I spent Christmas in England this year. I have family there, and also lived and studied there for several years, so I go back to visit when I can. This visit was a sad one in some ways though, as my grandmother passed away in October and her absence was very noticeable.
My grandmother was an amazing woman and has been an example to me all my life. She was a strong, independent woman who was also a loving wife, mother, and grandmother. I lived with her for a few years in the late 90s while I finished my Masters of Science degree and started working in London. Even though she was from a generation born long before the existence of the personal computer, at the age of 90 she declared she was tired of everybody being able to email everybody else and get all the news faster than her, so she went out and bought a computer and modem and set up an email account and got down to learning how to use it. All her life she had been a copious letter-writer, and I think it bothered her very much that she was now receiving news weeks later than those of us with email. In a fit of impatience very typical of her, she decided she was not going to put up with this and marched out to take care of the problem.
My job back then was in I.T. support, a field about which she knew very little, but she loved to hear me explain what I did at work and how I helped people. She put my work skills to good use by having me write clear, concise, grandmother-friendly instructions on how to receive and write her emails on her new computer. Some years later, when I started playing EverQuest and came back to visit her, she insisted that I explain all about the game, and how people in different countries could play together and make friends. A challenging explanation to make clear to someone who has never played a computer game in her life, but I did my best.
Over the years as I continued my career in I.T., my tasks changed and so did the people I was helping, but any time I was called on to document any type of process, I always took care to phrase it as clearly and simply as my grandmother would demand. Documentation was not considered clear or complete until it would pass the “grandmother test,” which is to say, would my grandmother be able to follow these instructions? If no, then it needed rewriting.
These days I write less official documentation, but there is still plenty of opportunity to write instructions for people in the form of the quests we put in game and game content in general. It is very hard for my generation to see what aspects of a game may confuse a new player, as we have been familiar with computers and computer games for years or even decades, and take certain conventions for granted. What is a “hit point,” for example? A health bar seems obvious to anybody who’s played any computer game, but ask anybody of my grandmother’s generation (or even my mother’s) and you’re unlikely to find many who can tell you what it is. Yet I doubt that any game made this decade explains the concept, even if you dig deep down into the help files. So I remind myself to ask now and then, would a completely new player understand where the quest is asking them to go? Would they understand how to do this or that? Would my grandmother?
I miss my grandmother very much and appreciate many of the lessons she taught me. It’s nice to feel that she continues to teach me even now as I mentally run my game content through “the grandmother test.” I’d love to see game play and UI designers taking the time to borrow an elderly or non-computer-savvy relative for a play test—I suspect that many games would be much improved for all their players as a result.
- Emily “Domino” Taylor