelling and immersive environments where the player can suspend their disbelief long enough to make informed choices in the game, we have at our disposal a powerful method for knowledge transfer, learning, and skill development from an early age, that has sadly so far been used mainly to sell violent, cookie-cutter shooting games where the objective is to kill as many people as possible, or mindless guitar rhythm games that fool us into thinking we're learning how to play an instrument, when all we're really doing is playing Simon on LSD.

There are, however, lots of games that build upon the aforementioned benefits while sending a message that would probably be more socially acceptable to most people than the violent mainstream games that get the most press these days.

Here then, is a list of my recommended games mostly intended for my non-gamer friends who don't quite know where to start, but are interested in learning more about games and how they help us interpret the world around us. Whether they do this by making us practice our problem-solving skills, taking us through a gripping storyline via a well-developed plot and deep characters, showing us a unique and novel way to interact with our environment, or simply building an engaging world believable and enjoyable enough for us to willingly become a part of it, at least a few games out of this wide variety should pique your interest enough to try one out. I've tried to make sure that all games listed are (or will be) available on either PC or Mac as well as on their console brethren, since not many non-gamers will be willing to pick up an Xbox 360, Playstation 3 or Nintendo Wii just to try out a game. Not all of these are kid-friendly, mind you - but then, most of my friends are grown-ups. Or pretend to be.

World Of Goo

This delightful little 2D physics-based puzzle game is perfect for engineers and architects - both budding and actual. In it, you use little [adorable] balls of goo (hence the name...) to build structures in order to help them get from their starting points into a pipe, usually located somewhere increasingly difficult-to-reach in the level. Different types of goo balls have different properties, and it's up to you to figure out how to use these properties to reach your objective. The artwork is beautifully simple, and the story lightly touches on themes such as consumerism and superficial beauty (although the core of the game is, really, the gameplay).

Who should play it: Anyone who wants to exercise their neurons after a long day of work in a fun and humorous way, and who wants to practice challenging themselves in continuously finding a better way to solve a problem. Also, if you're an anti-DRM person like me, you'll be pleased to know that World of Goo eschews copy protection for the honor system, and that in itself is a reason to support the developers.

Available on:

PC, Wiiware, Linux (soon), and Mac

Fallout 3

The much-hyped first-person adventure game Fallout 3, released last month to critical acclaim, is one of my favorite games of all-time. The Fallout universe is quite old, and its artwork and lore has a very distinctive look to them. For Fallout 3, the setting is a post-apocalyptic, accurate Metro DC - or the "Capital Wasteland", as it's called in the game - complete with subway stations, monuments, and, umm, whatever else is left over from the nuclear war that devastated the world in this alternate future. As an inhabitant of one of the "Vaults" - huge underground cities built to protect humans from the nuclear fallout after the war, you eventually decide to leave the safety of the Vault in order to find your father, who went missing. Hilarious dialog, epic adventure and amusingly violent decapitations ensue.

Who should play it: People who want to see what "interactive storytelling" can really achieve when it's done right. The decisions you make in the game - and there are lots of them - have a very real and discernible effect on the game world you live in. Your character needs to eat, sleep, be healed, and tend to his (or her) radiation, and the other people you meet each have their own personalities and motivations. You actually care about them, or hate them, enough to accept that they're "real" people. The voice acting is superb, the graphics are great, and though there is some combat (and gore), the overarching beauty of the game is the story and the decisions you make, from the time you're born until, well, you'll see. Also, Fallout 3 doesn't use any invasive DRM.

Available on: PC (best, but you'll need good recent hardware) and Xbox 360.


Braid is a standard platforming game (think Super Mario Brothers) with a twist - the ability to manipulate time. This ability becomes essential when you realize that you can only reach some platforms and doorways by going back in time, or by stopping time so that certain objects are in their required place by the time you reach them. The first few levels are simple enough, but get more and more complex as you progress through the game. As in World of Goo, there is subtle political and social commentary hidden within the game, though exactly what that commentary is has been the subject of heated discussion on boards across the net.

Who should play it: People who haven't played video games since Super Mario Brothers, but want to get back into it while also figuring out time- mind-twisting puzzles with slightly more depth than boring Sudoku puzzles, while at the same time appreciating great artwork.

Available on: Xbox 360, PC (soon)


Portal is a first-person, 3D puzzle game with a very simple premise - complete a series of puzzles where your only objective is to make it from the beginning of a chamber to the end. The tricky part is that most of these can only be solved by creating inter-spatial "portals", using a handheld device that you acquire early on in the game, combined with a variety of other implements (such as the lovable Weighted Companion Cube) and tools scattered in each level, all the while being taunted with cake by a murderous AI known as Glados.

Who should play it: Along with Braid, in Portal you'll find some of the most "mind-fucking -expanding" puzzles to appear in video games in a long time. the 3D aspect forces you to constantly rethink your perspective, as "up" is always whichever way you want it to be. Physics concepts such as momentum and conservation of energy come into play, and the dark, dry humor scattered throughout the game will leave you laughing out loud at several points during the story.

Available on: PC, Xbox 360, PS3

Black and White

One of the older games on this list, Black and White (and, to a lesser extent, its sequel, Black and White 2) explores the concepts of good and evil, moral relativity, and consciousness, by placing the player into the role of a God, whose objective is to gain dominance over the villagers on an island, either by becoming feared or loved. They can do this by helping the villagers in their day-to-day lives, or by scaring them into submission with firestorms and lightning. As a God, you also have an avatar on the island, a giant creature that can be trained to react on its own by training it much like like you would train a pet, through repetition and reward.

Who should play it: Anyone interested in how video games can be used to explore the concepts of good and evil, without getting in the player's way. The ability to "train" AI to behave a certain way is also as impressive and fun today as it was wayyyyy back in 2001, when the game was developed. This is also a great game to play with children, as it is a sort of "sandbox" that lets you explore different ways to overcome adversity and face challenges.

Available on: PC, Mac

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Also an older title, this is one of the only games on the list that isn't really open intended and doesn't really have much puzzle-solving or mind-teasing. The reason I'm including it here is solely on the basis on its story, its setting, and its character development. Sequel to The Longest Journey - although you don't need to have played it to follow the story - the story is of note because of the high quality of the voice acting, the believability of the characters, and the rich mythos the runs throughout the game. In case you couldn't tell yet, I dig games that aren't afraid to pick at controversial social questions, even when they do so in a nuanced and ambiguous way.

Who should play it: Lovers of deep, engrossing tales who aren't yet convinced that a video game can build a storyline as compelling as those found in books or movies. Also interesting to know is that the game's protagonists (both of them) are female, and fairly atypical at that. As a bonus, they're both hot. Finally, the main developer has a blog.

Available on: PC

Mirror's Edge

I hesitated to include Mirror's Edge in this list, as its reviews have been lukewarm and if there was ever a game to induce motion sickness in all of mankind, Mirror's Edge certainly has that potential. However, that same nausea-inducing camera movement that follows wherever Faith (the protagonist) happens to be looking, provides an incredible sense of speed, depth and perspective within an environment. This is the kind of game that I look at and come up with all sorts of amazing ideas to transplant to other fields I work in, like e-Learning. The developers took a chance with the game, and I do hope they keep exploring it in more detail while fixing some of the niggles that reviewers had about it. Oh, in it you play a hot tattooed chick named Faith in a sterile, pseudo-Utopian future city who illegally runs across the tops of skyscrapers to deliver messages by hand, since all electronic communication is under surveillance.

Who should play it: Well, first of all, people who don't get motion sickness easily, and aren't afraid of heights. If you can handle that, then the rewarding feeling of running through a level while maintaining speed and momentum is totally worth the time investment required to learn all of Faith's cool moves. Beyond that, it's just a very impressive game to play or watch, and inspires with its animation and coolly stylized visuals.

Available on: PC (soon), Xbox 360, PS3

Dead Space

In stark contrast to most of the other games here, Dead Space is ultraviolent, gory, not kid-friendly, claustrophobic, nerve-wracking, and scary as hell. It's a well-hidden secret that I'm really scared of scary movies, and so the only way I could play this game was at my buddy's place. Even then, there were enough panicked "Argh!"s and unsettled "What the fuck!"s to make you think you were in a grade 8 detention room - granted, most of those came from me, as my friends are generally more stalwart than I. There are lots of cheap scares, tempered with lots of gross-out / gory moments, and a strong sense of ominous foreboding that I've almost never felt before in a video game (with the exception of two of my other favorite all-time games, Eternal Darkness on the Nintendo Gamecube and System Shock 2 on the PC). I don't want to give away too much of the story, but I can tell you that you're part of a team of engineers sent on a routine mission to repair a damaged mining ship, only to find out that things have went terribly wrong, as most of these things tend to. Dismemberment is a central theme of the game! The gameplay is fun and believable, though it does get somewhat repetitive at certain points. Then there's the innovative and unique interface, which doesn't feature a heads up display but instead integrates all important telemetry data into your character's suit.

Who should play it: Horror fans. Sci-Fi fans. If you're both, then you owe it yourself to play this game. If you're an audio- or videophile like me, and you have an HDTV and a powerful PC, you'll basically sit in awe at the opening sequence, which is one of the most powerful - and beautiful - starting points of any game I've ever played (yes, including Bioshock). The entire game is eerie and beautiful. To all my friends who ask me why I can't stand to look at World of Warcraft or Second Life for more than 30 seconds at a time, it's because games like Dead Space have spoiled me with their high-res textures and flawless animation, and make WoW and SL look like someone's cat puked all over a 5-polygon 3D landscape on my monitor. Finally, the story is so well constructed that there's an entire brand being built around it, comics, full-length film and all.

Available on: PC (best, but needs recent hardware and a gamepad), Xbox 360, PS3


Audiosurf is another one of those great indie games that's cheap, easy to get into, and fun in short bursts. It's a simple racing game where you pilot a ship through an obstacle course and try to build patterns out of matching colored blocks, by driving over them. The goal is to score as many points as possible. All of this sounds conventional enough, except that all the courses are synced with music in your own MP3 (or other DRM-free format) library. You can load any song from your computer, and Audiosurf will generate a track based on the characteristics of the audio file. There are different ships with different abilities, and you can compare your score on a particular song against thousands of other players via the online leaderboards.

Who should play it: Music lovers who are interested in trying out a novel way to visually experience their music collection. The environments really do follow the "flow" of the song you choose very closely, and the difficulty of the game is linearly related to the tempo of the song currently playing. It's a cool game to just sit down and chill with, and OCD points lovers will like the challenge of trying to beat the top scores on their favorite songs.

Available on: PC


Monday, November 24th, 2008
mir's picture

I am stuck at the goo bridge over fisty's bog. I can't stop the bridge from collapsing. Damn you high school physics.

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008
stevenmansour's picture

Fisty's Bog was a bitch. Just wait until you get to Misty's Long Bony Road.

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008
al's picture

Ok, well with all due respect I played lots of games as a kid. Many of them were board games - Scrabble, some terrible hippy game that never let anyone win, trivial pursuit. We played early problem-solving games on our tiny laptop/word processor too - and a table-top version of Q-bert. But none of these were about visualizing 3D space. They were mostly about word puzzles, and determining and reasoning about the meanings of things. When we got a Nintendo the favorite games were The Legend of Zelda, and this crazy marble-steering game. I played that one a lot but was never very good.

I think it's worth thinking about games not to mean 3D electronic games but all kinds of games - and what each of them lets us think about and do. FOr example, I am terrible at card and dice games, but W plays backgammon to relax. And card night is a great social lubricator . . .

ok, I'll leave you and go fill in the crossword puzzle.

xx al.

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