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Last weekend, I traveled to Pennsylvania to visit with my mom, who didn’t really pay much attention to videogames until I got a job writing about them and she saw coverage of last year’s E3 on television. I figured we’d spend our time together doing a little shopping, getting a cheesesteak from my favorite local pizza shop and perhaps watching some movies. I certainly didn’t think I’d spend the weekend sitting next to her on her overstuffed couch, playing Big Brain Academy and trying to explain the plot of Super Paper Mario. Even more surprising was that my mom, videogame neophyte though she might be, was instrumental in my realization that I’d been acting like a gaming chump.

Although I spent many a childhood evening playing Pitfall II or Missile Command with my dad, my mom never enjoyed gaming. She frequently had to leave the room when we were playing, saying that simply watching the games made her so tense that she got a headache. On those rare instances that she did stick around, she wrote off videogames as being too grim, too violent. She refers to modern games as being “full of dark corridors where you kill people or shoot aliens,” an analysis I’m hard pressed to dispute.

Her attitude changed a bit when she discovered the Nintendo Wii. A report on The Today Show about retirement homes using Wii Sports as an activity for older residents brought the console to her attention, and its simple motion controls piqued her interest to the point that she asked to try it when she visited me last summer. A few games of Wii Bowling were all it took to set her on a path that eventually led to her purchasing a Wii during Best Buy’s “Wii for Women” event. She only has a handful of games, but she plays them virtually every day, and frequently calls me to give me updates on her progress.

Having stupidly failed to pre-order Wii Fit, I brought along a copy of Endless Ocean as a belated Mother’s Day present instead. I hadn’t played it yet, myself, but I’d heard that it was very relaxing, very pretty and had lots of neat fish. Mom’s really more of a birdwatcher, but I thought it sounded like something she’d enjoy. It was somewhat more complicated than the other games she’d tried, but I figured I could help walk her through the controls until she was comfortable playing on her own.

In Endless Ocean, you play as a scuba diver exploring the waters of Manoa Lai, which are teeming with all manner of colorful fish. You’re hired not only to act as a guide for tourists seeking some underwater thrills, but also to help map the area (which you do simply by swimming through it) and catalog various kinds of sea life. You gain information about fish by feeding them, playing with them and, believe it or not, petting them. Interact enough with a fish, and information about its species is added to an encyclopedia that you can access whenever you like. Although the above-water graphics are a bit on the ugly side, everything under the sea is simply gorgeous, with rays of light gently filtering through the water to illuminate delicate branches of coral and towering rock formations. The fish themselves are beautifully animated, colorful and wonderfully varied.

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Although she was delighted with the concept of the game, Mom found the controls a bit frustrating at first. Remembering which button did what was a challenge, and she found it difficult to think of her flat TV screen as being the gateway to a 3-D environment. She stuck with it, though, and was soon happily swimming along, playing with the fish and exploring her surroundings. She had to ask me to remind her how to do certain things (press the A button to advance the text, Mom), but she learned very quickly and swiftly progressed past the introductory tutorials to the point that the game started giving her specific objectives to complete.

Once you’ve learned the basics, your character begins receiving missions via email. Some are requests from tourists for a guide; others come from the foundation sponsoring your trip asking you to survey a new region. Sometimes completing a request nets you a useful item, such as a whistle you can use to call dolphins, but other times they simply unlock swag you can use to customize your character. You’ll have to answer some of the mail to advance the game’s admittedly thin plot, but for the most part you can let your correspondence stack up with no ill effects. An alert lets you know if you have any new mail whenever you return to your boat after a dive.

I showed my mom how to access the in-game email, and she carefully read through the first few missives she received. After that, however, she ignored it, preferring to simply swim around and interact with the sea creatures rather than tie herself down to a specific goal.

It drove me nuts.

I sat there next to her, helping her with the controls when she got stuck, reading out the encyclopedia entries about the fish if the print was too small, and silently grinding my teeth. Did she not understand there were missions to complete? Missions that would unlock new gear? Missions that might open up new areas or tip us off to the existence of new fish? How were we ever going to find everything if she didn’t read her bloody email?

I was in mid-seethe when I looked over at my mom and saw her grinning like a 5-year old with an ice cream cone and a pony because she had just discovered a sailfish tang. It was then that I realized, to my horror, that I was no better than Psycho Poker Bitch.

Psycho Poker Bitch wasn’t really psycho or even particularly bitchy, but “excessively competitive, overly goal-oriented card player” just doesn’t have as catchy a ring to it. A few weeks back, I attended a charity casino night, the kind where you receive play money chips in exchange for a real money donation. We all started the evening with the same amount of fake coin in our pockets, to gamble as we wished at games of chance like roulette, blackjack, or Texas hold ’em poker. Roulette leaves too much to random chance, and you had to stand to play blackjack – something that I was unwilling to do, given the high heels I was wearing – so I settled myself at the poker table, curious to see if I’d actually learned anything from watching all those episodes of Celebrity Poker Showdown.

Gambling with fake money leaves players free to be risky and daring, to make bold moves they might never try if their rent money was actually on the line, and the players at the table took full advantage of that fact. My pokermates were having a ball raising and reraising, daring each other to go all in, calling bluffs and going for inside straights. Well-played hands and big wins were met with raucous cheers and applause, even by those who’d just lost a bundle. Then the PPB sat down, glowering at us over her colorful stack of chips.

She didn’t join in the playful trash talk the rest of the table was enjoying. She didn’t question her opponents’ bravery or parentage, hoping to goad them into making a foolish bet. She didn’t so much as crack a smile. She simply sat there, every molecule in her body focused with laser-beam accuracy on a single goal: winning.

As the night wound down, we were informed that we only had time for one or two more rounds. While the dealer was preparing to set up the next hand, I threw out the rather absurd suggestion that we all play this hand without once looking at our cards. Stupid? Yeah, maybe, but with nothing at stake except for perhaps some vague bragging rights, what did it matter? The other players joined in, betting randomly and wildly, laughing at the goofiness of it all. The cards were eventually revealed, and as the winner was handed his chips, I heard a clearly distraught PPB mutter, “That’s not how you play. I don’t want to do that again. You don’t play like that.”

I felt bad. Not because it had been my suggestion to play in such a silly manner, but because she was apparently unable to put aside her desire to win, her conception of how things “should” be for just a single hand of cards. It didn’t cost her anything but a moment of her time, and yet it clearly offended her on some deep, personal level. Because we weren’t doing it “right.”

I’d thought less of PPB for having such a rigid view of fun, but here I was, sitting on my mother’s couch, experiencing a similar kind of feeling. I may not have actually told her that she was doing it wrong, but that was clearly how I felt. I, in my arrogance, forgot that my way to play was not the only way, and that as long as my mom was having fun, she was getting it exactly right.

We’re often so eager to see everything a game has to offer that we forget to actually see everything a game has to offer. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being competitive or goal oriented – just don’t forget to stop and pet the fishes sometimes, too.

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