My son liked computer games, especially “first person shooters”, from the day he first encountered them, and while he was living at home I tried to follow along, in a perhaps-misplaced attempt at “being friends with your children”. My attempts were not met with much success, partly because my reflexes aren’t fast enough to cope with what are also called, with justice, “twitch games”, but in large part because of the issue of instructions.

Twitch games don’t, as a rule, come with instructions, whether console or as programs for general purpose computers. When they do, it’s generally a small (and easily lost) flyer, or (more recently) a “help” file incorporated into the program or device, associating keystrokes with on-screen actions. Reading it and memorizing the key-action association introduces a delay into the reaction loop of the player, who must decide what to do, remember the keystroke that produces that, and then hit the key. Twitch games require a much shorter OODA loop; the proper keystroke has to be in muscle memory, so that the decision-action step is as nearly instantaneous as possible. Successful players learn by pressing keys, seeing what happens, and incorporating that cause-effect into their reflexes. It helps that most game designers stick with the same set of keystrokes for the same or analogous actions, but it’s still a matter of cut-and-try. It’s all remarkably frustrating for an old fart whose formative years impressed “RTFM!” as a (or The) Prime Directive.

What’s incredibly, damnably frustrating is that practically everything new has to be learned that way! Cell phones, MP3 players, iPods, ebooks, you name it, all have either very few buttons, each with a cryptic ideograph or no label at all and each with multiple functions depending on what other buttons or combinations thereof have been pressed, or a multiplicity of buttons presented the same way — and pushing the wrong button at the wrong time can result in embarrassment, expense, or (occasionally) damage. The designers, each and every one of them having grown up with learning new devices by the try-it-and-see method, build things to accommodate “Nintendo mode learning”, and instructions, if they exist at all, are sketchy, incomplete, sometimes contradictory or simply wrong, and in any case can only be accessed by the proper combination of keystrokes. You can’t RTFM, because TINFM[1].

This is a complaint, or perhaps it’s a wail of despair, not a serious objection. It’s all a matter of contemporaneity, of being part of the times, and a (young) person who can pick up a new and unfamiliar model of cell phone and, within a minute or so, be texting their friend in Ulan Bator and forwarding a stack of images and snatches of music along with the message, would likely be puzzled beyond comprehension by which part of a single-jack to grab. The new skill is relevant to their lives; the older one is not. Time marches on, like it or no, and the only comfort for us left-behinds is that their children will almost certainly be learning things they “don’t get”. Good ‘nough fer ’em, the geezer grumps. Daddy felt the same way — can you crank-start a Model T?

It does cause problems sometimes. A lawyer specializing in school-related cases ruefully notes that it will be necessary to learn texting in order to put proper attention to cases involving its use (or abuse). All I can say about it is, if you tough it out you’ll manage to absorb perhaps a quarter of the total; that will simply have to be enough, or you’ll have to pass those cases along to a younger partner. Clarence Darrow probably had the same problem with telephones, electric distribution, and them newfangled horseless carriages.

[1]There Is No F*ing Manual