Bring Your A-Game - How the hardcore gamers stops games from becoming high culture
The gaming industry is different from its older siblings in more than one way and that is something I think most of us can agree on. This is an editorial about what I think is one of the most striking cultural differences between the old media and the gaming industry, and the incredible changes that are happening and are about to happen to it.
I am the kind of person who knows exactly what he wants. I am a demanding person to say the least who only goes with the top of the crop. Knowing this, one could think that I would have a hard time finding games that are to my liking - after all, I only watch a handful of new movies each year and tend to be disappointed in a fair few of them - and games and movies are the same right? Luckily they are not. Games are so much more and that is what keeps dragging me back into them.
While I have basically stopped watching TV at all, I am spending more and more of my free time solving puzzles, creating potions, rescuing princesses and mining for diamonds. Games capture me so much that the old media does not seem to have a chance to compete for my increasingly limited time. Why would I watch someone take down a platoon of bad guys when I can do it myself over and over again in different and often far more spectacular ways? There are games that go even further, games like Heavy Rain, a game that is balancing on the very thin edge between film and game. For me, another striking example is the Uncharted series which couples Oscar-worthy scripts with game play and scenery that beats Indiana Jones out of the water.
But something shining as bright as the gaming industry must have a dark side as well. I purchase far more games than I am able to play. I have still not managed to get time to complete Assassins Creed (1) or Bioshock (1), two games that I have enjoyed, although, due to my limited time, got abandoned half completed. To make matters worse, games are somewhat more of a fresh-ware than film and to some extent music. That is not to say that an older game will not be as good years after its initial release - look at the old Mario and Zelda games for instance - but the bulk of games which are produced today are increasingly relying on the newest technology to such an extent that the soul of the game is left behind as an afterthought. I have had chances to play Assassins Creed (1) a fair few of times since its release and I have constantly made the decision that it was not good enough for my time due to its shortcomings.
We gamers - for let us be honest, you are one if you read this and got all the way through the first paragraphs - are a special kind of people even though we often try to hide it from the people around us. The word "gamer" is something people disregard as childish and, in some ways, irresponsible. Compared to words like film or music lovers, you can quickly see how a gamer is treated as a secondary citizen in many peoples eyes.
The bottom of this issue is something that has been part of our culture since at least a hundred years back, and it is reflected in most, if not all instances of the western culture. One could make a comparison to Picasso, a well regarded painter who, at his time, was considered as a secondary citizen just like gamers, but is now part of the culture elite. Even something as trivial as music on discs was a controversial medium for many years, not to mention once we left the LP format for CD-ROM's, an issue which is still debated to this day by the real audiophiles.
Gaming is, after all, a new medium which is very much unlike anything humans have ever seen before. Within a few more centuries we might very well see gaming as being equally regarded along music and film. The revolution is already happening in our society. In Sweden 80%* of the population play regularly and the median age of a gamer is rising faster than ever before. It is no longer strange for a kid to have parents who both buy and play games themselves, an unthinkable thought when I was young(er).
There are multiple reasons why we have seen such an explosion of the medium in recent years. I would like to think of the Xbox 360 as the first storm that hit us. With a lower price than last generation consoles at launch and a focus on connectivity and integration with ones living room, it has often been described as Microsoft's Trojan Horse into people's living room. The second wave was the launch of the Wii. Never before had so many elderly, families and middle aged people rushed for a game console. The Wii sold in incredible numbers and that while most "gamers" discarded it as a toy due to its performance. Although the PlayStation 3 has sold as well as the Xbox 360, its launch did not impact consumer's purchasing behavior the same way, though it shall not be disregarded as an unimportant part of the revolution we are seeing.
Instead it was the launch of the iPhone 3G in 2008 that set of the next and, I would say, biggest wave, changing how we consumers look at gaming. With iOS 2, Apple allowed the whole worlds developers to write applications and thus included games for its smartphones. The older phone manufacturers had included games and allowed users to download additional ones for a long time, but it was now, with the iPhone’s touchscreen and its centralized market, that the explosion of games was able to hit the average consumer. Games were now played on trains, at coffee breaks and in almost any other free time slot during a day. Games had finally hit the general consumer en mass.
While the Wii had paved the way for the oncoming storm, its success had somewhat slowed down. Consumers, it seemed, bought the console to play the included Wii Sports and maybe one or two of Nintendo’s own games, and then leave it to collect dust. The App Store gold rush continues to this day, over four years later, to skyrocket in both sales as well as the amount of time its user spend with those said games.
Today it is not considered strange to have multiple generations of ones family gaming at least once a week. This has and continues to move gaming into the higher stages of the cultural ladder, and while one could think that the hard core gamers, those who spend their hard earned money on home built computers and highly specialized games in the most peculiar of genres would applaud this, we find ourselves in a different reality.
As the revolution goes on, we gamers feel as though we have been put aside for the mass market appeal, and that is ever so often the case. The big publishers value the new goldmine that is the casual gamer more so than the far fewer hardcore gamers. I know this all too well form the Total War series. As of the last decade, I have seen how Creative Assembly has turned Total War from being a relatively open platform to a closed down one. Much of this is of course due to the increased complexity of making games these days, but also developers increasingly strive to control the whole experience.
This, among other things, has made many hardcore gamers look down upon casual gamers as if they were a plague that has hit their beloved games.
It is as if we reject the notion that we ever wanted to be a part of the mass market and the top ladder of our cultural society and that saddens me greatly. It is time for us to welcome the casual gamers as equals and to help them discover more than what is on the surface, to show them our own beloved favorite games, genres and overall weirdness that only we know. We are, after all, the experts, the collectors of art, the audiophiles and the film snobs of our format.
* P4 Extra (2010) Petter Hegevall i P4 Extra. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDXUk95Ll6U in swedish.