Literacy, Video Games, and the Strategy Guide

By Drew Paryzer in No Continues Left
Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 10:00 am
The Zelda: Ocarina of Time Perfect Guide, by Versus Books (RIP). The greatest guide I ever knew.

​I'm proud to say that my grand entrance into the world of literacy came directly via my love of video games. In the moments I wasn't hooked up to my Nintendo I would furiously study the strategy guides of the games I was playing, and it got to the point where the glossy images of screen-by-screen Zelda maps and Street Fighter Re-Dizzy combos just weren't enough. Literacy was a necessary thing I had to acquire in order to more deeply understand and love my games. In this and many other ways, mine is a trajectory I feel studies like these - that look at the entire enterprise of gaming as a zero-sum activity, and one that is intellectually akin to zombiehood -- disregard unwisely.           

Those strategy guides of mine grew into something separate from the games they described, over time, and something powerful. When I went away to summer camp, or had free time to read at school, they would be my prime material. They got me excited about the game itself, built my anticipation for when I would next play and whatnot, but I got a somehow separate pleasure from immersing myself in the details of the game-world when I wasn't actually playing. It was a love of knowledge that was driving me. It came out most apparently in my obsession with the appendices: the bestiaries, the equipment and items listings. I would spend hours digging through those things, noting which enemies had low magic defenses and in which areas I might find them; or which cocktail of accessories and outfits in Mario RPG would maximize the power of my Mario-Bowser-Princess A-Team. 



I knew of the KerokeroCola before I ever visited Tadpole Pond. And I knew it was one word.
It probably goes without saying that I always had a guide on-hand when my console was turned on. For those of you who grew up with older siblings who also gamed avidly, it also goes without saying that there were many sessions where I'd have the guide in my hand more than the controller. I mostly embraced the role of co-pilot; I was the one who had the information, who knew which door to open and where there were secret items to pilfer, and so in a way I was the one who was in control of the experience.

Control: looking back, that's one of the big things playing with a strategy guide provided me. It turned the massive, multi-faceted virtual world into a clear, coherent, solvable whole. Was I a nerdy child with a lisp and subpar social skills? Yes, yes I was. Was the idea of having a manual that can solve every obstacle you come across an appealing one? For damn sure. Wouldn't it be for anyone, for any type of reality they're liable to spend time in? I mean, isn't the Bible (for those who believe in it) a heavily-annotated strategy guide for life?           

Of course, I think there was more to it than just control; that disregards the palpable joy of actually playing the game. A large part of the gaming experience is the pleasure of accomplishing tasks, and I was no exception to that rule; in fact, I think I had a maniacal approach to it. If I truly loved a game, I would not be satisfied until I achieved every last thing the game had to offer. This led to me spending hours and hours leveling up my Final Fantasy characters to maximum strength, or collecting every last piece of heart in Zelda. The thought of missing an item and not being able to go back to retrieve it was horrifying to me. (The only thing more horrifying was the thought that my cartridge might accidentally get erased, that the record of my insane love would be lost forever.) Of course, the strategy guide was the very basis for the execution of this obsession.           

The really crazy thing for me to think about, though, is that I rarely ever actually beat the games I truly loved. I would accomplish all the tasks that were set out for me by my guide, achieve complete and total perfection, go to the very brink of the last boss battle, and then leave it all behind. The longer I had played the game, the more vividly it had become a part of my waking thoughts, the more likely I was to do this. In some way it was like I wasn't playing the game at all; I was playing the strategy guide, and the chain of events and enemies and items it led me through. When it had led me to the final link of that chain, I was finished with the entire enterprise. The final act of triumph meant nothing to me; expanding the experience was all.


These are the words I'd take great pains to avoid.
​With these thoughts in mind, I've come to the conclusion that I played video games in a literary way. I was using the game to enter a story, and the strategy guide served as an outline / compendium of footnotes that grounded my gaming in a broader intellectual context. Literacy is about using words to tie together knowledge and imagination, to expand ideas of what's known, what's unknown, and how we can build bridges between them. I am an example of someone who learned the basics of literacy through my love of gaming, both through the language of the strategy guide and the imagination-augmenting complexity of the video game worlds I traipsed through. I even see a crystal-clear connection between my childhood gaming and my passion for writing plays; in a way, the script I write is to a strategy guide what a produced play is to a video game.

I don't really use strategy guides when I play anymore; I prefer to test my problem-solving skills (or, since I'm something of a retro-gaming junkie, my memory). But I sure am glad I used them back in the day. I doubt I would be the same person I am now, had I not.

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