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.