"Where Are the Goddamn Tissues?" Specialty Knowledge in the Mainstream Wasteland
Have you ever tried walking into Wal-Mart and asking a question? Not a difficult question, just something simple, something a salesperson should know. Something along the lines of: "Excuse me, where can I find the tissues?" It's a fun way to spend a half hour, as you dart from aisle to aisle, salesperson to salesperson, demanding over and over, "Just tell me where the tissues are!" - only to end up, once again, in the same old row of blenders and over-sized wooden spoons, not a box of tissues in sight. Then, of course, you stumble across them on your way out the door, on the other side of the store. Try it. Works like a charm.
If paper goods are that hard, imagine what it's like shopping for videogames. Let's make it even worse; let's say you go to Wal-Mart, not in search of something specific, but to seek out advice. What game would be best for my daughter? My husband? My mother-in-law? Exactly how does the Xbox 360 define itself as next-generation console? If I don't take care of my Nintendogs, are they going to die? Such questions don't go over too well. In fact, they go downright poorly. The only successful game-related transaction I've ever had at a Wal-Mart involved picking a game off the shelf, walking to the front of the store, and handing someone my money. End of story.
Not that, as shoppers, we're normally looking for good advice, big smiles or even high-quality service when we head out to the 24-hour Wal-Mart wasteland. What we expect: convenience and low cost. What we get: what we pay for. And at a place where prices - and wages - are always being slashed, that's not much. Why? Wal-Mart has come to epitomize the economic white-washing of America. With its wide-sweeping arm it has successfully felled small business after small business, along with national respect for craftsmanship and skilled laborers. Don't blame the employees who can't answer videogame questions, or even the ones who don't know where the tissues are. They lack specialty knowledge and/or training, and the incentive to acquire them. It's just one more side effect of the Wal-Mart way: mass marketing, mass availability, mass mediocrity.
Back down to Earth: When Gamers Lose Sight of Consumer Reality
Of course, there are better places to track down game advice than Wal-Mart. As with any shopping experience, it can be a matter of luck. Good salesperson, bad salesperson; friendly day, grumpy day. Sometimes you hit it big and find an intelligent, helpful fellow gamer toiling away in some city-block of an establishment. For the most part, though, the rule of thumb is this: The smaller the store, i.e. the higher the level of specialty, the better chance you have at talking to someone who's actually in the know. It's like rock/paper/ scissors. Target beats Wal-Mart. FYE beats Target. Electronics Boutique beats FYE. To be sure, I've had plenty of frustrating encounters with each that I could relay to you. But you don't need to hear it. You've been there.
Even stops like Electronic Boutique - the smallest little slivers of shops, slipped into the leftover edges of malls - have become, it seems to me, more and more disappointing. Sure, you'll run into the occasional energetic fanboy who wants to have a showdown of stats in front of the lady on-lookers, but even that is getting rare. Or, if enthusiasm and genuine interest is too much to ask, what about simple familiarity with the product? I was in my local EB a few months back; I asked for a copy of Kirby: Canvas Curse. Simple enough. It's a big game. Been out for a while. Everybody's heard of it. Right? The sales clerk looked at me, grunted, and disappeared into the backroom, only to come back moments later and ask, "Wait, what are you looking for? 'Chubby: Kansas Cuss?' I don't think we've got that." He was definitely not joking.