Op-Ed

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Gamers are Strange, When You're a Stranger

Russ Pitts | 14 Aug 2006 15:36
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Game Executives Bemoan Gaming's "Bad Reputation" at the Electronic Gaming Summit

The recent news from Ziff Davis's Electronic Gaming Summit has seemingly prompted a bit of soul-searching in the game industry. To wit: According to Seth Schiesel, the author of the above-linked NY Times article, the chief concern at the amongst the industry's elite executives in attendance was the trite concern that gaming was still perceived as a "niche hobby with a bad reputation." He cited Microsoft's Peter Moore as saying that step one to "Opening Doors for Our Industry" was to go "Beyond the Boys in Their Bedrooms," and Sony's Phil Harrison's presentation titled " Having It Both Ways: Holding the Core and Reaching for More."

It's no surprise that Microsoft and Sony are looking to change gaming's "bad reputation." Sony and Microsoft are not game companies; they're huge conglomerates that just happen to have game divisions - divisions that are losing both companies millions of dollars each year. In order to justify the existence of these huge money-sucks, Microsoft and Sony must at some point demonstrate their potential for future profitability, and there are only so many "boys in bedrooms" willing to plunk down an entire paycheck to feed their "niche hobby." Nintendo, on the other hand, is a game company, which has long been in the number three slot in terms of market share, but has been turning a profit in the process; a feat which must have the heads of Microsoft and Sony's game divisions burning with envy - and feeling the noose.

If Nintendo manages to sell its Wii console to it's target market of "people who have never played a game" while Microsoft and Sony are still peddling their over-priced, over-sized, self-heating muscle machines to the anti-social gamer elite then the axes are sure to come out at Microsoft and Sony headquarters, and it will have nothing whatsoever to do with social perceptions. Honestly, these people don't care if they're selling games to boys or girls, children or adults, homemakers or mass murderers; what they care about is turning a profit, and once the boys in the boardrooms start demanding green ink, the boys in the bedrooms become irrelevant.

So what should you and I, the boys in the bedrooms, take from this hubbub? The question of when more people will consider gaming "normal" has to be of concern to us all, not only for what it might mean in terms of future development and pricing of hardware and accessories, but also from a sociological perspective. After all, if the Big Two are looking to change the "bad reputation" of gaming, then what does that say about those of us who've been gamers all along? Are we part of the problem or part of the solution?

I say: Neither. You and I are simply pawns in the game of market share, and the side we represent has been entirely won over, but is still only a fraction of the total potential consumer base for the industry. The bad reputation to which Mr. Moore refers is the image in most people's minds of the gamer as a sedentary man/boy/child staring at a screen for hours on end while holding a controller. This image, in large part, is entirely accurate, and at the risk of alienating my entire audience, I have to agree that those portrayed in this picture aren't "normal." I include myself.

Normal people go outside, have barbecues, play softball, read books, knit, go to church and have dates. They do all of these things and many more besides, but very few normal people spend the majority of their free time playing video games. And I maintain that this is not normal, in spite of the fact that it describes me almost perfectly. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing wrong with it, but it is not and never will be "normal."

For gaming to catch on among a wider audience therefore, games will have to become playable by people with a lot less time to devote to gaming. That means not only actually playing the games, but learning how to play them as well. 80+ hour fantasy games, or games requiring a third-party hint book are simply not going to sell outside of a certain demographic. For an example of the problems this may present to game companies, allow me to point you towards Bruce Nielson's fantastic article from The Escapist Issue 55 about his experience working at a small company making videogame versions of popular tabletop war games. The company managed to capture their target market, but still collapsed, because their target market was incredibly small and could not support the cost of making the games. In order for today's game companies to avoid a similar fate, they will have to market their products to people who would not ordinarily see a place for games in their busy and/or social lifestyles. "Casual gamers" in other words. And it is just these casual gamers to whom Messrs. Harrison and Moore were attempting to reach out with their EGS presentations. Or, more precisely, it is their shareholders they are attempting to placate with promises that their money-sucking game divisions will soon break free of the stigma associated with gaming.

By way of comparison, I offer this completely unacceptable analogy: Remember when being gay was a crime? Back when the only gay people straight people ever saw were the ones on TV dying of AIDS? That was not a good time to be gay, and many who were gay shared much angst over this fact - privately, of course, because nobody outside of the gay community really cared. That has since changed (thanks largely to Tom Hanks, Ellen Degeneres and NBC), and although there are still many parts of the country where life can be hard for homosexuals, most Americans are willing to tolerate them, if not accept them outright as fellow human beings with feelings, health care needs and the right to marry.

As the world turns and more people who have played games (or who know people who play games) enter into positions of power in government, universities and large corporations, the gamer stigma will slowly start to fade and those of us with controllers glued to our hands will no longer be considered social pariahs. So long as we remember to bathe.

Actually, if the fact that the New York Times now has a more-or-less dedicated video game correspondent is any indication, it has started to happen already. We've just been too busy writing to each on internet forums to notice, or as Lara Crigger deftly pointed out in The Escapist Forum, are perhaps too afraid of the consequences of this "invasion of normals" to greet their arrival with anything but fear, uncertainty and doubt.

If we want the normals to get over our "gamer weirdness," then we, as gamers, have to get over their normalness. The next time you're in your local game shop and see a 50-something man in a tie buying a PS2 and GTA: San Andreas, resist the urge to laugh or sneer, and the next time you're interviewing for a job at his company, wearing a t-shirt with a joypad on it, he may do the same. Who knows? He might even hire you (then ask you how to enable the Hot Coffee mod).

But this only addresses half of the problem. Now that we've resigned ourselves to accept (perhaps even embrace) our new tie-wearing overlords, we're still left with the question of what will happen to our games (or us for that matter). After all, if Sony and Microsoft are throwing their marketing and development might behind the search for an expanded market, will the result be a game industry which is no longer hospitable to you and me, the boys in the bedrooms who helped conceive the industry in the first place?

I doubt it. So long as there is a market for the kinds of games we like to play, those games will continue to be made. It may become harder to sort out the deeply-immersive, hour-crushing software titles we know and love from amongst the easy-to-pick-up, easy-to-put-down companions-to-the-busy-lifestyle-of-the-casual gamer that are sure to be flooding the market in the days ahead, but hey, that's what those internet forums are for, isn't it?

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