Raccoons, Top Gear, and Aging Eyes

Over the last decade, I have purchased three video games for myself (and a couple hundred for our kids). All of mine have been racing games. Last week I picked up Forza 4, excited to drive all kinds of cars on the virtual Top Gear test track.

Unfortunately, the Top Gear track wasn’t included on the disc and required a download. During my attempt to do that, my son’s impatience got the best of me, so we played the game first. I suffered through (not really) Laguna Seca and the Bernese Alps in late-sixties pony cars, brand-new Ferraris, and racing-prepped Dodge Vipers.

Lucky me, the next morning was garbage pickup. Because our neighborhood raccoons are hungry and smart, my garbage goes out just in time, around 6 a.m. A look at my neighbor’s trash chewed and strewn around the street confirmed my strategy. Not only that, I now had 30 minutes to download and play the Top Gear track before the house woke up.

The code required for downloading was a challenging read for my aging eyes, and my reading glasses were with my easy-to-awake wife. But peering over the top of my glasses enabled me to read the code, and looking back through my glasses I could joystick my way through the on-screen alpha-numeric keyboard. See a bit of the code in the lower part of this image. This should be easy, right?

Long code to be entered

Well, wrong, actually. As it turns out, the X-Box team had decided that the code entry screen should time out if a user takes too long. I suppose this has a purpose, but I can’t think of what that purpose could be. On my first try, I am kicked back to my home screen within the first five digits.

Returning to the alpha-numeric keypad, I discovered the entry field was now blank. As I repeated the task over and over — and I admit I am foggy in the morning — I got closer and closer to entering the full 25-digit code. Helping a lot is my emerging savvy with the joystick combined with increasingly complete memorization of the code. I also think of transcribing the code into big letters and then taping those to my TV screen, but I am so tantalizingly close. And then, I did it!

Code not valid error message

Um, no, I didn’t. It appears my accuracy was reduced with speed, and I didn’t get the code right. People were stirring in the house, so I headed up to the shower, defeated by this game within a game.

Just before we needed to leave for work and school I asked my eldest to sit down next to me.

“Please read this number to me, five digits at a time, and as soon as I enter them, read me the next five.” After a few minutes of feigned teenage misunderstanding, he sat down and did his chore. He channels his usability-obsessed father, “The K’s and X’s are hard to tell apart, Dad.” Then, I succeeded. I am in and downloading, but too quickly I have to go out the door to deliver a kid to school and myself to work.

Flash forward to 11:30pm, and I am on the test track, battling my Miata against a surprise guest AMC Javelin and an odd assortment of European cars. And for me, it is all worth it.

I hate to pick on X-Box, a generally great product and one of only three major Microsoft products to succeed without depending on pre-existing network externalities (The other two are MS-DOS and Office – and maybe, slowly, the brilliant Windows 7 Mobile will be third?). But the reality is that people over 40 play video games, and even if they don’t, many of us are routinely entering codes for their pre-reading children. So, please, print your codes larger, Microsoft, and if you can’t do that, either shorten them or give me more time to enter them. Think about it: is it ever remotely fun to enter a 25-digit code while a seven-year-old tugs at your arm? Could Microsoft add RFID to the console or make their Kinect read a bar code? Some hobbyist has probably got that working already.