Friday, December 28, 2007

The Disrespect of the Knowledgeable

For about 20 years now, I've been writing about games primarily for people that know about games. The role has changed considerably over the years, but the fundamental purpose of what I do has been basically the same. People want information about something they care passionately about, and I've been in the lucky position of being able to give it. Of course I've always noticed the cynicism and sarcasm of the audience, and have fallen foul of it many times (indeed, early in its life, I once stupidly said I was "over" the Nintendo DS) - but within the context of "enthusiast" coverage/media/community, it was to be expected. Enthusiast coverage of just about anything is as much about validation and vindication as it is about information. The audience wants to be challenged, because it already has the fundamentals covered.

Since moving on to What They Play though, my role has changed dramatically. Instead of feeding an already knowledgeable audience with new information, I'm working with a team of very talented writers to feed a new kind of audience; people that know absolutely nothing about videogames, but know they need to know more. They crave the information, but they have no frame of reference, and no context, so consequently don't need to be validated or vindicated in any way. Any new knowledge is good, because it better equips them to tackle the difficult and challenging job of being a parent. For example: When you've been out of the gaming loop (or indeed, have never been in the gaming loop at all) the popularity of the Wii makes for a somewhat intimidating challenge. Even though it's designed for families, it's still a complex device. For the unfamiliar, it presents myriad challenges from the moment it's taken out of the box. Many parents couldn't pick Mario out of a lineup, and really don't understand the difference between a PlayStation and an Xbox, or a Wii and anything else. Going to Target or Wal-Mart to buy a game is a confusing, and intimidating experience; often, when the clerk says "what system do your kids have?" these parents aren't even sure. "Er, it's white." Go to Target and hang out in the games section for a while...I guarantee you'll hear a conversation involving an utterly bemused mother who wants to buy a game for her child, but just isn't equipped to make the call.

Our goal has been to try and help these people. To feed them information they need to know about games, while also providing examples of families that play games together to help them see that it's not a scary, weird thing that's only really for grumpy, cynical boys aged 18-24. What I've noticed though, is that the knowledgeable, game-savvy, or online-savvy audience is far from helpful. Communities that try to represent the broader "crowd" are really just large, elitist groups with very little respect for those that don't know as much as them. Enthusiasts react to the information given (or lack thereof, from their perspective) and choose to be derisive, not caring that it might be useful to someone else. These people, who often bemoan the fact that something like gaming isn't treated "seriously" or isn't accepted as part of the "mainstream" are core to the larger problem. They seem unable to process the fact that there is a larger group of people, who are hungry for information, and hungry for experiences that simply don't care quite as passionately as them. This broader group may not understand the concept of a "Mii" and they may not really "get" what Xbox Live actually does, but they do want to learn - and as they do, their numbers are growing, and their spending power is growing. Their taste is starting to affect the bigger picture.

These people crave simplicity, and interactive entertainment experiences as simple as putting a DVD into the player. They're "new" gamers, and the games business loves them. They demand less, spend more, and are ultimately responsible for the ongoing year-on-year growth of the games business. They're fresh meat. The group that identifies itself as "hardcore" can help a few games sell millions each year, but the "mainstream" audience (that the core sees as ignorant) will be what makes a lot of games sell millions each year. That there's tension here seems ridiculous. Enthusiasts seem to feel threatened by more casual or "non-game" experiences gaining a foothold, but how could this possibly be bad? My DS is currently teaching me Spanish, and I'm really enjoying it. Isn't that good? Just because Ubisoft has made My Spanish Coach for the DS doesn't mean it won't make another Splinter Cell, or it won't make a sequel to Assassin's Creed.

What I've always found heartening about speaking to gamers is their willingness to help each other out. They share information, they share news, and they share ways to play games more efficiently, or in ways that are more fun. I hope, ultimately, that they can see that this new, less knowledgeable audience is similarly in need of help, and rather than feel the need to be derisive of any efforts to help will see that more gamers = more opportunity for games publishers = more games.
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