What I Learned About Gamers By Watching My Girlfriend Play ‘Left 4 Dead’

My girlfriend is the definition of a casual gamer. She loves the “LEGO” series, carries a Nintendo DS everywhere and balks at the idea of touching an Xbox 360 controller. But she also thinks many Wii games are too simple.

She has never shown an interest in the more complicated games I enjoy. Then, “Left 4 Dead” showed up. She loves horror movies. The idea of starring in a personalized “Night of the Living Dead” adventure was too much to pass up.

There was a minor setback, though: she has never played a shooter before.

Yes, people like that still exist. And it was fascinating to watch her come to grips with it. When she asked “how do I aim?” and I pointed out the second stick, she gasped. “I can look around? I thought I could only look forward!”

She just blew my mind.

We take for granted our skills moving through the 3D spaces of video games. My girlfriend is quickly teaching me how much our ability to enjoy frantic 3D games is based on the dozens of similar games we’ve played dozens before. This is a wild and foreign concept that my girlfriend has never even thought about before.

Her first instinct was to try and avoid aiming entirely. But when navigating around doors became an issue, she was forced to figure out what the second analog stick did. I felt bad for her. We were playing online with friends of ours, while she quickly sunk the team in almost every scenario we played. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” she would plea, as she tried to climb up the stairs.

I started taking mental notes as she would run into stumbling blocks. In her first two and a half hours with a 3D shooter ever, these are the things that most frustrated her:

* The difference between left button and left trigger (“Why are there two?”)
* Having to literally look up to climb a ladder (“Why do I keep falling off?”)
* Moving and shooting at the same time (“I always have to stop and aim”)
* The amount of buttons on the controller (“I keep tapping X instead of Y”)

She made me chuckle and remember my first experiences in 3D. I couldn’t have been the only person who used to move their controller around in the air as they made a turn in “Gran Turismo.” In “Left 4 Dead,” my girlfriend would bob and weave as she would moved. She turned her head as she aimed.

To be fair, “Left 4 Dead” was probably the worst kind of shooter to have my girlfriend understand shooters, but it had to happen this way. The reason she was interested wasn’t because “Left 4 Dead” had cool weapons, awesome online multiplayer or any press release other bullet point — she wanted to blow up zombies. She showed no interest in “Resistance 2″ (she thought the aliens looked lame) or “Gears of War 2″ (no response whatsoever), but “Left 4 Dead” nabbed her.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the people who look at an Xbox 360 controller and say it’s too complicated

Two sessions later, she was starting to get the hang of things. She could climb ladders with ease. Aiming proved to be the hardest bit. Moving and shooting simultaneously remained a remarkable obstacle. But the addictiveness of “Left 4 Dead,” and the fact that friends can be around to help her in a jam, meant she kept playing and wasn’t becoming frustrated enough to quit.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the people who look at an Xbox 360 controller or Dual Shock and say it’s too complicated. “Left 4 Dead” proves there are hardcore experiences — not just Wii and DS games — that can draw them in…but the controller remains a challenge that won’t be easily overcome.

I’m proud of my girlfriend for taking this bold (and scary) move, but now this brings up another problem to deal with: she’s going to want to use my TV!