As Vlad pointed out this morning, IFA 2015 is all about gaming. Three of the biggest PC brands — Asus, Acer, and Lenovo — all presented powerful machines with serious cooling systems, fine-tuned control options, and high-end specs. But as a cursory look at them would reveal, that's not really what defines a gaming PC. A "gaming PC" is something that conforms to a certain set of aesthetic rules. To wit:
- Only the colors red, green, black, and silver may be used
- At least one bevel must be included
- Something has to light up
- The end result must be able to camouflage itself in a Terminator movie set
On a certain level, this makes sense. Convenience and looks are the two big benefits of buying, rather than building, a gaming PC. This aesthetic neatly signals that you'll find features like a top-notch graphics card, overclocking abilities, and a solid keyboard. On another level, though, it signals that the only people who might want gaming PCs are the ones who want everything to look like a stealth bomber. Games aren't that boring, and the things we play them on shouldn't be either.
There's nothing wrong with wanting a stealth bomber. But the design and marketing plays on a kind of insecure tribalism under which you don't buy a PC to play or make games, you buy it to achieve the Real Gamer Lifestyle. Asus promises to induct you into a "Republic of Gamers," Acer wants to bring you into the "Predator tribe," and both engineer PCs that look like bug zappers for 15-year-old Call of Duty addicts. For companies that spend so much time on branding and decoration, the products can be remarkably hard to distinguish — there's no buttoned-down Xperia versus cute Moto X, just the uniform self-seriousness of a Hot Topic storefront.
While all manufacturers aim products at stereotypes, few are as laser-focused as gaming hardware companies. It's not entirely their fault. The "core gamer" archetype, embraced by both players and developers for an unfortunately long time, suggested that only a very specific subculture of aggressive young men would bother dropping money on game-specific computers and peripherals. It made gaming a demographic category instead of a medium.
Gaming is bigger than the PC world's imaginary monoculture
But that's hardly the only market out there. Benchmark-pushing games don't have to be gritty shooters — Myst, not Doom, was the big reason to buy a graphics card in 1993. If virtual reality spreads, powerful PCs will be a baseline requirement for many headsets. It's even possible to like murder simulators without wanting your home to look like a literal death trap. I've seen these machines running meditation programs, adorable platformers, VR horror environments, and stealth games inspired by Saul Bass. They'll never be as ubiquitous as smartphones or consoles, but they're bigger than the imaginary monoculture that companies like Asus and Lenovo cater to.
The obvious retort is that people who want different kinds of gaming machines can build their own, or opt for exceptions like the relatively tasteful $3,200 Falcon Northwest and ultra-thin Razer Blade. But a homebrew desktop computer isn't practical for everyone, and slim designs like the Blade have to compromise on specs in a way that chunkier laptops don't. I'm not saying I need conventionally beautiful machines, just ones that aren't all ostentatiously geared towards an aesthetic I find dull and a little embarrassing. Give me the water-cooled laptop, but leave it as a sober black box. Or add a '60s FiestaWare color scheme. Or set the whole thing in a block of Lucite. Or all of the above. I just don't want another killer robot on my desk, unless it's an extremely stylish one.
Verge Video: Hands on with Asus' water-cooled gaming laptop