“There’s so many more potential ways today to get started and to find the game that is exactly what you want, compared to before where you were looking for different flavors of graphics-heavy action games,” said researcher Nick Yee, founder of consulting firm Quantic Foundry.
Yee has consulted with many developers on tailoring their games to specific audiences, creating a chart of “gamer motivations” to help. It’s not enough that someone might want a strategy or a farming game, Yee says. What matters is how that gamer feels, and whether their experience is enough to keep them going. Quantic Foundry offers a free 5-minute survey for anyone who wants to find out their motivation for gaming (or life in general). Are you competitive? Do you feel rewarded through achievement? Do you want to be immersed and get lost in a story and fantasy world? Or do you just want to meet new people? Yee likens shopping for video games to finding the right perfume scent.
“You can say, ‘I like the smell of this perfume,’ but unless you understand perfume notes and the way they interact, it’s hard to describe what you want to a sales person,” Yee said. “That’s the same situation with games. Showing the table to people is helpful because it grounds them in the framework of games, and the vocabulary.”
If you’re interested in exploring the gaming world, one of the best places to start is by taking the survey for gamer motivations. Armed with that vocabulary, you’ll be about as ready as you’ll ever be to dive in. To get you closer to that starting line, here are our intro-level recommendations on where to begin.
Consider buying a Nintendo Switch (or another console)
If you’re new to gaming, there are three great options for beginners, and chances are you already own one or two of them: a smartphone or PC. To expand your options, we recommend getting a Nintendo Switch.
Games made in house by Nintendo (called “first-party” games, as opposed to other “third-party” studios) are very deliberately and laboriously designed to appease players of all levels. It’s been Nintendo’s mission since the 1980s to design games and hardware that expands the gaming audience.
If you’re someone who hasn’t touched a video game since the Mario or Tetris days, you’ll be pleased to know that the newer versions of those games are even more inviting than ever before, and most, if not all of them are on the Switch. And for a $20 Nintendo Online subscription, you can play old Nintendo and Super Nintendo games via a free app on the Switch. Check here to see if your favorites are already available.
When it comes to choosing the regular Switch or the Switch Lite, we’re going to recommend the regular Switch outright. The Lite is great if you’re going to play alone, but gives you little-to-no options to play with your family or friends.
If you’re looking for a more powerful console, the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One are the two to consider. They’re a bit more intimidating than a Switch, but they boast a bigger game library, particularly for people looking for a graphically beautiful game with a rich story or competitive multiplayer game.
To that end, we recommend the PlayStation 4, which boasts a better library of exclusives, including God of War and the Uncharted series. Those games aren’t the most friendly for beginners, but they set the bar for quality.
The one wrinkle with both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One: Sony and Microsoft (the respective makers of both consoles) insist their next-generation consoles (PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X) are still being released later this year. But as you all know, it’s a long year.
Here’s our advice: Just buy the console you want now. Nintendo isn’t going to be updating its stable anytime this year, and the PlayStation 4 library is so robust, you’ll have more than enough entertainment for years. New gamers won’t need a PlayStation 5 and even if you want to upgrade, Sony says most (but not all) of its games for PS4 will play on the PS5.
The Xbox One S is a tougher proposition, since it has a weaker library. But the titles also often on sale for cheap. Moreover, the console makes a decent TV box top for your living space, allowing you to use it as a hub for your cable in addition to your streaming apps.
Making the most of mobile gaming
If you have an iOS or Android device, you already have the most popular gaming platform. Even if you have an iPhone 6 or older iPad, you’ve got a perfectly capable gaming device.
The only thing you might consider getting is a controller. You can game using the touch screen controls, but for more complicated, engaging games like the ones we’ll recommend, you should consider either the Xbox One controller or the cheaper PlayStation DualShock 4. Both pair perfectly well via Bluetooth with either smartphone system, and it’s a cheap way to get a console-like experience. If you opt for Xbox One controllers, make sure it’s a recent one with Bluetooth support.
It’s probably best to avoid PCs for now
If you have a PC running Windows, check your system specifications, and then check the PC requirements for your chosen game. But given all the variables and complications that go into PC setups (consistently changing hardware requirements for new games, driver updates, etc.), we can’t recommend PC gaming until you get your feet wet otherwise. Consoles are (usually) cheaper than most gaming PCs, and are definitely simpler to use and maintain.
Now we’re going to recommend a few games based off categories of Yee’s motivations. These aren’t all the newest games, but they’re popular, acclaimed titles mostly designed to minimize any prohibitive learning curves.
Games to consider
Video games offer opportunities to make new friends. Contrary to popular stereotypes, many gamer communities are often welcoming and eager to help you ease your way into a game’s systems and rules. We recommend you find a forum or message board (such as Resetera), Facebook Group or Reddit subreddit that focuses entirely on your game of choice. (This advice holds for every category, by the way.)
It’s also important to note that most gaming platforms have a voice chat mute function. Each game and console have their own rules, so Google is your best friend in tracking those down. But if you want to keep things quiet and reduce trolling to zero, muting everyone is your best bet.
- Minecraft (iOS/Android, all consoles, Windows): There’s probably no better “modern game as training wheels.” It’s history’s most popular game for several reasons. It’s incredibly easy to run on any device, including just about any PC. It’s Oregon Trail for the 21st century. And most importantly, it gives new players a low-stakes, low-stress environment to get used to moving in a 3-D space. Once you’re acclimated to Minecraft, you could graduate to other games. Or you could join millions of others on already-created servers to keep playing and find your community.
- Sky (iOS): Award-winning indie developer thatgamecompany is known for making beloved, easy-to-play games that are meant to stir universal emotions like curiosity and wonder. Sky is an online multiplayer game that enables only encouraging or helpful actions — actions which can be ignored, if you so choose. Cooperative play only makes an easygoing game even easier, which is in itself a reward, if only because it makes it easier to absorb the gorgeous sights and sounds. People of all ages play this, and it’s a great game to share with family. And because it has no enemies, no time limit and no pressure, it’s a great way to get used to 3-D movement.
Consider these games if you’re a person who thinks in the long term. This type of gamer might keep a cool head to think clearly and plan ahead, finding fulfillment not just in making decisions, but seeing the results play out.
- Tetris 99 (Nintendo Switch): It’s mostly the game you remember, and it’s free. You do play by yourself for the most part, but there is a competitive twist. You’re also competing with 98 other players to see how long you can keep your screen free of blocks. It’s another layer of pressure, but Tetris has never been an easygoing game. It gives you a taste of online competition in a game where almost anyone can immediately grasp the rules.
- Untitled Goose Game (all consoles, Windows/MacOS): The indie darling of 2019 is a simple, two-button game of getting a goose through a town and making mischief. You do this by interacting with the environment. The first task, for example, is as simple as opening a farm gate. Your next task is a variety, including moving certain objects around to something more complicated like distracting the farmer so you could run past him. Untitled Goose Game is an excellent teacher of how to pick out important visual cues you can interact with in gaming.
- Portal 2 (Windows/MacOS): This might seem like the most advanced game so far, but mechanically it’s very simple, and like Minecraft, is a great way to acclimate to 3-D, first-person movement. The goal of Portal is to simply get from one side of the room to the other, all while using a special gun that shoots two portals for you to travel through. Portal 2 also tells a hilarious story with award-winning dialogue. But most importantly, it’s a very engaging introduction to how video game physics can work, how objects interact and bounce off the environment and yourself.
You don’t just love collecting and competition, you want it all and you want to be the best. This is a great category for perfectionists and overachievers.
- Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu/Let’s Go Eevee (Nintendo Switch): At their core, Pokémon games are simply “rock, paper, scissors” with a few more rules. Water Pokémon beats fire Pokémon, fire Pokémon burns grass, grass defeats water, and so on. There are more variations of this, but it rarely gets more complicated. Plus, the Pokémon story might feed your competitive spirit since the games are all about “catching them all” and advancing as a Pokémon trainer. While Pokémon Sword and Shield are the newer game, the Let’s Go titles of 2018 are remakes of the 90s originals, which introduced an entire generation to the role-playing game concept. There’s no better place to start.
- Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Nintendo Switch): Even if you have a driver’s license, it’s sometimes tough to stay on the road in racing games. The latest Mario Kart on the Switch fixes this by offering “Smart Steering,” which ensures you never fall or hit the sides of the road. This feature is the perfect training wheels system to get you started on competitive racing games. Start with Mario Kart, and eventually you can work your way up to more robust driving games like the Gran Turismo or Forza Horizon series, which offer endless amounts of cars and upgrades.
- Diablo 3 (all consoles, Windows): While Pokémon is on the easy side of the RPG spectrum, the Diablo series is a little more involving and action intensive. But the third installment from 2012 is extremely affordable today, and its movement isn’t much more complicated than the original Zelda games. Sure, the system to “level up” might be a bit more complicated than Pokémon, but it’s a great introduction to understanding the quest for more powerful, more attractive “loot” in games.
You want to become someone else, feel like you’re somewhere else. For you, the narrative, the characters and plot are what keeps you interested and playing. Like watching a good HBO show, you can’t wait to see what happens next.
- Journey (iOS, PlayStation 4, Windows): Also made by thatgamecompany, Journey is an arresting adventure meant to emphasize the smallness of our existence, and the wonder and curiosity that comes with living in a large, scary world. Like Sky, it’s a game primarily about moving through beautiful environments. Journey is often a game cited whenever anyone questions the artistic merits of a video game story. It’s also another great introduction to understanding visual cues, as the game relies on your own curiosity to explore.
- The Walking Dead, Season 1 (iOS/Android, all consoles, Windows/MacOS): The Walking Dead game is often considered a better written story than its namesake TV show. You play as a felon who takes a little girl under his wing to survive the zombie apocalypse. The game introduces many things to new players, including visual cues and some limited navigation (which makes it easier), but the most important thing is that it forces players to make decisions that impact how the story plays out in dramatically different ways. Playing on a touch screen with your phone or tablet might actually be the ideal way, since many of the game’s actions require simple button presses.
- Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (iOS/Android, all consoles, Windows): Phoenix Wright is credited as popularizing the “visual novel” format of gaming in the West. You play as a green criminal defense lawyer in his early 20s. It’s part murder-mystery, part court procedural drama. You simply choose what to say, and you use logic to provide evidence in court, which is all great training for more complex role-playing games. But while the gameplay is simple, the story isn’t. You won’t want to stop until you can rest your case.
Do you call yourself a creative? This is your category. Each of these games offer literally millions of ways to express yourself through art, fashion and personality.
- Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo Switch): It’s the “it” game of the current pandemic, and for good reason. The game is simple in how it controls, and simulates a busy day of errands and work. The game’s objectives are as simple as “collecting fruit” or “chopping down trees,” largely done with just two buttons. But the real reward is customizing your town (or in this case, island) and character. There’s a lot of freedom to tailor the appearances of buildings, streets, environments and your own home to your exact aesthetic.
- The Sims 4 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows/MacOS): If you want a life simulator more grounded in reality, The Sims series has been an introduction to gaming for the last two decades. It’s a life simulator, job simulator and home builder all in one, all free of any prohibitive mechanics. And the topic matter is easy to grasp since it deals with modern day-to-day issues like getting a job, filling out your fridge, going to yoga or even raising a family.
- Minecraft (iOS/Android, all consoles, Windows): This game shows up again not just because it’s sort of the “every game” of the industry, but it’d be illegal to not mention it under a section about creativity. From building replicas of famous architecture to creating an actual working computer inside the game, no other title allows for as much creativity as Minecraft.
This is the stereotypical video game genre. You want to be thrilled, and you want something more fast-paced, with just a little bit of mayhem in the mix. These are probably the hardest types of games for beginners, but there are still plenty of options to ease your way in.
- New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe (Nintendo Switch): It’s the same 2D Mario game you know and love, and it’s one of the best ever made. Better yet, you can play through the game as two characters (Toadette and Nabbit) which are designed for inexperienced players. Both make the game significantly easier, with Nabbit being all but invincible. Last century, Mario games trained the world on how to navigate a 2D game. Toadette and Nabbit are there to make sure it stays that way.
- LEGO Marvel Super Heroes (iOS/Android, all consoles, Windows/MacOS): The LEGO brand action games are perfect for inexperienced players, since there’s no real way to lose in them. If your LEGO Spider-Man “dies,” he just simply pops back in and you can keep going. Any LEGO-branded action game will do, but the Marvel characters add some familiarity and variety. These games can be played with local cooperative multiplayer, so they’re fun and accessible for the whole family.
- Halo: The Master Chief Collection (Xbox One, Windows): This might be a surprise, considering the franchise is often tied to the “hardcore” crowd. But Halo was the first game to popularize the dual-stick controls for first-person shooters. As Mario is to 2D platformers, Halo is to the modern shooter. If you’re feeling confident to try your hand at first-person shooting, play the first Halo game in this collection. It’s how an entire generation learned. And don’t ever be ashamed for putting any of these games in “easy” mode. They are part of the game, and they were made specifically for you.
We’ve yet to discuss a lot of aspects about gaming, including general gaming rules about controls and the different online services offered. Every game and every platform offers something different, and when it comes to more granular aspects, Google and YouTube are your best friend. Gamers and gaming studios have been putting up guides and instructions for the last two decades, and the Internet is full of good, tried-and-true advice.
If you have a more specific question (or have other suggestions for new gamers), let us know in the comments below. Our staff will answer as many questions as possible.