The Morning After

Driving in my car, I was listening as a sociologist on the radio explained how people who play MMOs come to think of their avatars as a meaningful extension of themselves, and I was struck yet again by how mainstream gaming has become. I see World of Warcraft on South Park, sitcom characters sitting around playing Xbox, primetime commercials for major releases, Curt Shilling penning reviews for PC Gamer and opening his own game company, campaigners stumping in virtual environments and YouTube ham Freddie Wong on CBS killing YYZ in Guitar Hero 2 as Tommy Talarico and freakin' Vince Neil pass judgment. Far as I can tell, video games are this year's Texas Hold 'Em as sellout demand for the family-friendly Nintendo Wii closes in on year 2 and Burning Crusade breaks the sales record for an entire month in the first twenty-four hours. So with all this mainstream recognition of games, it might be a little disappointing to note that while games have become mainstream gamers haven't.

It's always been the ulterior and usually unstated goal of gamers to convert the world to our pastime, and we have carefully charted our progress in eclipsing other media in total revenue, household adoption and other means of fiscal awesomeness. It probably isn't going too far to say that we gamers have felt like we have something to prove, something perhaps even to legitimize as we pour gross percentages of our lives into developing meaningful relationships with our stimulating electronica. Yet, now that our games seem to be on the precipice of universal acceptance, we have sold its soul to celebrity endorsement and lowest-common-denominator standards. It's like we've awoken the morning after and pop-culture doesn't look quite so hot lying next to us in bed with its matted hair and no makeup.

Either the world would have had to change, or the games would. It's not as though ordinary people – odd, if not archaic, that I still make that distinction – don't like having fun, but gaming has always seemed unapproachable and undesirable from the outside, something that was the exclusive domain of tech-heads with too much time on their hands and not enough social outlets. Ask fans of comic books, they know our pain. Regardless of how accurate the stereotype might have been, for a long time being a member of the technoelite, the broad set into which gamers mostly congregated, meant that one was part of a close-knit but largely isolated group of people, who, it turned out, made a lot of money in the late-nineties with the tech boom.

For about a week and a half it was pretty damn cool to be a tech/game nerd. This was to be our moment to shine, and we offered forth our best and brightest like John Romero and Richard Garriot certain that their impending successes would launch the worldwide media domination of the videogame revolution.

As it turns out we were wrong. It would not be gamers who would lead the video game industry into a decade of absolutely unprecedented growth. In fact, the era of the elevated rock-star developer was ending as soon as it had begun. It was, instead, the few traditional but forward thinking executives who sniffed out untapped cash revenues in the industry that would lock the doors, shove a ball-gag in developer mouths and drive us all straight toward popular culture even as we slowly realized the costs. They achieved this coup not by embracing gaming, but by twisting its style and image into something that the average consumer could happily adopt.

The mainstreaming of gaming did not come from the tech chic of the late nineties, but through the efforts of men and women like former Johnson & Johnson executive Larry Probst who turned EA into the monolithic publisher of games designed to appeal to the market beyond gamers or former Reebok Vice-President Peter Moore. Looking through the resumes of executives and board members for major publishers you are not likely to find people who've spent any measurable part of their lives interested in gaming. What you find instead are long-time executives hailing from corporations like Avon, ConAgra, Warner Music, Sara Lee and FedEx who glommed onto the bandwagon right as it set out into the money parade.

I suppose you could legitimately argue that the only way to make gaming mainstream was to kick the gamers out of the boardrooms and put them back in front of computers where they belonged. A videogame industry that hadn't sold its soul for popularity would probably be a better place for innovation and creativity, which was once so truly prized by critics and the consumers of the products, but not be nearly as technically advanced, universally accessible or commercially successful. It would have faded back into the shadows once the NASDAQ did its belly-flop from the high dive, and we'd be sitting here now talking about far fewer games and wondering what happened like every angel investor who dumped a million into doomed internet start-ups. The vision of the new guard was not to create great games, but to create successful games, with franchise prized above creativity and marketability the great reins onto which innovation was hitched.

I run the risk here of vilifying the executives that made gaming so successful; of participating in the kind of cynicism one usually finds in campus rallies and union meetings, and I don't think that's the point. When they came with their millions of tempting dollars to buy the soul of the gaming industry, the once guardians of creative integrity couldn't sign the transfer papers fast enough. Who can blame them? They never could have turned the video game industry into what it's become. You can't both care to the point of fault about putting out the best product to appeal to a niche market and profitably expand that market at the same time.

Unless, of course, you're Nintendo, and one might describe them as the paradoxical exception to prove the rule – a saying, which makes no sense far as I can tell.

So, what we have as a result is both a blessing and a curse. Good in the sense that there are still plenty of games made for gamers that have the backing of big-money and impressive technology. It means that the games which do manage to slip through the system and target the core group of gamers are varied and impressive, but it also means that the general order of the day is shoveling pabulum to feed the masses. It means that the games often least deserving will be the most successful because they make the concessions necessary to be diversely adequate. It means that as our pastime hits the big time, the people who formed the foundation largely sink back into the shadows of anonymity, and that the people once ostracized as gamers are now ostracized as hardcore gamers.

We are the cinema aficionados who champion foreign films, the music lovers that only listen to indie music, the literature snobs who talk about Proust and smoke clove cigarettes. As popular culture embraces gaming, it shrugs us old-school gamers off dismissively, and to be honest we're probably better off that way. At least, that's what we should tell ourselves until we figure out how to act cool again and hang out at the popular lunch table.

Comments

We are the cinema aficionados who champion foreign films, the music lovers that only listen to indie music, the literature snobs who talk about Proust and smoke clove cigarettes. As popular culture embraces gaming, it shrugs us old-school gamers off dismissively, and to be honest we're probably better off that way. At least, that's what we should tell ourselves until we figure out how to act cool again and hang out at the popular lunch table.

...and cut! Thanks, but Menthols (and Parliaments!) are the new cloves.

On a more serious note, the popularization of the video game and the gaming culture doesn't necessarily preclude the exclusion of those who remember playing their games on floppies while burning our retinas with monochrome graphics.

"An excellent read!" - Scaphism, GWJ

I hope I'm not spinning off topic too quickly, but...
If we're the gaming equivalent of avant-garde (and I'm say we're close) that's fine with me. As someone who actually made (a tiny amount of) money playing games competitively, that comes up as a talking point every now and then. That's something people can grasp and relate to - I competed at something, was pretty good, and I won money.

Of course it was a game very few "ordinary people" have heard of - Guild Wars. Once that bit of conversation ends there's almost always a pause, and sometimes people will fill it with the name of their favorite game. Which, more likely than not, I've heard of but never thought of playing.
I'm not dismissive though - I appreciate their effort to share, even if I happen to know the score on metacritic was below 70. It's always a rather awkward moment though - most of these people play one or maybe two games. It's those two games they are aligned with, not gaming as a pastime or hobby. So we both nod, happily thinking of our own favorite games, coming close to connecting but not making it all the way there.

So if we're the avant-garde, we might not be able to influence directly what gets made, but we can help shape trends and continue advocating for better games to be made. Maybe one day down the line I'll meet (on the street) one of those people who fondly remembers one of my (recent) favorite games.

Elysium wrote:

one might describe them as the paradoxical exception to prove the rule – a saying, which makes no sense far as I can tell.

The roots of the phrase are a bit complicated.

If, for example, you see a sign that says "No parking on Sundays," that indicates that the rest of the time it's OK to park there, even if it isn't specifically stated. The existence of an exception proves the existence of a prevailing rule. The phrase originated in Medieval law.

Elysium wrote:

It's always been the ulterior and usually unstated goal of gamers to convert the world to our pastime, and we have carefully charted our progress in eclipsing other media in total revenue, household adoption and other means of fiscal awesomeness. It probably isn't going too far to say that we gamers have felt like we have something to prove, something perhaps even to legitimize as we pour gross percentages of our lives into developing meaningful relationships with our stimulating electronica. Yet, now that our games seem to be on the precipice of universal acceptance, we have sold its soul to celebrity endorsement and lowest-common-denominator standards. It's like we've awoken the morning after and pop-culture doesn't look quite so hot lying next to us in bed with its matted hair and no makeup.

I really, really wish that our goal WASN'T to convert the world to our passtime, for the exact reason you stated: mass-market pop culture is lowest-common-denominator garbage. Sure, I'm snobby about it, but I'm ok with that, just like I'm ok with gaming being niche. (Why else would I be a PC gamer?)

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for companies like nintendo catering to the mass-market so long as the product is good. That being said, the most prevalent form of mass-market gaming outside of Wii sports and Madden has been Movie Tie In games, which as we all know are less than stellar. What does the quality of said games say about the discrimination of their target audiences?

Why do we insist on expanding the gaming market if all it means is more shovelware? Some of us might have faith in the market to be able to decide which games are good and which aren't, but the success of Reality TV and Torture Porn have me debating otherwise. Frankly, I'd rather not leave gaming in the hands of American Idol watchers.

I wonder if game studios will ever get to the point where they resemble some actors who do a braindead blockbuster flick for $$$$$ and then live off the coin while filming some fun artsy fartsy films for next to nothing?

It'd be cool if a game studio popped out a AAA sequel and used a chunk of the proceeds to fund a quirky dev team or two to pop out the gaming equiv of an art house flick.

Dysplastic wrote:

Why do we insist on expanding the gaming market if all it means is more shovelware? Some of us might have faith in the market to be able to decide which games are good and which aren't, but the success of Reality TV and Torture Porn have me debating otherwise. Frankly, I'd rather not leave gaming in the hands of American Idol watchers.

Because to get the enormous funds required for developers to make the flashy graphics, build physics engines and find talented voice actors, big publishers like EA need to keep churning out games (good or bad). And every once in awhile, a really creative team makes a great game.

I'm not sure if that's entirely accurate, but it helps me sleep at night.

Elysium wrote:

We are the cinema aficionados who champion foreign films, the music lovers that only listen to indie music

Check. Check.

Great article, very good points.

Poppinfresh wrote:
Elysium wrote:

one might describe them as the paradoxical exception to prove the rule – a saying, which makes no sense far as I can tell.

The roots of the phrase are a bit complicated.

If, for example, you see a sign that says "No parking on Sundays," that indicates that the rest of the time it's OK to park there, even if it isn't specifically stated. The existence of an exception proves the existence of a prevailing rule. The phrase originated in Medieval law.

Good lord, I love learning about this kind of thing. If you have more, Poppin, why don't you start a thread on word and phrase origins?

I feel dirty after reading that.

A great article as always, Elysium.

I really liked this article. It explains perfectly how most of us feel when we sit down to the occasional evening of electronic entertainment, knowing full well that most of the world still sees gaming as a waste of time. Even if gaming is one day accepted like reading a good book or listening to rock music there will never be, "So what games do you play?" inserted into a normal conversation between two normal people who have never met and know nothing about each other. Unless they are at a gaming convention.. but that doesn't count.

I'm fine with being part of the "Snob Club", and having the ability to turn a head when after they start telling me how good Madden 2008 is I reply with, "Yeah, I'm really having fun running DOSBox and the old SCUMM games." I know they have no idea what I am talking about, and probably see me as insane, but as long as I have some sort of upperhand (no matter how small) I am ok. I don't want to be on the same playing field as the rest of the world regarding my most prized hobby.

No game is good if anyone's ever heard of it.

Fedaykin98 wrote:
Poppinfresh wrote:
Elysium wrote:

one might describe them as the paradoxical exception to prove the rule – a saying, which makes no sense far as I can tell.

The roots of the phrase are a bit complicated.

If, for example, you see a sign that says "No parking on Sundays," that indicates that the rest of the time it's OK to park there, even if it isn't specifically stated. The existence of an exception proves the existence of a prevailing rule. The phrase originated in Medieval law.

Good lord, I love learning about this kind of thing. If you have more, Poppin, why don't you start a thread on word and phrase origins?

I just blew my wad on that one, so to speak. Sorry. I'd always wondered about that phrase, since it doesn't really make sense on the surface. Actually, that site I linked to above seems to have a fair number of other sayings on there.

Poppinfresh wrote:

I just blew my wad on that one, so to speak. Sorry. I'd always wondered about that phrase, since it doesn't really make sense on the surface. Actually, that site I linked to above seems to have a fair number of other sayings on there.

Yeah, that's a fun site. You can generally google for words and phrases' etymologies. There are a couple good sites out there. Or you could get a subscription to the online OED. Pick one up for me while you're at it.

I understand the sentiment being expressed here, but I can't say that I really agree with it. Perhaps as someone who game to the game late (so to speak) I don't have a sufficient sympathy for the geek subculture that surrounded gaming in its more classic times. I will say this though: almost every time I've listened to or read complaints about games being streamlined or simplified or otherwise made more amenable to the so-called mainstream what I would observe is that the changes made *improved* the game. I can't think of a case off the top of my head when this was not true.

So, no, I'm not really worried about it.

We are the cinema aficionados who champion foreign films, the music lovers that only listen to indie music, the literature snobs who talk about Proust and smoke clove cigarettes.

/in The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy voice:

"Good night!"

Fun read. You do the words good, Elysium.

I will say this though: almost every time I've listened to or read complaints about games being streamlined or simplified or otherwise made more amenable to the so-called mainstream what I would observe is that the changes made *improved* the game. I can't think of a case off the top of my head when this was not true.

So what you're saying is that Deus Ex:Invisible War was an improved version of the original Deus Ex? I think not.

As far as the article goes: There is a point where the set of geeks intersect the set of snobs, typically along the axis of Entertainment... blah, blah, blah (I can't write like that). I like what I like, and I don't need mainstream acceptance to feel validated in that regard. I'm not sure that this thrusting of videogames into the mainstream isn't just another fad, like arcades and Ataris were, pre-1984.

buzzvang wrote:
I will say this though: almost every time I've listened to or read complaints about games being streamlined or simplified or otherwise made more amenable to the so-called mainstream what I would observe is that the changes made *improved* the game. I can't think of a case off the top of my head when this was not true.

So what you're saying is that Deus Ex:Invisible War was an improved version of the original Deus Ex? I think not.

See also: the last Ultima and Kings Quest.

Great article... and a little saddening.

The problem is two-fold for PC gamers. On the one hand we're being left out because consoles give better revenue... on the other PC gaming tends to be the most "hardcore" and thus we're being even further crapped on.

The problem is that i never saw movies or books as a hobby. You can watch movies and read books (both for knowledge and pleasure) but games were never about teaching people - at least none that i've played.

Whether the latest Harry Potter sells 70billion copies or not there will always be Jane Austin lying in wait for someone to pick her up. If Batman begins and it's ilk (i like it btw) dominate the silver screen for the next 20 years there'll still be arty films because many european (and even bollywood) studios continue to make them. In a market increasingly dominated by the bottom line and by mainstream tastes there is increasingly less for me to dine on without having to own ALL of the consoles + a new PC with vista.

Becoming mainstream as a pastime isn't a problem until you realise that having split the gaming world into several camps you are effectively killing off all niche markets slowly.

Also, this phrase does not parse:

>Either the world would have had to change to become the kind gamers of which we had become accustomed, or games would have to change to appeal to the rest of the world.

The author of that web site has a few books out. Port out, Starboard home.... is in my toilet and guests routinely enjoy a little read.

Great article as well, Elysium.

wordsmythe wrote:
buzzvang wrote:
I will say this though: almost every time I've listened to or read complaints about games being streamlined or simplified or otherwise made more amenable to the so-called mainstream what I would observe is that the changes made *improved* the game. I can't think of a case off the top of my head when this was not true.

So what you're saying is that Deus Ex:Invisible War was an improved version of the original Deus Ex? I think not.

See also: the last Ultima and Kings Quest.

Sorry PSU_13, but I heartily beg to differ with you. As you say, you came late to the game. Even as late as the early 90's we had a double-handful of strong franchises with powerful experiences and they have since been Nerfed into shadows on bearing the names of their former selves.

On top of the examples above, see:
Mechwarrior being turned into that travesty MechAssault
Wingcommander being turned into an arcade monstrosity
Baldur's Gate with talking lizards!?
For that matter, how about StarFox going from an iconic space shooter to an adventure game with dinosaurs
Red Baron is just gone

psu_13 wrote:

Also, this phrase does not parse:

>Either the world would have had to change to become the kind gamers of which we had become accustomed, or games would have to change to appeal to the rest of the world.

It appears to be grammatically correct, but is somewhat convoluted. Translation: Either the world changes into gamers like us, or the games change to appeal to them (the mainstream.)

edit: And to add my two red cents, I agree that some of the "concessions" made along the way are, in fact, improvements. Improved interfaces, controls, etc that have been streamlined and polished sure beat the clunky interaction we used to enjoy.

I think I'm already on record against the consolization of games and series. Still, I do think developers are slowly getting better at reaching a happy medium. Maybe they've realized that spending time and money on a PC port is useless if no one wants to play it?

psu is right. That sentence sucked. From hell's hot, I stab at thee!

It is clear that mass gaming is starting to become a reality, but this is the impact of gaming becoming an industry. For me this was a bad change, (yes I am an old gamer yes I am a PC gamer). The industry will follow two simple rules, profit and control. I must admit they have good things, like better distribution, "quality" control, technology advances... Still they do not have the classic love for games. Now there are plenty of games, with very high requirements and most of them rely on graphics rather than gameplay.

I really do not have the time to play all of them, do not want to spend so much money on hardware and systems and would prefer a focus on gameplay (Am I really the only one?). My only hope is that with modding this industry differs from the rest of the world, people are allowed to modify games to their own taste and this is the main reason I will hold on to my PC. Yet wait until the companies get hold of modders to work for them, this has started to happen... they will regain control and we will loose our games.

Elysium wrote:

From hell's heart, I stab at thee!

Spider-Man wrote:

Everybody gets one.

momgamer wrote:

For that matter, how about StarFox going from an iconic space shooter to an adventure game with dinosaurs

I agree with every example (especially my beloved Wing Commander) except this one - this was actually a game that got a makeover at the last moment to turn it into a Starfox game. Kind of like Super Mario Bros. 2, only I believe the makeover was while the game was still in progress and applied to the Japanese version as well.

Isn't there a more traditional Starfox on the DS?

Anyway, agree with you bigtime about the rest. Especially

<----- Wing Commander

Word, I find it effective to compound one error with another. That way I can group all my errors into a single page for review later.

Elysium wrote:

Word, I find it effective to compound one error with another. That way I can group all my errors into a single page for review later.

It's an old military tactic. Round up all the enemy infantry into a small space with your cav, and then open up the artillary.

Obviously this is the work of genius!

I'm glad that you recognize my multiplicity of errors approporiately as an act of genius. Honestly, I'm quite underappreciated in my time.