My mom and I have gone several rounds in her quest to join the 17th Century, technology-wise. One day a couple years ago she called me all upset because she was trying to sort out the concept of RGB colors for her genealogy club website. I told her what to do, but she just didn't get how adding green to red and blue could combine to make purple turn to lavender. She had the phone in one ear and was mixing paint to prove me wrong right there by the keyboard to compare and contrast. I tried, but I couldn't find a way to explain the difference between mixing colors of light and mixing paint and how it needed to be coded. After two hours of this I gave up on the W3C and resorted to using colors with words as names. She got her website up, and that was fine. But the struggle is ongoing.
She has learned a lot since then, but she's not exactly surfing the 'Net standing up yet. Giving her anything more than a nodding familiarity with the concepts of forums and message boards, chat rooms, various messenger clients and the vagaries thereof is something that will have to wait until I can teach her some basics like not forwarding me all those obnoxious chain emails with three megs of sugar-shock inducing animated cat pictures attached yet-a-fargin'-again.
My mom's not even close to the best of class when it comes to online cluelessness. A very sweet little old lady who lives in my complex is completely disconnected. She's ninety-mumble years old, and I'm not sure she even knows where the on switch is for a computer. But she's a really neat person with some amazing stories to tell. I'll run into her walking her dog sometimes. She's very devout, and she always asks me if someone I know needs prayer. She's got her little cards and her pencil ready, and I really don't like to disappoint her. It's important to her, and I figure if God is listening to anyone out there he's listening to her. But sometimes all I've got is someone from a forum.
And then the conversation goes something like this.
"What's the person's name, dear?"
"Name.... uh.... Mrs. EvuhlWun."
"I'm sorry, what?"
And again with the explanation. "It's the wife of a guy I know online. She had to have some serious surgery. All I know is his online tag and I don't know hers."
She knows from long experience that I'm weird, but now she looks at me like I've grown a third head.
I try again. "His first name might be Mike. Does that help?"
She shakes her head, sighs, and then asks me to spell it.
It takes me a blink or two to follow. "Okay. Well, Em... Eye... Kay..."
"No, dear. Not Mike. The other name."
Oh. I spell it out, and then we talk about what the problem is. She's still looking at me weird. I try to reassure her. "Don't worry, he's not Satanic or anything. He might be Presbyterian, though." She laughs a little at the in-joke. A good friend of hers attends the Presbyterian church down the street, and there's been a merry skirmish of words between the two of them for years about it.
We've been neighbors for something like 10 years and we've done this lots of times so she's gotten somewhat used to offering prayers for people she's not sure she believes exist. And I do have to admit sometimes it's hard not to giggle at the thought of her sitting in that oh so solemn circle holding Mike, the EvuhlWun, and his wife up in prayer.
You have to think about these things when you're interacting with people. Used to be when you struck up a conversation with a new person all you had to worry about is what they did for a living and how the Packers had done that last weekend. Now we have a whole new set of circumstances, and not a lot of protocols to make them work smoothly. It's confusing enough sometimes for a hardcore online user; those decidedly nontechnical people out there are really in for a rough time.
It might help to explain it in terms of three different sorts of connections forming.
- Community connections
This is a connection over a remote technology. Think XboxLive or Battlenet, or MMORG's like World of Warcraft. PC games are generally geared towards community-type connections. Unless you've got two machines in the room, you're at your desk playing with someone who is somewhere else. There are a few party games out there like the original You Don't Know Jack that had multiple people playing on one computer by mapping different responses to different keys for each player, but those control schemes are rare. For one thing, you'd have knees and elbows all over the place if you tried to do that with an FPS or an RTS.
This concept is where communications online come in. Forums, chat rooms, IRC, messenger clients, you name it. There are a hundred ways for people who have never actually physically met each get to know each other.
- Local connections
This is a connection where the parties are in the same room. You can get a local connection going with PC games at places like LAN parties or in families with multiple computers, but that's not a common situation. With gaming consoles, having multiple people interacting locally is a very common mechanic. The machines are built with multiple controllers in mind. It's a whole different mindset when you can high-five the guy who just made that great shot.
- Meat Connections
This is a connection with no digital parts at all. Usually referred to as "real life." It's important to remember that these actually exist, and they do impact your community and local connections. With all the hardware moving out of the basement and into the living rooms, the opportunities for real world problems to follow you to Hyrule (or something in Hyrule to follow you to the grocery store) increase dramatically. Oh, and call your mother!
Some interesting things start happening when the various types of connections intersect.
If you're dealing with someone who has no grasp of the other concepts at all, it can be hard to negotiate a solution that lets you have your meat connections and the other types, too. The combination that seems to be the most fraught with peril is the community connection running into a meat life connection. It doesn't have to be as extreme as my neighbor or my mom. This will be a familiar scenario to just about any type of gamer. You'll be in World of Warcraft doing a raid on the Scarlet Monastery, and then over Ventrilo you all get to hear the hunter's mom exhorting him to take out the garbage and his surly, "Oh maaaaannnnn!"
This can cause issues if the meat life person isn't too savvy about community connections and doesn't treat them similar to the way they'd treat a more familiar distant connection like a phone call. Or it can be a case of our hunter not managing his meat life connections well. I'm not saying your mom shouldn't ask you to take out the garbage. Maybe if she knew a bit more about the concept of real time battles with real people counting on you doing your part in a MMORG she might be willing to wait until the carnage report. Or maybe you should do it before you start the raid.
With the advent of robust and integrated console online services, you have many games that have a local multi-player option and also an online element. That's been around a while. But they've added having community-type connections and local-type connections running at the same time in the same game session. In the recent release of Halo 3, those two features have been greatly expanded and can be carried out simultaneously. I can have four people playing together in my living room. Or I can get out the hub and the cables and link together another system locally and get eight people in my house playing together. And then we can go out to the multiplayer and get matched up with any combination of other players out in the XboxLive aether. And each of those people out on XboxLive could be doing any combination of the same thing.
It is possible to hit the Trifecta and get all three different types of connections going at once. I was playing Halo 3 one night with some of the GWJ regulars against an opposing team of the usual public matchmaking suspects. My daughter was sitting next to me and trying to do her homework and laughing at my vain attempts to be an effective combatant. She played a game with us, but then I had to braid her hair while we were in the post game lobby. She had to get off to bed because it was a school night.
Trying to build a bridge between the world of Gravity Hammers and the world of hairpins is hard to explain. It's natural to my children; they've grown up that way. I haven't tried to explain it to my mom. If the guys online had asked me what I was doing I don't know what I would have said. Maybe I would have chickened out and blamed it on taking out the garbage. But making and managing all these connections and the new ways they can come together are an inevitable part and parcel of the connected life.