The word ‘elitist’ is becoming a problematic one, if it wasn’t already. I hate the way it tends to be used in politics. If the candidate you’re up against is obviously smarter, better looking, better connected to reality and all-around transparently more qualified to run the country than you are, all you have to do is say the magic word ‘elitist’ and suddenly it’s anybody’s race.
But anyway. Quite some time ago I coined a phrase in Zero Punctuation that now has its very own page on knowyourmeme.com – The Glorious PC Gaming Master Race. It was intended to be ironic, to illustrate what I perceived at the time to be an elitist attitude among a certain kind of PC gamer. People who invest in expensive gaming PCs and continually spend money to make sure the tech in their brightly-lit tower cases is up to date. Who actually prefer games that are temperamental to get running and that have complicated keyboard interfaces, just because it discourages new or ‘casual’ players who will in some way taint the entire community with their presence.
I meant it as a dig. Some PC gamers I think have been using it unironically, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that elitism was what turned me off to PC gaming, just a few short years ago. And that’s what amazes me, in retrospect. I started leaning more towards console gaming because they were approachable, easier to use, and you didn’t have to wade through as much bullshit to get to the point of actually playing the fucking games. That was where I perceived the future of gaming lay. There cannot possibly be a future, I thought, in a gaming platform that deliberately reduces and alienates its potential audience.
It amazes me that I once thought all this, and now, as I start considering my options in terms of gaming desktop PCs, I am thinking exactly the same things about the next generation of consoles. PC gaming still retains the issues mentioned above, it’s still expensive and there can still be a lot of bullshit involved in getting games running, but suddenly these problems look relatively small.
Next gen consoles aren’t elitist the way PC gaming is, it’s a whole other level. First of all, there’s the matter of online connectivity. At time of writing the Xbone’s stance on the always-on issue rather badly needs clarifying – first they claimed it would have offline functionality, then they said something about it needing to connect once a day? What happens if it doesn’t, does the game stop working? Does Microsoft kill one of the hostages? Well, it hardly matters; whether it needs to connect once a day or connect permanently, it’s all the same if you’ve no internet connection at all.
In the worst case, no connection turns a next-gen console into a useless plastic brick. But even in the best case, the vast majority of next gen’s selling points require a connection, so either way a lot of potential users who live outside major population centers are automatically disinvited from the party. Maybe the number of people with no internet access shrinks by the day, but I don’t think a console in these financially insecure times can afford to alienate even the smallest minority of potential buyers.
Sometimes it seems like next-gen is trying to appeal to an audience that doesn’t exist. Like they’ve concocted their own idea of who they want using their consoles, and are just hoping that some combination of loyalty and peer pressure will force the actual user base to transform into those people. They dream of a phantom demographic of attractive young people with spacious living rooms, who are all so psychotically needy that they need to be in constant Skype contact and posting endless streams of Facebook updates in order to be accepted by their equally good-looking friends. Physically active and somehow capable of enjoying motion controls, but simultaneously so bone idle that they want all their entertainment devices integrated into one that they can use without leaving their seat.
But it’s not just vast swathes of the audience that next-gen consoles turn their noses up at – they’re elitist in their approach to the games, too, from development right up to distribution. Already triple-A games are so expensive to create that developers are creatively stifled and even the highest-profile releases routinely lose money, but obliviously the next-gen consoles crank the technology dial up even further, adding a few more hazardous rungs to the ladder leading into the big boys’ treehouse. Making the usual demands that the games crowbar in some use of whatever hardware gimmick they have deluded themselves into thinking is a selling point.
And what could be more smug and elitist than having no backwards compatability? Now then. Let’s put aside the argument of “the current generation consoles aren’t going to magically disappear”. Let’s imagine someone, we’ll call them Bertha, deciding they want to get into gaming, so they buy an Xbox One, and play Assassin’s Creed 4. She likes it, and wants to play Assassin’s Creed 1-3 as well. What do we say to her? “You can’t. All the previous installments of the story that provide the necessary background, all the experiences and highs and lows of the series thus far, none of that matters. Nothing that was made before this console matters, because we found a way to make games slightly prettier. And that alone, sight unseen, makes our paltry handful of bland launch titles worth more than the entire history of gaming put together. You should have played them in the last generation.” And then Bertha explains she wasn’t into gaming around the time of the last generation, and everyone laughs at her for being a noob.
A top-of-the-range desktop PC costs a lot more, but I wouldn’t just be paying to buy into the new games club. I’d be paying for an entire history of games, safely filed away on GOG.com and the Steam listings. Through emulators I have access to every significant moment in gaming that has long since been considered pointless and binned by their original publishers because they were too busy fighting to be the ones wearing the prettiest hats.
Maybe all of gaming is elitist, especially in a world where one-third of the population doesn’t even have electricity, let alone an internet connection. But if I’m going to enable someone’s elitism, it’s going to be the guy who’s elitist because he’s smarter. Not the one who’s elitist because of fucking bullshit.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.