Some of you may be too young to know what I’m talking about, but Paws Party was pretty cool. You probably won’t be able to find any information on it except anecdotes on various forums about playing a typing game about inviting animals to a shindig (one of which perhaps exemplifies how poor of a job it did at teaching the English language), but it did have a profound impact on my life. Compared to its contemporaries like Mario Teaches Typing, it was quite boring. It did, however, also teach me two important things: 1) I was pretty good at typing, and 2) cheating was fun.
I guess it wasn’t cheating so much as it was taking advantage of the game; if you typed roughly half the sentence placed before you and hit enter, the game would consider it done and, affording errors, would give you an inhuman GWAM, or gross words a minute. My teacher at the time (perhaps with her inability to comprehend technology and what it meant to use a keyboard) simply thought 500 GWAM was pretty good for a 3rd grader.
It seems like that was the only way to enjoy our typing lessons. Jamming out words and getting Paws’ party to actually happen wasn’t terribly difficult, but it was pretty interesting seeing who could intuit the proper breaking point of each sentence. It was a gamble each time as prematurely hitting enter would mean a hit in your GWAM, and our inter-class competition wouldn’t allow anything less than perfection. Not until later when we got fun typing games (no, not Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing) did we start to do things right.
But those typing games were always a hit, and it wasn’t just because they were thinly veiled educational products that were as close to a bonus indoor recess as we were going to get. Even faced with the prospect of playing Oregon Trail or that game with all the minigame puzzles in it, it was still a tough call as to what we were going to play. I have a feeling it’s because there’s something in the act of typing against some declining resource (time, health, party invitations, etc.) that speaks to us in a surprisingly primal way.
This is, of course, not an original notion. Just this morning, a post by Dave Cook over at VG247 detailed what it’s like to be part of the early transitional generation between the technologically illiterate and the “Digital Native.” I was on the receiving end of that transition with a predilection for things with screens and circuits, but I can still sympathize with his struggles because I know so many people like him. His write-up is called “Exploring the magnetic appeal of typing games” and is a fun read, but it definitely doesn’t explore much of anything except the timeline of typing video games. (You should still read it, though.)
He does, however, touch on it briefly: “I think it’s a real feat to take something that is now so natural and turn into something so enjoyable and challenging. Typing is – for many of us – a similarly essential part of everyday living, just like our ability to take a breath or walk.” But what does it mean for something to be natural to us? Likening it to breathing or walking seems like an apt comparison, but what is it about something so learned to become innate that makes it interesting?
Words, I believe, are the most efficient representation of pure thought we have. Hand gestures are vastly speedier but are also interminably vague; illustrations take time and some minimum level of skill; and other forms such as sculpture and music and film take resources and time and, once again, skill. That’s not to say words can’t be similarly demanding of your dwindling hours and already over-taxed brain, but you can butcher a sentence and still usually get the message across whereas drawing a squashed spider for a sun can barely suffice for an accident report let alone detailing the immense beauty of Swedish lake.
Something anchored so deep within us can easily tap into our other core components. Much like how low-level hardware can quickly access other base parts like raw memory locations and I/O ports, something so ingrained like the utilization of a language can speak to our composite existence. Words can incite tears, start wars, and spark love. Words can even get you in a competitive mindset.
And what faster way to get your words out than typing. As digital natives, it can often feel like your brain is pouring out directly from the tips of your fingers and somehow showing up on your screen (though other times it may also feel like even 10 hands couldn’t possibly get your overactive prosaic mind under control). When you’re on a writing tear, it’s exhilarating and feels like you’re about to explode with possibilities. And when you’re stopped up, it feels like your entire brain has seized up, dammed up by an army of brain beavers.
It’s a primal part of our lives now. Typing, that is; words have always been a part of humanity, even when they were nothing more than splashes of berry juice on a cave wall. And like any other fundamental part of our being, it can be the basis of many competitive or leisurely endeavors. Hangman, crossword puzzles, and word searches are still played today. Wheel of Fortune has been airing for over 30 years now.
This works because it is such a low-level component for being a person. Communication is the basis for relationships, business, and most of our good time jollies. Much like walking is natural to us, many of our competitive sports involve running. And the purer we get—the closer we get to the basest form of locomotion—the more it grabs us by the collar and shakes us awake. This is why the 100-meter dash is one of the most popular events at the Olympics; people want to find out who is the best at simply being.
That’s why even bone-dry implementations of typing games are inherently fun, such as with Mavis Beacon, the gaming equivalent of unsauced pasta. We are putting a pure representation of ourselves out on the line and testing it. How fast can you actuate your utility for being known? Are you better at being human than the person next to you? Those games like Typing of the Dead set a baseline, challenging you with a standard. It’s a line in the sand saying you must be this good to exist, this tall to be a person.
Meeting some expectation can only get you so far, though. Records are made to be broken—or something like that. There’s this fun little HTML5 game that I came across when I was looking at native browser game frameworks, and this was a demo. It’s called Z-Type and you have to type corresponding words to destroy ships, so big ships require big words. There’s no end and no bar to overcome. It’s simply you trying to be better than what you were a year ago or yesterday or one minute ago. After all, what’s more competitive than and more primal than proving you’re a better person than you were before.
I suppose that’s why Notch’s Drop typing game made such a big splash. Rather than type sentences, it just asks you to type letters of incomplete words you’ve yet to fully see or comprehend. Spiraling further into some void and faster towards an inevitable end, it strips you down to a stark realization that you trying to representation yourself is a poorly optimized process. Rather than testing the tools in your toolkit, it’s asking you to test each drill bit and each nail and get down to the lowest circuit of your fleshy machine.
Or at least that’s my take on the whole thing. It’s something I’ve been marinating on for quite some time now. What makes a sport or game popular and compelling? There must be some reason certain activities seem to have a direct line to our core and tickle away at our sense of intrigue and competition. I quite like the idea that it’s because they’re based on things that make up our fundamental being and compose our base level of existence. It’s neat and stacks well, but who knows? I could be wrong. I guess you’ll have to use your words—your unflinching armaments of direct communication shuttled through your fingers to your keyboard to my idiot eyes and brain—to tell me just how wrong I am.