I attended PAX East this last weekend, where I had a phenomenal time meeting phenomenal people who do phenomenal things. This is, to be honest, not a particularly unique kind of experience to have at PAX. The convention — dare I say conclave — naturally engenders a sense of community, and one would have to be stone-hearted and obstinately withdrawn not to at least get an inkling of connection to something greater.
For example, I met Jim Smith (whose name, just to be clear, is not actually Jim Smith). “Jim” is someone I met through podcasty-friend and bon vivant Julian “Rabbit” Murdoch, whose faculties for being a conduit to meeting people are legen— wait for it —dary. I played a rather long board game with Jim, had some great conversations with Jim, made some stupid jokes with Jim and basically made the kind of connection with him that I made with any number of other people at the convention.
The thing about Jim, though, is that he was lead designer on Video-Game-I-Really-Like (again, not an actual name). This was information that I wasn’t able to connect in my head upon introduction, due in equal parts to convention fatigue, alcohol haze and fundamental stupidity, and only realized almost a day after I had been hanging around with Jim. “Not possible,” my internal dialogue exclaimed. “He’s just some dude who’s cool to play board games and make funny voices with.”
And that’s the whole point.
I don’t know a ton of people in the industry, but over the years I’ve managed to accumulate a few connections. And, yes, some of those connections are people who you might recognize by name and whose accomplishments are relatively impressive. Others might not be the sort of person you’d name-drop to get into secret places at E3, but are certainly people whose work and amazing creativity are highly regarded. And of these people whom I now count at least as reasonable acquaintances — with whom I could share a beer and conversation — in not one case did I build that relationship by fawning over their accomplishments and elevating them onto a pedestal.
I bring this all up not just to flaunt what cool circles I run in, but because I am reminded again and again that it’s this humanity that gets lost in the gaming/gamers dialogue. The humanity gets lost not only when we are raking their names through the mud as though they should be hung from their toes for perceived videogame crimes against humanity, but even when we are proclaiming their praises as paragons of gaming. We are, in both cases, turning them into people they are not. In almost all cases, that person you were ranting against last week, month or year as a toxic miasma of gaming failure is actually just some dude trying to do a job.
And, I don’t think we, being either the gaming press or the gaming populace, do a very good job of remembering that. We live in a culture of celebrity, and I guess we want to feel like we’re close to celebrity by making just about anyone who has a remotely public face into one whether they like it or not. But by doing so, we also lose sight of the fact that they are people who take out the trash in their underwear in the middle of the night or sniff the milk jug and make a judgment call on whether it’s spoiled before taking a big swig right out of the carton. I wonder, if we did hold those pedestrian images in our heads when we passed down lofty judgments in either direction, would we be quite so quick to either vilify or deify?
Don’t get me wrong: Everyone likes being recognized and congratulated for their work. There were several people who were kind enough to take a moment and tell me about how much they enjoyed the site, the podcast or even the panel we conducted, and if you don’t think I walked around with an embarrassingly inflated ego for a few days, then you really don’t get me at all. But the thing is, I also feel like I’m never able to really connect with someone who starts the conversation with how great they think this or that thing I did was, because in reality they’re immediately talking to the constructed version of me that is defined by the site, article or episode. They aren’t talking to the version of me that sings “Rain King” on the way to work in my Camry or gets crabby when he can’t find his keys that he totally left right freaking here!
I talked a few weeks ago about how my perceptions, and to some degree my capacity for fiery pulpit thumpers, have changed over the years, and I think this may be part of the reason why. It’s one thing to run some anonymous guy out of town on a rail because the ending of his game completely blows, but it’s another when you know he’s a guy who doesn’t get a lot of sleep because his kid’s got an ear infection, or that he stubs his toe in the middle of the night on that damn ottoman, just like everyone else. The moment you know those things, and you think of people in those contexts, and realize that writing Big Game 5 is just the job he does to keep the fridge stocked and pay the mortgage, it gets a lot harder to feel like you’ve been deeply wounded by some perceived catastrophic failure of talent.
Maybe it means that I’m too close to some of these people now, and maybe there is a damn good reason to keep a distance and judge exclusively on results. But I think we already have more than enough people dispassionately talking as though games were the product of robots. I actually feel the other way, like there aren’t enough people thinking of game designers, developers, programmers, managers and, yes, even PR people as no different from you or I except for chosen profession.
After all, for the most part, they’re just some guy or girl, doing a job.