Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

The Desire for Unacceptance

January 13, 2010

Here’s a thought that occurred to me as I was writing yesterday’s post.

If Tetris came out today, it’d be a casual game.

So, why isn’t it considered a casual game? It’s success on the Game Boy was a lot like other Nintendo successes since then, many of which have garnered them derision for pandering to a larger market (do people complain to Coca-Cola when they come out with a new flavor or drink that might expand their market?) Well, I think the simple answer is that there was no need for differentiation.  People who owned Game Boys were gamers, and gamers were that transgressive group of enthusiasts who played and enjoyed video games.

People tend to stick with the hobbies they do in the teens and early twenties.  People who did model railroad in the early 70s still do model railroading today.  I saw it at origins once, there were three groups of gamers: miniature war gamers, pen and paper RPGers, and CCG (primarily Magic:The Gathering) players.  There was a noticeable age difference between each group.  These games have a set market and group, which is gradually aging, but it’s doing it all as a group.

You an see this in some genres of video games, even. 4x games like MOO or Sins of a Solar Empire have a small, but dedicated fanbase. Like war game and pnp game markets, the average age of a video gamer is always increasing — but unlike those markets, the band of age ranges is always increasing.  New people are always joining the market.  Kids play video games, and those kids are now the kids of people who had Atari 2600s and Nintendo Entertainment Systems.

The movement of games as a niche, transgressive activity to one which is mainstream has been inevitable for many years now. I’m sure I’m stating the obvious here for most of my readers.  The Wii’s ability to bring in gamer’s mom and grandmom’s isn’t such a big thing.  It’s great for Nintendo, and probably for the game makers and the hobby as a whole, but Grandmothers were going to be gamers in a few years anyway.  It was already happening.

And so a group of people who are used to being in that liminal space of being rejected by society and bounded by the shared experience of gaming are gradually… becoming accepted.  And they are angry about it.  Thus we have the rise of the identity of “hardcore” gamer, and this badge is to be ruthelessly guarded, only those who share are perceived as sharing kinship-in-games are allowed to call themselves hardcore.

But because there was no real definition of what made you part of the community before — it was more shared experience than a social stricture — it’s hard to tell who is hardcore and who isn’t.  It’s not a very strongly defined community.  I’m not sure if I belong in it, and as I get older, I think I do less and less. I think a lot of people are falling away from it, and joining the mainstream.  The market for games that hardcore gamers want will shrink down to  a small community of die hards, and the few companies — probably run by those die hards — will make games for them.

It’s happening now, and the game developers that see it, and develop games either for a broader, more mainstream market — or which focus their games on the hardcore gamer will be the ones that survive financially.  EA needs to be one of the former. Atlus, I think, is doing a good job of being the latter.  I think that’s why we’ve seen some particularly punishing games from them this year: it’s part of their branding and marketing.

In fact, I think this desire for transgression has made its way into the design of AAA games, and while it’s not inherently bad, it certainly has created some repeated themes. And I’ll say that transgressing within a liminal space can be quite fun and liberating, so I doubt it’s gone from games, but I certainly see more of it today than I used to.  I’ll talk more about that on Friday when I return to focusing on the games and not the community of players.