Arkham Asylum and ASL

The game was Arkham Asylum. The player was an experienced gamer who loved Mass Effect and Dwarf Fortress. She wasn’t much of a comic book fan, but she called Batman her favorite superhero.

After playing for two hours, the player tagged her best friend on IM. “Is this it?” she asked plaintively. “It has a Metacritic rating of 91. Shouldn’t I like it better than this?”

The game was Plants vs. Zombies, with a well-deserved reputation for being accessible to anyone (thanks to its spectacularly polished tutorial mode, as discussed in George Fan’s 2012 GDC talk.) The person playing was a casual gamer in her late 50’s.

The player pushed the game away after fifteen minutes. “I get it, but it’s too weird for me,” she said. “I just don’t like it.”

The game was Revolution 60, a short, cinematic action-adventure for iOS. One person maneuvered the protagonist Holiday through a tumbling run while the other watched.

The player hit Pause and shook her head. “This isn’t doing it for me. But I like the dialogue. If you took out all these interactive bits, I might like it as a movie.”

“Really?” the watcher said incredulously. “If you took out all the interactive bits, you’d lose the point entirely.”

So who’s wrong?

* * *

In my first year of college, I signed up to learn Mandarin Chinese. I signed up for Chinese because my high school French and Spanish had blended together in my brain. When I reached for one, I got scraps of the other, producing hideous jumbles like Si, monsieur, yo parle un peu espagnol.

Better not to untangle it with my GPA on the line, I thought, and a tonal language was exactly what I needed – something so different that it would be light years away. And I’d picked up French and Spanish easily (apart from mixing the two), so I was confident that Chinese would be no different.

Chinese was hard. I dropped the class a month later, feeling irritable and frustrated.

Wasn’t I supposed to be good at languages? What went wrong?

Later, I found out what a world of difference there is between learning a Romance language and learning Chinese. (According to the Foreign Service Institute, it takes approximately 23-24 weeks for a native English speaker to attain general proficiency in reading and speaking French and Spanish. It takes 88 weeks to reach the same proficiency level in Mandarin Chinese.) Because I’d picked up French and Spanish easily, I had terrible language study habits, and I had expected to rise to a high level of proficiency rapidly.

Different languages have different difficulty ratings. I’d learned my lesson.


Six years down the line, I had the opportunity to take a six-week course in American Sign Language as part of my job. I had no particular desire to learn ASL, but going to class meant I could take six Wednesday mornings off the customer service desk and still get paid. Sign me up!

Like Mandarin Chinese, ASL is very different from English. The language has its own grammar, organized around concepts and importance rather than proceeding in a neat line from point A to point B. It isn’t too hard to master some basic communication skills (fingerspelling, core vocabulary, pantomime) but that’s a far cry from being good at it. Being good at it is hard.

When I walked into my first ASL classroom, my study habits were still terrible. My motivations were even worse than getting a language credit in college. And I drank up sign language far faster than I had learned French or Spanish.

People told me ASL would be useful, and I believed them. What they didn’t tell me – what I couldn’t have anticipated – was the sheer beauty of the language. I met people who literally talked with their hands, and moreover, talked with their faces and their bodies. I learned to interpret music, where I was responsible not only for conveying the lyrics, but the rise and fall of a passionate choir. I learned to fingerspell names as quickly as a pastor could read them.  I learned to fall through the gestures into the meaning beneath. My instructors demanded to know if I had Deaf relatives or friends who practiced with me, but I didn’t. This language just resonated with me.


I never had an answer for that one.

* * *

What I do know is: these are the same story.

That isn’t to say that games can’t be criticized. They can and should be. Some combat systems are slow; some plots are cliched; some art styles are sloppy; some interfaces are buggy. Which games have combat systems, plots, art styles, and interfaces are thus afflicted are somewhat subject to debate, but these things exist and should be called out. Reviews (positive and negative) have a valuable place in the world.

But any individual’s experience of a game can be different from any other’s. It’s okay to disagree with the critics. It’s okay to disagree with the masses. And it’s okay to disagree with the individual voice in the vacuum.

One gamer loves Arkham Asylum for the stunning, dark beauty of the set and the sheer badassery of being Batman. Another gamer finds it so repetitive and dismayingly shallow that it’s not even worth finishing. Clearly, the critics’ experience bore more similarities to the first gamer’s than the second gamer’s.

Which one is right? At the end of the day, they’re both right. For one person, the game was amazing, and for one, the game was boring, and if the first person chases the second one around for a week, there’s still no way to convince the second that those two hours of play weren’t miserably wasted. One opinion is more popular, but both are valid. And that’s okay, because if you ask me, ASL is easy, Chinese is hard, and French and Spanish are somewhere in the middle.

With that understanding comes the need for patience and respect. Because your experience won’t match everyone else’s, and when your experience doesn’t line up, no amount of arguing will convert the other person. That doesn’t mean your experience is wrong, or the other person’s experience is wrong.

It just means you had different experiences.

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