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.

10 comments:

Magical Malik said...

I really can't agree more with everything that's been said here. Do you happen to know at all how many parents of video gamers visit What They Play? Because there really aren't any other websites like What They Play, and more parents need to visit it. I've been a gamer all my life, and neither of my parents know anything related to video games. They even have a hard time simply understanding what's going on the screen sometimes, haha. Just today my Mom asked my brother "What exactly do you do in all of these games you play?" and "Once you beat a game, do you ever touch it again?". And my brother went on answering her questions, and even described achievements and achievement points, and she was actually somewhat proud of me when she found out I had such a huge gamerscore. It's time like these when I realize that parents really need to know more things about gaming, and that's why What They Play is such an important, and excellent website.

Susan said...

Something has always baffled me is the resentment "hardcore" gamers have for folks who dabble in gaming--who enjoy it from time to time but aren't devoted to it. It never made sense to me. Gamers are constantly complaining that they're misunderstood or treated badly, so you would think that they would be thrilled that more people were playing games. If Joe and Jane Average enjoy playing Wii Sports on the weekend, surely they're less likely to scorn someone who spends his evenings playing World of Warcraft, right?

I think that many gamers have come to wear their "outsider" nature as a sort of badge of honor, and see any measure of acceptance by those not in the Brotherhood as a threat to their identity. Sounds utterly absurd and immature, I know, but I genuinely believe that thinking of themselves as gamers--these people who do weird things with these weird machines--makes them feel special, and, to paraphrase Syndrome in The Incredibles, if everyone is special, then nobody is.

Personally, I'm thrilled that more people are coming to try and enjoy video games. The more people playing, the better. After all, that's the whole point, isn't it? What They Play is a great way for those new to the world of video games to get some information in a nonintimidating, non-judgmental way. There's so much to learn, and nobody likes feeling dumb, so I'm glad there's a resource to help the new folks out.

That said, you might not want to teach them about Xbox Live any time soon. That would scare off the bravest of souls.

John Davison said...

The attitude is pervasive throughout the enthusiast media too. The "hardcore" inexplicably behave as though their elitist pastime is under threat, and seem to believe that publisher and developer attention on "casual" games will somehow take away from the experiences they crave. Experiences are dismissed as "non games" and "baby games" when it suits the core, but these tags are ignored when it's a franchise they love. Phantom Hourglass, for example, if any other franchise (or indeed a new franchise) would be dismissed as a "baby game" if it weren't for the "Legend of Zelda" prefix.

The logic doesn't stack up when you look at the past year either. During 2007, there were more of these new types of game than ever before, yet at the same time we almost certainly got more games aimed at the core as well. For every Cranium Kabookii, there was an Assassin's Creed, for every Jenga there was a Mario. The net effect of all of this was MORE people playing games...which can only be good.

As you say, Susan - it seems that being an "outsider" has become a badge of honor.

iTrike said...

It's worth reiterating that this sort of exclusionary behaviour exhibited by 'hardcore' gamers is not exclusive to the gaming world.

I also happen to be a musician and I enjoy sports, and both of those communities also have their hardcore element, i.e. uber-fans and participants who turn their noses up at the casual crowd.

In fact, I find music snobs, you know those guys who work in indie record stores, play in eclectic jazz/rap/punk bands, and can recall the length of every song on side 2 of Black Sabbath's Paranoid, to be far more annoying than hardcore gamers. But that's just me.

(Fanboyism is also prevalent in those communities.)

Anyway, I've always been one to just let the babies have their bottles, unless (and I guess that's what we're talking about here) it becomes detrimental to the scene as a whole, i.e. if hardcore gamers and the enthusiast media are deliberately making it difficult for casual gamers to get involved.

Brooks said...

It's much like any other medium, John. In every other type of enthusiast hobby, what you find is a core group of people who believe they have a better understanding of the medium. In film, there are those who say 'Blade Runner' is a perfect film and what film is meant to do. They will then turn around and say movies like 'Commando' helped ruin the industry. The same is true of books, magazines, model trains, computers, and the rest.

Videogames have it a bit worse, thanks to the fact that many other mediums have been ruined by the 'casual' audience. While in games the 'casual' audience can mean many things - those who want quick, fun games, or parents - in other mediums the casual person is the 'mainstream'. And as has happened in music, film, books, and the rest, the mainstream audience has had a major role is the intellectual destruction of their respective property. They are the reason we get 3 Pirates of the caribbeans, 3 spider-man movies, but Sin City 2 is being underfunded and pushed into oblivion slowly.
Casual music listeners are the reason that Ashlee Simpson is working on her hundredth album, selling millions, but Mars Volta has trouble selling out larger venues.

Complexity and ingenuity does not sell anything to the casual person - they like the safe, fun, and normal. While this by no means indicates the same pattern in gaming, we've actually seen it happen more then once. And it will only happen more and more often. It's a legitimate worry - one that I share, actually.

However, this is actually one of the biggest things i love about working on a site like WhatTheyPlay - by giving parents a concise, clear view of what a game is, I would like to think my little few paragraphs will cause a parent to overlook the standard fare of games, and move into the realm of good games. Maybe they'll pass on Aliens vs Predator and give Patapon a try. Maybe they won't buy Britneys Dance Beat, instead opting for Singstar. Maybe they won't buy Hamsters, because they've realized Nintendogs blows it out of the water.

I'm a strong believer that good games can come in many shapes and forms, even in the form of casual or kids games. I don't forsee the downfall of gaming to come in the shape of 'My Word Coach' - in fact those are the games I welcome. But, I think I understsand the worried sentiment of gamers - we've have a very secluded lifestyle for so many years - and all more people can do is screw it up ;)

After all - what do you think the chances are of seeing Patapon hit the states anytime soon?

John Davison said...

You'll be playing Patapon in February. Thankfully, Sony continues to be willing to take some occasional risks with the PSP. And (shhh...don't tell any hardcore loons) it's basically a VERY casual game in pretentious hardcore gamer clothes.

Brooks said...

I just wish I knew how to read japanese so I could beat the 3rd mission. I can't even figure out what I'm supposed to do lol

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