There’s been a slew of articles here on NHS of late debating the merits of next-generation consoles, the rise of mobile gaming and the sustainability of current industry models. And not just here: in the wake of E3, it’s been a popular topic all over the internet. I have nothing that I especially want to add to that debate, but what I do think is rather more interesting is the manner in which that debate has been conducted.
I was inspired to write this piece after watching a discussion on twitter between @will_luton, the creative director of a mobile gaming studio and games journalist @robfahey on this very subject. Aside from the topic itself, there was a rapid acknowledgement between them that it has become a curiously polarised and rabid discussion, in which adherents to one side or another not only ferociously defend their opinions in a joyfully fact-free manner but seem to insist that the model they’re defending is the only viable one. And that this isn’t just coming from fans, but some senior corners of the industry as well. Recently, I did see a piece discussing the topic on CVG that rose above the muck, but aside from that, it’s been a remarkably unhelpful debate.
This is sad, but not terribly surprising. Outside of politics and sport, there’s not a topic of conversation I know that’s capable of reducing people to raw, screaming bundles of quivering indignation faster than games. You can see it everywhere: conversations in game stores, the message boards and comments threads of gaming sites, even in press releases. That it exists is pretty much indisputable. The more interesting question is why.
There are various angles one could consider. Perhaps the most obvious, given the grammar failures and logical fallacies you’ll commonly see in these debates, is simply that the participants aren’t terribly bright. I don’t really buy this. For starters, there’s circumstantial evidence that gamers tend to be slightly smarter than average. More compellingly, you can see the same shrill tones rapidly being adopted in exchanges between well-known gamers and writers that you know full well are capable, upright human beings most of the time.
Another possible factor is money. Gaming is not a cheap hobby once you’ve shelled out for a console and are paying upfront for AAA games on release day. If you’re on a PC things are arguably even worse given the exorbitant cost of high-end hardware. So pinning your colours to the mast of a particular platform involves backing up your decision with sizable sums of money which, in turn, is likely to make people feel needy for reasons to justify their choices. There’s mileage here, because there are similar effects observable in other high-cost interest groups like home cinema and hi-fi. But it can’t be the whole story. Debate in games is noticeably angrier than in other areas, and the disease still affects gamers who are lucky enough to be able to afford multiple platforms.
There’s a clue, I think, in the nature of these discussions. Can you imagine someone as crass and pig-headed as Aris Bakhtanians feeling enabled to defend his grotesque sexism on a audio-visual fan board? While audiophiles vigorously debate the merits of lossy versus lossless audio formats, do you really hear them demanding rigid adherence to one model to the exclusion of all others? What’s strikingly different about debate amongst gamers isn’t so much the manner of delivery, but the level of maturity. Refusing to acknowledge other people’s feelings and opinions, even if you don’t agree, is immature. Rigid adherence to a fixed and absolutist point of view, regardless of logic and reason, is immature. Shouting and sulking when you don’t get your own way during a discussion is immature. Simply put, the unfortunate hallmark of a lot gaming debate is a lack of maturity.
Which of course begs the further question of why this should be the case. And here we have a chicken and egg problem to solve: is gaming discussion immature because gamers are immature, or do otherwise sensible gamers commonly lose their marbles in gaming debates because the pervasive culture around them is immature?
To answer that I think we need to delve down into the history of the industry. It’s easy to forget in the modern era of mainstream games that gaming was once a minority hobby, and one that was largely confined to children. The very term “game”, divorced from digital connotations still has powerful connections with kids and immaturity in the minds of most adults, as anyone involved with board or role-playing games can tell you.
There’s no single point at which video gaming suddenly became acceptable and mainstream: it’s been a long, hard slog to get there. But it’s undeniable that most of the major outlets for news, commentary and criticism date back to the early days of that transition when games were still perceived as an activity for kids, and many gamers were twentysomethings, teenagers or younger. A lot of the big name sites were founded around 1996 when those in my generation, the first who grew up with the hobby and therefore represent the torch-bearers for carrying it into the mainstream, were around 20. They, naturally, aimed their material at those age groups because it was representative of their audience.
The problem is, simply, that for most outlets, the writing has never grown up. Why would it? For starters, let’s face it, there is something slightly disturbing about grown men pretending to be digital barbarians ploughing their way through hordes of orcs. And in turn, the industry product itself has never grown up: even those of us who’d like to see more mature, more interesting games aren’t getting them, as John Walker lamented on Rock, Paper, Shotgun a couple of months back. Without a mature audience, why would the product grow up? Without a mature product to comment on, why would games journalism grow up? And without mature journalism, why would debate grow up? And without mature debate, there’s pretty much no hope to improve the level of thinking that fans devote to games. It’s a horrible, self-perpetuating circle which ends up leading otherwise sensible, mature people to think about games at the level of teenagers.
What hope is there for moving on? In the short-term, none. In the medium term, a great deal. There are two big name sites, Edge and Eurogamer, that frequently manage to strike a higher tone. Initial signs are that the newest kid on the landscape, Polygon, is gunning the same direction. Articles discussing the level of infantilism in gaming, debates like the one which inspired this article, small blogs improving the level of commentary are all becoming more and more frequent. All of us, writers, readers and commenters alike are part of this process and can do our bit to help. Just like gaming’s journey into the mainstream, it’s been a long hard slog, but those of us trying to pull debate out of the mire are finally gaining critical mass.