Monday, March 2, 2015

Player One Joins The Game

I am, in nearly every sense of the word, a nerd. Sure, there are some gaps in my interests—I really have close to zero interest in comic books, for example, and I find nearly all anime to be lame—but by and large I have subscribed to nearly the entire list of acceptable facets of nerd culture. 

That said, I like to at least pretend that I’m reasonably moderate with my interests. Sure, I’m a fanatic about certain things--like Team Fortress 2, Sid Meier’s Civilization, board games, geocaching, or the old INWO CCG—but I like to pretend that I’m not obsessed with any of them. Relatively speaking, of course.

That said, I just don’t get video game culture.

I’m not talking about someone who simply likes video games. Video games are a big business; they generate more revenue than the movie industry, for starters. Everyone is a video gamer now, as anyone who plays Candy Crush can tell you. (And they have, because they beg me to give them lives on Facebook every single day. Every. Day.)

What I’m talking about are people who loooove video games. They can’t wait for each new release. They complain bitterly when a button on a controller is moved when the new generation is announced. They voluntarily watch videos of other people playing video games. Writers who mess with a character are heaped upon with scorn. If you don’t make a sequel the exact same thing as the original players complain that it was ruined and if you do make the sequel the exact same thing players complain they were ripped off. The perfect video game is whatever came out when they turned 11. So help you if you get into an argument about who makes the best console game system.

And it is a culture. A generation, maybe two of people feel the same about video games and older generations felt about books and movies. It was like that one video game was made just for you, just like every preteen is the very first person to ever understand the lyrics of a Led Zeppelin song and now they are a combination of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Oracle of Delphi at the ripe young age of thirteen.

Hey, I get it. Everyone has their thing, and if it ain’t hurting anyone else, why should I care? And there’s a certain level of validity to that. I got things that I obsess disproportionately about, too. (Just ask my poor wife. Hopefully you have some time.) Still, I feel like the video game industry is hostile to people like me; I wouldn’t consider myself a “casual” gamer, yet I couldn’t fathom actually paying cash money for a PC specifically built for gaming. I do like certain titles that come out but if I have to wait three months for the price to drop in half I am perfectly happy with that.

But, you may ask, how is this different than people who love movies, or cars, or sports, or television? People get stupid about those things, too, and spend too much money on them. In many ways, it’s not all that different, really. But there are a few things that seem to set it apart. Time invested tends to be higher for video games, especially given the large number of formats, systems, and titles that get released. (Movies can be watched in two hours; most video games can be replayed for weeks, months, and years.) Second is the demographic: the enthusiasts in this hobby tend to be frustrated, angry teenage boys with little ability to translate context into reality or have any frame of reference to compare anything to.* (I should know because I used to be, and some would stay still am, in this demographic.) There’s also a permeating attitude that the normal rules of media consumption no longer apply to video games; I’m willing to chalk this up to the fact that a lot of video gamers are…shall we say, less experienced in how society works and how businesses operate. Finally, there is a horrid streak of elitism (casuals vs. hardcore) that reinforces every bad stereotype of the video gamer. There is always some sort of elitism in any hobby, naturally, but video games haven’t had quite the cultural longevity to let the snobs get away with it for very long without coming across as tantrum-struck fanboys.

There is still debate about exactly what video games are. Roger Ebert famously declared that they were not art, while most video game enthusiasts obviously feel otherwise. (I am mostly in the middle; I think there’s a spectrum between “simple coding” and “near-movie experience” that is not easy to define, but I think a line delineating art from non-art does exist.) I generally view games as “interactive content,” where the user has the freedom to “create” the minutia of a plot, while the creator/programmer restricts the range of options available to force the story they have written. This narrative would be much different from, say, Tomb Raider or Bioshock than it would be for Angry Birds, but generally speaking that is the experience for most gamers.

All this said, I can’t feel but left out. I read video game articles or browse the magazines and I am constantly astounded at the amount of moral outrage people are able to produce for things that matter so very little. I see petitions being raised to make Character X do something. People don’t like the ending to Mass Effect 3 and the internet is flooded with outrage and scorn, and then feel vindicated when the company does, in fact, change it. I hear people say a video game "changed their life," and upon playing it the writing seems to be at best on par with a C-grade straight-to-video rental.

I suppose, in the end, it’s not so horribly different than anything else. Sports fanatics can be pretty obnoxious; gearheads can be elitist and argue endlessly about shit that doesn’t matter, and movie snobs often make me want to punch them in the face (metaphorically, of course). It’s just that video games haven’t quite built up the cultural cache to get away with a lot of the obnoxiousness. Sports, cars, movie theaters—they’ve all been around for nearly a century, and the mass market versions of these have spanned many generations. Those facets of culture have elders, they have a rich history, and they have built a diverse library of perspectives. Video games, on the other hand, have really only been a mainstream hobby for one, maybe two generations at most (and only in the last five years or so would it be considered anything close to mainstream.)  Video games haven’t gotten to the point where the user base is diffuse enough, and its history isn’t diverse enough to support all of the baggage of being an elitist, mouth-breathing train wreck of a support system. It certainly won’t take long—maybe in the next 20 years or so, when the people who played the first Pokemon game become grandparents—but it’s not quite there yet.

The Pledge: Video game fans are kinda dicks. Sports fans, car enthusiasts, and movie buffs are also dicks, but at least that stuff has been around for a while that they can get away with it. Video games need to grow up.

*I know the actual demographic for video games is much different: the average video game player is in early- to mid-thirties and is no longer simply a male audience. But I'm specifically talking about the enthusiasts who, by force of their fanaticism, are the face of video game culture. 

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