I remember the first time I attended a party with the popular kids in my high school. It was, overall, a tepid and stressful affair where I spent most of my time wondering if I was acting the way I needed to act to be invited back again next time. Which is not to say that I was actually being judged — in part because I come from a small rural community where there just weren’t enough of us to be too exclusive— but largely because I think now that everyone else in the room was feeling stressed out about the same thing.
I grew up in a place and an environment where I had the luxury of rarely having to worry about anything really important, like working to help support the family or whether a someone might kill me on the way to school. In the absence of actually stressful things in our lives, I suppose most of us go ahead and busy ourselves by creating things to feel stress over instead. For me, popularity was my luxury stressor. There are a lot of reasons why I chose that particular stressor, but I valued how I and the things that were important to me were perceived by strangers.
I don’t know if it’s nearly as simple as saying that I had a choice between just being comfortable or making myself mildly miserable while trying to make other people happy, but I don’t feel like that’s completely off the mark either. At least a component of chasing popularity is predicated on the idea that what you think of me is more important than what I think of me. And down that pathway there can be a lot of self-compromise and potentially soul-destructive decision making.
Which is all part of the reason I wish gaming weren’t as popular as it has become.
I increasingly think of many of the most popular games on the market in that same way I think of myself during that aggressively social phase of my life. Call of Duty seems to spend a lot of time trying to make sure it is being the things that will be most popular. It comes into the fraternity house all popped-collar-cool and smelling of Axe body spray. It hops out of its black Jeep Wrangler, fires off a few cool comments, and saunters inside with its arsenal of weaponry and Jerry Bruckheimer stories. It spends every moment of those stories calculating exactly what the next move is to attract the maximum number of people.
In the same way that popular people mostly pull it off, so too does Call of Duty, or Madden, or whatever the game of the moment is. It’s not that they become bad games just because they are trying to be popular — on the contrary, to be a bad game would not be cool at all — but they do fit into a certain fixed box of conformity and formula, and so they always feel like a flashy shell with nothing on the inside.
More and more, that’s what I feel like the big-business side of the industry has become. It is a behemoth, a “Big Man on Campus,” a hyper-popular force that is at the breaking point of sustaining itself, because while the currency of popularity in high school may only just be ego and self-worth, the currency of popularity in the games industry is dollars. The reward for popularity in gaming is extraordinary dollars, but the trappings that the popularity requires exact a seemingly equally extraordinary cost. The system seems caught in a garish spiral, where popularity is rewarded with money that is spent entirely on maintaining that popularity.
The reality is that if the big-budget games, the AAA mega-franchises all went away tomorrow, the broad cultural cachet of the industry would drop like a stone. Which, for those of us with a passion for diversity and innovation in games, would probably not be a bad thing. If it all came crumbling down tomorrow, and we were left only with small to mid-size developers working on niche and passion projects, I have a hard time thinking that we would actually be playing any worse games.
Do we, perhaps, need another videogame crash like the one some of us saw in the ‘80s? Let the whimsy of the cultural zeitgeist move on to suck the soul from the next medium. I try to think what the big popularity spike of gaming has brought us, and though I suppose bigger budgets, more titles and easier watercooler conversations may all be in the mix, I also think stymied innovation and a combative industry that doesn’t really trust its own customers have their place on the list.
I realize there is an element of elitism in that whole argument. Or, even perhaps “element” is too conservative, and what I actually mean is “The argument is built entirely on a foundation of elitism.” Let’s say for the moment, though, that I’m willing to embrace that. Let’s say I’ve increasingly come to the place of wanting something that looks like the industry of old back, the one that wasn’t all that popular and was a secret and diverse landscape. Let’s say I believe that if that means we jettison every single major publisher to get there.
If anything, the diversity and complexity of the independent and small-market scene tells me that the industry could survive a bubble-burst and perhaps even be better in the long run. The natural counter to that is that, since there is this healthy, independent scene in the same space as the big budget titans, why not just have both? And yet, I might argue that the independent scene exists despite rather than because of the other. If the opposing force to the innovation and growth in the indie scene disappeared, might we end up with a gaming culture far more healthy?
I know that I’m not thinking about the business of all this. I know it’s idyllic and naive to imagine an industry in this kind of shape and scope. I know that what I’m supposed to say is that, in the end, the business goes where the money flows, and to suggest that an industry as culturally relevant and big as gaming has become should be influenced by anything besides soothing the thin-skinned whims of fickle investors might make for a nice fairy tale, but is otherwise stupid.
I know all of that, and you know what? What has that approach gotten gaming, other than a bloated industry on the precipice of collapse, where innovation is measured in monetization schemes instead of artistic innovation, where consumers are in open rebellion over the thinly veiled schemes of publishers to cheat their way to a profit, where a game can sell three-million copies and the developer has to close their doors because they didn’t make a cent in profit off the enterprise?
And yet, here at the crux of it all, I can’t actually bring myself to wish for the collapse of the industry, corrupt and misguided as I may think it is. I can’t sit here and say, “I wish it would all come crumbling down tomorrow so that a smaller but greener industry could build from the ashes.” I can’t do that, because so many people — so many gamers who just happen to be employed by the companies that make and publish the games — would suffer. This industry, broken though it may be, isn’t made up of an army of anti-consumer automatons bent on power-mad world domination. It is made up of us, and many of us — of our tribe — would feel exquisite pain within the falling. How can I wish that ill on them?
In the end, this industry as it stands today — both the good and the bad — is what we have made of it. Its popularity is a testament to the artistry of what has been accomplished, and now also the shackle that holds the bulk of the business from progress. We spent a long time wishing that games were as socially central as television or movies. Now that we are there, we reap what we’ve sown.
The popularity of gaming is a curse and a blessing. There is no turning back, only the question of how we might nudge the Titanic slightly from its inexorable course.