In school, I was repeatedly told that there are two types of people in the world: one type answers the exam question to the best of their ability, and the other refuses to accept the premise of the question and explains why not. The second type of person gets the better grade.
I like to think I proved that there is a third type of person - the one who doesn't understand the premise of the question in the first place - and yet this is undoubtedly a distinction that is worth knowing about. Robert McNamara used to say that he never answered the question he was asked: he answered the question he wished he had been asked. I like that, even if it's not my favourite trait in politicians, and I like the idea that there is leeway in this matter of questions and answers. I like to think that questions are not always to be trusted.
And yet I am increasingly aware that I don't often live by this advice. Testify, IKEA Kitchen VR Simulator, or whatever it's called. A couple of weeks back, Chris Bratt and I discovered that IKEA had made a VR thing for the Vive: a kitchen stuffed with wonderful IKEA furniture and utensils. I loaded it up and had a lovely ten minutes, rooting around in drawers, deciphering the lifestyley crap written on the aspirational full-wall chalkboard, and dropping IKEA meatballs on the floor when I was meant to be cooking them. (The jury may want to note that I also thought these meatballs were radishes.)
We filmed the whole thing and I was pretty pleased with myself. Then Chris Bratt took over, and Chris Bratt, I immediately realised, did not accept the premise of the question. No drawer-rooting for him. No meatballs sizzling in a frying pan. Instead, and I still can't quite believe I am typing this, he carefully bent down and stuck his head through a cabinet wall. No calmly teleporting - calmly teleporting! I bloody love video games - in Bratt Town. He poked a hole in the geometry and got a look at the secret spaces of the IKEA universe.
It was revelatory, really. It made me realise that there are two types of game players in the world - you may be able to guess who they are - and I want to be the second kind. I want to get the better grade. (I think Bratt would have gone down quite well at my school.)
And I also pondered how often this doesn't happen. How often I am led through games by the nose, seeing only what I am meant to, following a scarlet thread from A to B, and enjoying only the epiphanies that have been officially sanctioned. Too often I follow the questline in an RPG, only stepping away when I have to grind. Too often I am slave to the racing line. Too often I memorise the basic combos.
This is the weird thing about games, these things that are made from light itself and offer unparalleled imaginative freedom: if you aren't careful, they bring out the follower in you. They put you on a track and off you go, turning when you're meant to turn and shooting who you're meant to shoot. For ages, the big budget single-player game was essentially a corridor, and even now that it often isn't anymore, it still takes quite a bit of time to break away from the programming. And besides, even open worlds can become a corridor of sorts - all those threads of collection and upgrade waiting to be followed, all those carefully buried secrets waiting to be dug up.
The funny thing, of course, is that the game designers I've met tend to be the unruliest of players. They fight against games as they play them for fun. Since they spend all their working lives constructing rules and placing triggers, they probably want to subvert all that whenever they get a little spare time.
Maybe it's always like this. Maybe the people who set the exams are also the people who would rarely accept the premises of the questions that they construct for the rest of us. That's probably something worth learning about.