Friday, March 6, 2009

Sane Gaming: Online Communities

We begin our odyssey of gaming commentary with a look at online communities these days. They're easily summed up in a single question: "Where's the fun?" It's no secret that online gaming communities are ruled by negativity today. You don't have to look far to see it between all the mainstream gaming media sites, blogs, and message boards. Gaming - in particular, self-proclaimed serious/"hardcore" gaming - is nothing but negative.

A History Lesson in Bias and Brand Fanaticism

Ganked from Atariage.comBrand fanaticism has always been an issue in home console video gaming, whether the conflicts between Atari and Colecovision, Nintendo and Sega, and now Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Each time a new brand comes about, the minute it achieves any measure of success, you'll find a growing crowd insisting that that particular brand is the only one that matters, and that all others - as well as those who play those brands' consoles - are inferior.

When Nintendo changed console gaming in the years following the massive industry crash at the end of the Atari/Coleco days, gamers from that era scoffed at the new controllers and types of gameplay they brought in, with directional pads and a few more buttons rather than the traditional joystick. After Sega entered the market, they began a fierce brand battle with Nintendo which lasted around a decade - making more progress in the west than Japan, presenting themselves as the "cool" alternative to Nintendo. (While both companies produced high quality hardware with interesting controllers and excellent software, making it well worth your time to own both sides' consoles if you could afford them.)

When Sony entered the market in the mid-'90s, the Playstation having been developed by the openly egomaniacal Ken Kutaragi - with an effective "Anything you can do, I can do better, you're just a specialist company, not an electronics powerhouse like Sony" attitude - following the rejection of a business deal between Sony and Nintendo. (Sony was to develop a CD drive add-on for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System - which ultimately became the original Playstation - but in exchange, wanted Nintendo to become part of Sony. An extremely lopsided proposal.) While you wouldn't expect a console essentially birthed out of spite to do as well as the Playstation did, it filled a crucial gap in the industry left by Nintendo and Sega that generation. Nintendo's president at the time - Hiroshi Yamauchi - was known for his domineering personality and outright bullying of third parties into exclusive support of Nintendo hardware. After two generations of this, most third parties were understandably looking for an alternative. The N64 was designed to be a graphical powerhouse, but in sticking with cartridges lacked the CD drive that developers had deemed necessary to move the industry forward. And so, they turned to Sega's Saturn - which saw far more success in Japan than the west, due to Sega's having killed a great deal of their brandname's goodwill after the Genesis with the flops that were the Sega CD (Which still had a fair number of excellent games) and 32X - and found their efforts hampered by extremely cumbersome internal architecture, which made programming hell. Sony came along with their Playstation, which despite having weaker hardware than the Saturn, was easier to program for and still had a CD drive. It had a slow start, but after Squaresoft released the meteorically successful Final Fantasy VII (Which, sadly, was a sharp reversal from its predecessor in terms of quality), the rest of Sony's success with the Playstation brand is well known. Nintendo was rather summarily abandoned by the third parties, and after the Saturn, Sega released their final console in the Dreamcast, which also failed, despite being an excellent, forward-thinking platform by design.

That industry history lesson serves a purpose here, of course: After Sony's own meteoric rise to domination of the industry, with a lot of 8 and 16-bit era gamers from the Nintendo/Sega days "outgrowing" the hobby, Sony focused on courting their own new demographic and over the course of the Playstation and PS2 years, they expanded the market far beyond the reach achieved in previous generations. (Though it took them a while to get anywhere near NES levels - Nintendo's initial foray into the console world set sales records extremely difficult to touch.) But in bringing in their own generation of gamers, Sony took an approach not unlike Sega's, essentially spitting on the entire gaming industry prior to their presence and doing so more and more openly as they developed more of a near-monopoly on the console business. They basically taught an entire generation of gamers that everything Nintendo and Sega is terrible by default, and to look down upon non-3D games - and anything not on their hardware - as garbage. (Eventually adopting rather rigid anti-2D graphic policies on the PS2 and setting standards of content to censor - even to the point of blocking games, as Atlus saw in their efforts to localize Shin Megami Tensei series games on the original PSX - in a time when Nintendo was relaxing their censorship standards and starting to more openly support adult-oriented content on their consoles. All that under Nintendo's new president, Satoru Iwata formerly of the second party developer HAL Laboratory, who sought to correct many of Yamauchi's mistakes and attitudes toward the market and developers, as a former game designer himself.) This led to a new segment of gamers that ultimately developed an intense loyalty to Sony - and ultimately Microsoft as well - with a hostility towards anything not of their brand of choice that made the Nintendo/Sega rivalry of the late '80s and early '90s look like a tea party.

Microsoft entered the industry last generation with the Xbox as a laughingstock, failed to make any money, and the system sold largely on their popular Halo series first-person shooters and paid subscription online play service. They only started to gain more traction this generation with the Xbox 360, their second console, popular for its even deeper - though still costly - online gameplay service and otherwise mostly for its violent shooting and action oriented games. It received a great deal of love simply for launching first - oddly unlike the reproach Sega largely received over the Dreamcast, which never found more than a niche market - and was ultimately copied in basic design by Sony with their PS3.

The difference is, neither of these major corporations - Sony or Microsoft - understands how the console gaming industry works, and has treated it as though they can simply dictate what they want to the market, and the market will serve them. (Not the attitudes you want to see coming from any corporation, let alone ones seeking to provide entertainment.) Nintendo took some major risks this generation, in looking at a stagnant market - after the Gamecube only started to dabble in gameplay innovation with some of its peripherals and odder games, achieving a great deal of profitability due to a good business plan (Like the N64) but failing to break out of third place in the hardware war - and asking how they could change things and bring gaming further to the masses.

This generation, Sony and Microsoft essentially offered nothing more than a far more expensive - and at times less reliable, looking at Microsoft's hardware failure rates - version of last generation's gaming. We're essentially seeing the same exact kinds of games and gameplay experiences that defined the previous generation with the PS2, Gamecube, and Xbox being played on similar controllers (Or in Sony's case, exactly the same, as they've shown they have no idea how to make a new controller, when new controllers are crucial, as is change in general in an entertainment industry that needs innovation to grow and survive, as gaming does.), and in many cases the same kinds of games with less overall content in exchange for a focus on online play and extremely expensive graphics. The mass market understandably chose the Wii and DS as this generation's hardware victors, bringing Nintendo back to the top of the industry, with their new kinds of controls that, when implemented well, can do far more for anyone's gameplay experience than the same old controllers the PS3 and Xbox 360 rely on. The motion controls and simpler main controller in the Wii Remote and touchscreen on the DS make for new, even more intuitive ways to interact with games than were ever in the mainstream before, appealing to the majority of people far more than a controller with 10+ buttons and two analog sticks could. We've effectively hit a wall in regards to what overly complicated traditional controllers can do for video games as a medium, and with Nintendo returning to the forefront in the wake of that - and expanding the industry considerably in making gaming accessible to far more people than Sony did, especially now that they're trying to push the industry into a shrinking direction with Microsoft in their focus on extremely high budget graphics and stagnant gameplay experiences - we're seeing the ugly attitudes Sony and Microsoft fostered in their brand fanatics rearing their heads all over the internet on a regular basis.

Media Unbalance

An eerily accurate depiction of angry gamersInherent biases towards Sony and Microsoft because they're praised as representing "traditional" / "core" games - largely out of poorly founded paranoia that we're somehow going to lose the older types of games as a result of the successes of pick-up-and-play Wii titles such as Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Wii music with the masses - have infected most gaming blogs and mainstream websites and magazines. The media's sought to cater to this angry Sony/Microsoft fanatic crowd in constantly asking sensationalistic questions like "IS NINTENDO RUINING GAMING!?" simply for their succeeding in bringing the hobby to the masses at last with appealing, intuitive hardware. In the decade of Sony's rule, most had grown very comfortable with the idea of Nintendo being this declawed underdog good for a Mario or Zelda game here and there, but otherwise irrelevant. And as such, we've seen a painful loss of objectivity in the gaming media - not that it ever had much in the way of journalistic integrity to begin with.

With these angry biases against the new market leader having poisoned the mainstream media, the question is raised of whether or not it's better to be an "informed" gamer, or to simply play what games appeal to you. (As many reviews these days are colored almost entirely by reviewer biases, whether against a brandname or specific genre. If you aren't interested in one genre or another and can't keep an open mind, you've got no objective basis for writing a review - a considerable number of Wii games have taken hits on their average scores on aggregate review sites simply because they were reviewed by individuals who hated the Wii in general and as a result weren't even trying to have fun with the games they were assigned to review.) Looking at the trends in gaming mass media these days, I'd personally advise looking at most Wii game scores - if you feel like bothering with such websites at all - and add a point or two to get a score that's likely closer to the reality of the title's quality. (You could also drink yourself to death on the use of "waggle" in Wii reviews - a term coined solely to undermine the importance of what the Wii brings to the medium and industry with its motion controls and insinuate that they're always inferior to stagnant, less precise d-pad and analog stick controls.) Likewise, you'd want to remove a point or two with most PS3 and Xbox 360 games, considering how commonplace the bankrolling of positive reviews has become this generation - it's essentially a standard marketing practice now. If you're releasing an ultra-hyped, highly anticipated game - and especially since it's not on the market-leading Wii - you want to pay the press to call it one of the greatest games ever made and attempt to get the masses to buy the more expensive, less successful hardware it's on. As a result, we're seeing two consoles on which most games don't turn a profit receiving an inordinately high number of "greatest games ever made!" in reviews of their high profile titles every year, which makes it crystal clear that there is zero objectivity left in the gaming mass media.

Are Games Art?

Not a meaningful work of art.Another popular conversation in online gaming communities these days is also the matter of whether or not video games qualify as art. Cliff "CliffyB" Bleszinski wants us to take his popular Gears of War Xbox 360 series seriously and think of it as a work of art. In reality, Gears of War is basically Rambo in Space, or a science fiction Contra of sorts. It's about tough-talking, ultra-manly space marines (One of the worst, most completely beaten-to-death cliches that western game developers can't seem to get over) fighting aliens on other worlds with big guns. It isn't high art, it isn't remarkable writing, and conceptually, it isn't brilliant game making. At best, it's derivative. Sure, it's something fun for the series' millions of fans, and if that sort of game appeals to you, no one should stop you from having fun with it. But it says and accomplishes nothing from the artistic perspective beyond very base, crass entertainment. The sort of attitude we've seen about the series from CliffyB is a good indication of the lack of awareness of just how bad the writing and concepts are behind mainstream games these days - especially when compared to quality film and literature, as gaming tries to emulate both and continues to consistently fail at pulling off anything of the sort.

Metal Gear Solid 4, as popular as it was when it hit the PS3 last year, is an excellent example of such a trainwreck of a game. Revered Konami director Hideo Kojima was never going to develop the game to begin with, until death threats started rolling in from fans. (Generally, that's the part where you're supposed to say "How about I never make another title in the series again, ever? This is why you can't have nice things.") As a long-time fan of Kojima - though not so much his Tom Clancy on acid Metal Gear series, which just never appealed to me personally - it was disappointing to see his writing and approach to game design strike new lows with that title, after having thoroughly enjoyed the anime-esque Zone of the Enders PS2 games, stealth vampire-hunting Gameboy Advance Boktai game, and his masterpiece Blade Runner homage, Snatcher. After years of being hyped as "the game that would make the PS3" and prove the supposed "necessity" of its ridiculous hardware power (Ignoring the fact that a multi-core cell processor isn't hardware well-oriented towards video game design at all. The PS3 makes the Sega Saturn look like a dream to program for, which is a contributing factor in the PS3's continuing failure on the market.), it ended up being an extremely long, meandering CGI movie with plenty of cliche plot twists and a lot of evidence that Kojima's simply become creatively bankrupt with the series, in abruptly bringing a bunch of characters he'd permanently killed off in previous games back to life without explanation. Tacked on to that was a very clunky PS2 game with more expensive grahpics and roughly 5-6 hours of gameplay, with unlockables in the game for beating it in so little time. It was a game that showed how difficult it was for even Kojima to make a full PS3 game, and how far Sony's philosophy had moved away from gaming to simply focusing on high definition movies. (Though they made no secret of that, since the system was half-intended to be a market trojan for the Blu-Ray HD movie disc media, which despite defeating HD-DVD in the war between the two HD formats, isn't breaking into the mainstream market or so much as putting a dent into the DVD market in this global recession where, after DVD's only been the mainstream market replacement for VHS for roughly a decade now, it's far too soon - as well as coming off as unnecessary and greedy, given that DVDs aren't exactly cheap either and HDTVs aren't in any way a mainstream or affordable thing for most people - to even be thinking about replacing DVD with more expensive disc media aimed at the HDTV crowd, when high definition television isn't anywhere remotely near being mainstream.)

Grand Theft Auto IV, after all the insane "No! THIS is the best game of all time!" hype it received in response to 2007's Super Mario Galaxy in the first half of 2008, eventually saw the majority of gamers agreeing that it was nowhere near as good as the critics had been paid to call it. And why was that? Because it fell victim to the "Let's make this game high art!" trap developers have started trending towards on those platforms these days, in trying to tell a rough, crime-oriented story of an immigrant's arrival in America. An incredibly cliched story that's been told many times before - and far better - in both cinema and literature. GTA fans love the series for how humorous it is, and how much freedom the player receives to simply go out and create chaos. GTA4 imposed many restrictions on players' freedoms to be chaotic from previous titles, and lost most of its sense of humor in taking a much more heavy-handed approach to the narrative it told. In both story presentation and gameplay, it was GTA minus the fun in the name of "realism" - another common theme we've seen in the commonplace obsession with making "realistic" games on the high definition consoles.

Okami on the PS2 and Wii, gorgeous and Japanese mythology-basedNarratives like this could potentially be made far more interesting if they were framed in a way only video games could tell them - the problem is, developers aren't interested in taking advantage of what the interactive nature of video games in telling their story. Instead, they simply create linear plot structures filled with pre-rendered videos and have the player constantly going from point A to point B to further the plot and get through the game, but they're not interacting with the story in any meaningful sense. The players are just observers, like filmgoers and readers. And this is essentially where the video game industry seems hellbent on staying worlds behind cinema and literature - they want to essentially model games after them instead of exploring what games can do differently by the very natuer of their interactivity that books and movies lack. If they ever want to achieve something of meaningful artistic value instead of "Let's try to do what they're doing even though we're not making movies and writing books and pretend we can do it better even though that's not even the main focus of the medium!" developers need to get more talented writers involved - as even decent writing in video games is extremely scarce - and rethink how they approach narratives in video games. Otherwise, they'll simply continue to nip at the heels of far more developed art forms that video games themselves are not, in being centered on interaction by definition.

Also observably, the trend tends to be that games that take themselves too seriously are much worse in terms of story and narrative than those with a sense of humor as well - a self-aware video game that can laugh at itself and has fun with what it is can be a joyful experience to play. A game that wants to convince you it's some deep artistic statement or piece of cinematic art (Virtually always centered around manly badasses with guns!) isn't.

Unfortunately, whenever you see discussion of video games as art online, it's always one extreme or the other. The most popular viewpoint tends to amount to: "Shut up, all video games are art! Gears of War is badass art and I'm a more cultured person for playing it so people should look up to me for playing video games." When in the end, while video games are a creative medium, we rarely see truly fresh or original games these days - even if they're fun, most are incredibly derivative, and at best, extremely low level art, like a terrible Hollywood blockbuster or bad TV sitcom. Nothing of meaningful artistic merit. But video gamers - like most people on the internet - like to try to boil their arguments entirely down to black-and-white me-vs.-you back-and-forth conflicts instead of thinking in critical, complex terms. Of course, the cliche "traditional" video gamer who thinks Gears of War is a stroke of genius is, more likely than not, not someone who's studied art, ever critically thought about it, or ever spent much time in an art museum. And frankly, critical thinking, understanding, and appreciation of art for what it is are all things that anyone can benefit from.

Solving the Negativity Problem

The Wii menu, courtesy of WikipediaComing full circle in the discussion, there's the issue of how exactly we can deal with the problem of the intense negativity - especially towards Nintendo's system and all the newer gamers who've only recently gotten into the hobby through the Wii and DS (The aggressive crowd choosing to forget that they were once new gamers too, albeit with a different brand of hardware, which they're convinced everyone should be playing, even as that side of the market turns into a sinking ship in how expensive it is for everyone involved.) - and corruption that are so hard to get away from in their pervasiveness. These kinds of attitudes can make dealing with the mainstream online media exhausting and extremely jading to longtime gamers who love and simply want to keep having fun with their hobby. And they can simply drive off newer gamers, since they're being openly antagonized as though they don't "deserve" to be in the hobby if they dare to enjoy something like Wii Sports or Brain Age.

The only real solution seems to be to take advantage of the abundance of social-networking options available today to counter this sort of mentality and carve out one's own personal gaming niche on the internet. By trading friend codes with those in your social circle on the Wii and using the WiiMail Wii Message Board email system, you can create your own social network through the Wii itself. You can also communicate even more directly through the Wii Speak peripheral (Which I'm thinking myself about potentially using for future small scale readings as an interesting alternative sort of thing. Far, far too early to say if I'll be doing anything like that for certain.), and I believe the Xbox 360 and PS3 have some sort of message systems as well in addition to their voice chat features.

Beyond the gaming hardware social networking capabilities, one could start a less aggressive message board system, or groups on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, blogs that celebrate gaming rather than looking to tear it down and thrive on trolling and flame wars as so many do these days, and things like that. Creativity is key in finding a healthier social environment in gaming these days than you could by trying to immerse yourself in the popular hostility. Building up a social network of friendly people to have fun with in online games or talk about the hobby with through such grassroots means is really the most effective these days - making the most of what can be done with the internet and popularity of social networking these days, as it's both all about keeping up with friends and making new ones. Of course, you should also always be wary of predators.

With the number of people who play video games these days growing at astonishing rates largely thanks to the accessibility of the Wii and DS, new gamers don't deserve the antagonism they receive from the crowd that came in on Sony's consoles and hold a ridiculously blind loyalty to Sony and Microsoft, despite the negatives their latest hardware bring to the industry. Newer gamers deserve to find an healthy environment in which to socialize about gaming as much as anyone else. But in genearl, the hostile gaming crowd needs to either come to grips with the reality of the industry this generation or at least stop taking their hobby so seriously. There's no one who doesn't deserve to have fun with any kind of games that appeal to them - just as people can read whatever books and watch whatever movies they like. Gaming will never be a mainstream, respected medium following Sony and Microsoft's current path, as they'd prefer. They will never walk down the street and see people react in awe, "Oh my god! That guy's a HARDCORE GAMER! He's so much better than me," as so many seem to desire. But we can disperse the negative stereotypes and improve the unpleasant sides of gaming and associations with those who game as ordinary people continue to pick up the hobby and have fun with it too.

Whoo, that did end up being very rambling in the end. Hopefully it was coherent enough for any of you who were interested, anyway. I'll try to make the next ones less meandering - there was just a lot to say here.

2 comments:

Eric said...

Really well written article Benjamin. You have such vast knowledge when it comes to marketing and your so gifted with that. I really agree with the innovation stuff your talking about with nintendo and such and sony's arrogant marketing and attitude. Nice to see something who has similar thoughts to me and someone who doesn't get the appeal of all the overhyped titles on 360 and PS3.

And I laughed when you talked about Gears of War being just Rambo in space. Very funny comparison. I agree to.

Keep up the good work to, you have such good writing and you put a lot of effort into your points.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Glad you've enjoyed these older articles! I haven't been as good about posting frequently or replying to comments lately, and I don't expect comments on older posts like this, but feedback like this is always appreciated.

I'll be posting some more things soon, at any rate, to finally get moving for 2012. And there'll inevitably be some gaming talk, with E3 just weeks off. I didn't even get around to my Nintendo E3 commentary last year, I got too overwhelmed by how much I had to say about the 3DS and Wii U unveil back then. With the full Wii U reveal for launch later this year, Nintendo Network, and more, I should have plenty to rattle on about in early June.