Mainstream Shopping, Mainstream Gaming

“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.

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I suppose one of the things that makes encounters with these guys so painful is how much better we feel we could do in their shoes, and how much fun we imagine we’d be having. Working at the mall: It’s a high school right of passage that, I admit, I, too, lived through. And I know I, for one, sat and drooled over my GameStop application – dreaming of minimal hard work and maximum time chatting about games. Where did I end up? Stuffing teddy bears and shouting “Happy Birthday!” on command. That’s probably why videogame store cashier-dom still sounds so glamorous to me.

Beyond our idealistic projections of employment stardom (because, quite honestly, it’s probably an enormous pain to work at a games store in the mall, just like it’s an enormous pain to work at any store in the mall), there’s something deeply jarring about the indifference we meet when we shop for videogames. Many of us are gamers in more than one sense; we play videogames, certainly, but we’re also involved in an online gaming community, one hosted by innumerous news sites, blogs and forums. We might easily spend hours each day reading about and discussing videogames. When there’s an important title on the horizon, it gets everyone talking. To us, these things are crucial. We feel comfortable, substantial, within our own social bounds. We’ve developed our own way to understand life, to measure the importance of events: by posts, by hits, by Slashdot.

Then we go out into world, to the one other place we feel certain videogames should be a big deal: a videogame store. Yet, once there, instead of camaraderie, we’re met with the lifeless stare of our own consumer status, as our hobby, our passion is knocked down to size by its real-life reflection, by what it really is: disks in boxes that can be purchased. After all, you can’t have gaming without shopping. What then, if the experience of shopping is empty? Again, you can’t blame the employees; they may be working in a small space, but the reach of their company is huge. Still, the visceral impact of that divide – the seemingly un-navigable fissure between meaningful, virtual community and meaningless, physical reality – can only be described as a feeling like falling.

Too Cool for School: Hardcore Culture in Defiance of “Mainstreamization”
What could simultaneously dissolve that unsettling disconnect and fix our good advice problem? What would make shopping meaningful again? How about a store where videogames actually were important, where the clerks – and the entire establishment – were themselves part of the gaming community. Somewhere you could go to browse, to ask questions, to enjoy being a gamer. Somewhere you weren’t reduced to a mere consumer, where you could hand over your money without feeling like one more cog in the big business wheel. Somewhere not yet sterilized, depersonalized, by the gaze of pure capitalism. Somewhere, in short, that doesn’t exist anymore: local fanboy shops.

You know the ones, run by your neighborhood geek squad, always a little dusty and a lot over-crowded, but loved by a dedicated few just the same. When was the last time the world saw one of those? We still have similar stores here and there dedicated to other “dorky” (and equally wonderful) interests, like tabletop gaming and comic books. But these subcultures, lucky as they may be to still have unique, lovingly run shops to offer their patronage to, suffer from other setbacks. For one thing, the physical components of their cultures can be hard to come by if you aren’t fortunate enough to live near one of these fanboy shops.

But the biggest obstacle standing in their way is social stigma. Both tabletop gaming (as represented to the masses by D&D and Magic: The Gathering) and comic books are still considered extremely nerdy. Videogaming, on the other hand, has found safety from ridicule by going to bed, in a sense, with the enemy – by joining mainstream consumerism and mainstream culture.

Perhaps the process has been a gradual one, but it does seem that all of a sudden videogames are everywhere. Everyone plays them. Everyone wants them. They’re nothing to be embarrassed about anymore. In fact, if pulled off with the right sense of humor, being a gamer can even be cool. Popular as we may be now, we’re paying the price for our new-found acceptance. We’re giving up our subculture, and becoming like everyone else. Or, more likely, everyone else is becoming like us. Either way, we’re losing our identity as gamers.

Walk down the halls of a high school, a college, a mall. More people than ever are wearing videogame merchandise – t-shirts, wristbands, shoe laces – whatever Hot Topic has churned out this week. And that’s just the thing: We, as genuine gamers, don’t feel camaraderie, we feel suspicious and cheated. Our community has been made a fad. Or at least, we’re afraid so. We don’t really know. Because now that everyone and anyone identifies as a gamer, we can grasp less and less what that term means when we apply it to ourselves.

Not everyone is playing along, of course. In fact, this mainstreamization has forced into being a new videogame subculture, one which is at the same time both shallow and totally understandable, namely the culture of “hardcore” gamers. The self-identification of hardcore gaming is a clear automatic reaction to the invasion of the mainstream, of potential posers, of an uncertainty of identity.

The entire point of hardcore culture is being the real thing. Whether you find your community in clans, guilds, forums, whatever, it’s no easy feat to work your way in, to prove yourself. You have to play, and play, and play some more, but you also have to know. You have to be able to pass tests of your knowledge in the form of challenges and ridicule. Hardcore culture is elitism, plain and simple, because that’s what it has to be remain certain of its purity, certain of itself. But as the specter of mainstreamization constantly lurks, mainstream culture becomes also about chauvinism, about constantly proclaiming your own worth and veracity, time and time again.

Starving Artists: Money, Microsoft and America
While mainstreamization may seem like the natural next step in the evolutionary process of the games economy, the fact of the matter is that this cultural dilemma of ours is in many ways uniquely American. While in France a few months back, I spent some time checking out the gaming scene. There, it seemed to me, videogames were much less an element of mainstream culture than here in the States. Yet, because there’s no mass outlet there for game appreciation, the fanboy subculture thrives. You find one-of-a-kind shops all over.

What makes America different: big business.

It’s only one of a number of issues, but it’s true that in joining the world of mainstream culture, videogames have also joined the world of mainstream business – though it’s arguable which came first. In certain situations, however, the cause-and-effect is clear. Take, for example, the case of Microsoft, pioneers of the all-American console, with plenty of money and weight to throw around in order to get things done. Of course, there are plenty of employees at Microsoft who are genuinely interested in producing a quality system and positively impacting the videogame industry. But the company’s overall goal is to make money off a market that has gone largely unexploited: the mainstream. They’d like an Xbox 360 in every living room. They’d like your mothers to play. And your wives. Anyone. Everyone. Which pretty much sums up mainstreamization itself.

Maybe Microsoft’s approach would be easier to swallow if they seemed to be saying to the country, “Hey, videogames are great, and more worthwhile than you think. Everyone should try them!” But that’s not the message here. This seems to be a matter of money, of expanding the market, plain and simple. It seems Microsoft is passing up subculture for money. And it hurts.

But should it? Aren’t videogames, like any other industry, innately driven by money? Money equals sales equals popularity, and, in the industry as we know it, popular demand determines the shape new games will take in the future. Games can’t be developed without money. Game publishers flock to it. So why shouldn’t creators?

Here’s where the question of artistic integrity comes in. Capitalism can inspire creation, certainly, but often the best art is produced in defiance of monetary restraints, of realistic business models, of preoccupation with worldly gain. If mainstream videogames will always be defined by the ebb and flow of supply and demand, perhaps what we need to take risks outside the system, for the sake of art. Because, in a way, that’s what raises a work from the level of entertainment to the level of art, even if it’s not successful art – the hope to get something more out of it than money. Mediocre books are made all the time; they’re usually the best-sellers. That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as literature. As with games, originality often lies outside the restraints, both economic and cultural, of the mainstream.

Going Public: the Need for Acceptance, the Fear of Sublimation
Then again, the question of artistic value almost becomes a null one without mainstreamization – that is, there’s no one around to view it. A videogame doesn’t need public recognition to be good, but the lack of audience would be frustrating, for sure. Which brings up the larger question, not just of a game, but of games in general: Can videogames actually be art if the general culture doesn’t appreciate them as such? And don’t we have to, inevitably, sell out our subculture identity, and delve into the mainstream in order to catch society’s eye? Even then, our success in the quest for respect is hardly guaranteed. We face snide remarks, criticism and reluctant thinkers. Videogames have been getting more and more big media attention as they’ve become more mainstream, but it hasn’t all been good attention.

And perhaps we’re equally to blame if the American public hasn’t latched onto the association of videogames and positive, quality interaction. They expect a certain stereotype – the gamer who sits in front of the TV shooting haplessly, who refuses to think of his experience as anything more than indulgent entertainment – and we do little in day to day life to refute it. We gamers think about videogames all the time, but as a community we still have an unwillingness to think, to validate our interest in a meaningful way mainstream intellectuals could understand, and in time, come to respect.

Then again, if you like to game, and thinking is not your thing, who says you should jump through hoops to show off for other people? We’re been tugged from each side. Do we want mass recognition and validation, or ourselves? There’s no easy answer.

From a cultural analyst’s perspective, it’s almost painful to watch a unique, complex subculture get swallowed up in America’s hegemonic mainstream. Something may be gained, but something will definitely be lost. But before the community as we know it goes altogether, there will be (in fact, there already is) a process of eating away, an invasion by the norm. And whether or not that, in the long run, is a positive thing, our knee-jerk reaction is one of self-protection, of defense against outsiders, of clinging on to our gamer identities before they get sublimated once and for all in faceless, mainstream swell.

Riding the Sea Change: the Death and Rebirth of Subculture
What’s a gamer to do? Mainstreamization is sweeping away the subcultures both of videogame shopping and videogames themselves, but this flood isn’t one we can fight. Hiding in our basements, pretending our community isn’t disseminating won’t change anything. Then what?

Let it go. The fanboy shops. The fanboy culture. Gaming as we know it. Let it disappear. Mainstreamization is at our doorsteps, and it won’t stop there. Don’t close your eyes; watch the process closely. Watch things change. Watch as more and more people play, as being a gamer means less and less – just as calling yourself a movie-goer nowadays would be banal, almost absurd. Watch as big business feeds mass culture, as games are developed again and again from the same stagnant pool the public demands. But don’t worry. Let the mainstream have their mediocrity. Something better is coming.

In the wake of our loss, we will shake off all the baggage, all the fluff that currently weighs us down. That will be left behind with the mainstream. We will form an entirely new subculture, one forged in the sea of mainstreamization, a more thoughtful subculture because it will have had to define itself from other, less deliberate forms of gaming. By first facing a crisis of selfhood, we will form a truly meaningful self. We will be, in short, the indie scene – the force that breaks away from mainstream commercialism and creates significant, and still recognized, pieces of art. As for the economic side of things, some among us are already breaking new ground, breaking from the big business of game publishing. Soon, we may find our beloved fanboy shops, once obliterated, reawakened online all around us.

Bonnie Ruberg is a video game journalist specializing in gender and sexuality in games and gaming communities. She also runs a blog, Heroine Sheik, dedicated to such issues. Most recently, her work has appeared at, The A. V. Club, and Gamasutra.

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