Experienced Points

The Dumbification of Gaming


Gaming forums are filled with arguing, trolling, flaming, outrage, and paranoia. Actually, I guess all internet forums are like that. Actually, I guess that’s more or less the state of human conversation since we invented writing things down. But if there is one thing on which gamers might be said to occasionally agree, it’s that games are getting dumber.

Old-school PC gamers are always willing to tell you about how shooters used to have management of multiple resources – armor, health, and ammunition for ten weapons. Now we have a single “life” gauge that fills up on its own, and three weapons. Combat used to take place on sprawling levels with branching paths and multiple routes. Now they have linear railroad paths. The old menagerie of monsters has been replaced with “solider with gun A” and “soldier with gun B.”

On just about any gaming site you can find a small group of die-hard PC enthusiasts, bemoaning this lack of choice, lack of depth, and lack of variety. Sooner or later the blame will fall on the “consoletards.” You know, those drooling idiot console players who only want to see stuff blow up and don’t want to have to think too hard about the how or the why.

You can also find similar gatherings of console fans, who are just as unhappy with the state of gaming as the PC crowd. They’re not complaining that games are too open and too complicated; they’re complaining that games are just too easy. Eventually they will lay the blame at the feet of the (mostly PC based) casual crowd and their sense of entitlement.

The console fans tend to point out that games used to be harder, more punishing, more challenging. I’m not a huge fan of time-sink punishments, but the fans of that “Nintendo Hard” gameplay do have a point: Games are easier.

Even among console fans, there is blame to be spread around. PS3 fans sneer at the frat-boy Halo demographic of Xbox players. Xbox owners laugh at the dumb jocks who bought a PlayStation and then buy the same Madden and Tiger Woods games, over and over, every year. Both sides are filled with burning contempt for the giggling, clueless, inept Wii players and their affinity for heaps of shovelware.


I’m just as guilty as anyone else. Okay, I don’t blame any particular platform or group of users for this trend of dumbness, but I see the trend and I’ve put in my time raging against it. I’ve burned through thousands and thousands of words comparing Fallout 3 to the original Fallout, comparing BioShock to System Shock, comparing the recent Silent Hill games with Silent Hill 2, and you don’t even want to get me started on the original UFO:Enemy Unknown vs. the upcoming XCom. Yes, I think games have gotten dumber.

But the truth is that this isn’t the fault of PC Gamers. Or Xbox owners. Or PS3 owners. Or the Wii owners. Game designers are not getting dumber. This trend is simply a result of the success of the industry.

This is a very classic problem. I think System Shock 2 is a far superior game to BioShock. It’s deeper, more open, has a better antagonist, and offers a greater variety of experience. It’s also friggin’ complicated and hard on newcomers. BioShock offers a much more immediate, accessible experience.

As the number of people who play videogames has grown, developers got the cash to make ever more expensive games. But that means they have to sell more copies, which means they need wider appeal, which means they can’t aim at small markets like people who like complicated leveling systems and inventory management.

I’m not being elitist. Everyone is like this. I get all high and mighty about the simplification of shooters, but when Civilization V turned out to be (reportedly) far simpler than its predecessors, I liked it better and I didn’t even notice that it was “dumber.” I just knew I liked it more. No matter what genre you’re talking about, for every person who digs it just the way it is, there’s about 17 people who would like it if it was a little easier and less confusing.

I think the best approach is for games to offer enough flexibility to appeal to people of different tastes. The hardcore mode in Fallout: New Vegas was more than just “hard mode,” it introduced new game mechanics to appeal to the survivalist types without forcing it on the people who just wanted a wasteland adventure. I’d love it if more games tried to split the difference like this and offered old-school depth as well as broad appeal.

I’m not saying we should learn to like simpler games. I’m going to continue to rail against trends that make the hobby less fun for me. The only thing I ask is that people stop dragging the platform wars into this. You’re taking the discussion about games getting dumber, and making it … dumber. That can’t end well.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Drawn To Knowledge, and Spoiler Warning.

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