Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Kill Your Friends

I think the demographics enjoying video games are seen as more homogeneous than they really are. Music and books aren't all marketed to the same people, but in general I feel that the biggest variety of acknowledged gaming demographics that exists is between age groups. And even then ESBR ratings are overlooked pretty heavily, leading to the "why are video games so violent? you know kids are playing them!" crap.

There's also the "casual" and "hardcore" demographic distinction, but from the abysmal reception of most of the titles designed for "casual gamers" and frustration with games sacrificing complexity for accessibility, I think it's safe to say that casual gamers are people who don't much care for video games. The only successful marketing toward casual gamers that I know of is the Wii.

It's no longer fair to draw the line at PC or console either. But there are real video game demographic disparities.

There's an entire approach to games that I like to call "sport-gaming". Yes sports games are often included in this, but I'm not referring to simulated sporting events. I'm referring games who's primary draw is competition with other people. It seems to me that this is use of the gaming medium that differs fundamentally from games which are designed to be immersive or tell a story. All games try to be fun, but sport-games rely on the fun of competing with other people.

Here's the distinction: sport-gaming is not about immersion, story telling, exploration, or information. The game is actually a little incidental. Despite graphics being present, you aren't playing a soldier and you aren't fighting an alien. You are you, and they are them. The actual people. You don't die or destroy, you lose or win. Rather than being judged based on a narrative or complexity or originality, sport-games are judged based on how they allow you to interact with others. I sometimes see Halo matches as basically touch football. The game is just a way for you to play a sport against someone

Experiencing a game as a sport makes the game a conduit between you and others. There is still a lot of focus on the game, but once you become familiarized with it, the game itself becomes almost invisible and the activity becomes much more about outsmarting and outperforming others. I think this is in fact why there's so much trash talk among people playing online games. It's not the same as playing against your friends. When not face to face, the desire to "better" becomes heightened, as does the need to create more tangible social contact.

There is a demographic of gamers who primarily play sport-games. Many games try to appeal to both types of gaming, narrative and sport. Often times this works perfectly well. I really like playing Starcraft's story. I have no interest in Gears of War online. There are a lot of gamers out there who seem to exclusively play games as sport, like game jocks. I seem to remember Gears of War not truly being accepted by 1up and IGN until it had sufficient multilayer maps and modes. Starcraft practically is an organized sport in Korea.

Part of this divide I think has to do with when you started getting invested in games. For those of us who grew up with an NES, I think there's more of a tendency to see video games as not really "games". Indeed this is where I see their value, as interactive narratives. While our parents asked "what's the point of this game" and were confused when we had a difficult time answering, we understood why our friends spent hours on games with "no real point".

On the other hand, there's an entire generation of gamers who only really began investing time in games during the X-Box era of online gaming. The growth of video games as a profitable industry I think is indebted to this type of gamer. Men young and old have video games, and many of them have no interest in fantasy narratives of any kind. They watch action movies for the explosions, watch sports to bet, and play games as sport. They pay for online subscriptions and they buy lots of titles.

Most of us participate in both worlds, but there are some who almost exclusively play online, and those who avoid online games like we avoid Hollywood clubs. It may be coming through that I don't particularly care for this type of gaming. I think it's like playing real life sports without any of the physical fun of playing real life sports. I'm trying very hard not to be snobby. But as much as I can admit that this is a useful way for people to interact, and a valuable way that video games have become embedded in culture, I do think that it's stifling gaming from being the expressive medium I think it should be.

Sport-gaming has to be repetitive. Rules have to be second nature, resources have to be familiar. The point is how you use the established game elements against others. If maps weren't small enough to memorize, controls simple enough to be predictable, and gameplay repeated enough to be accessible by players of different experience, the game wouldn't work. Playing the actual game can't be difficult or complicated, or the addition of unpredictable opponents would make the experience unbearable.

Video games are like comics in that they are just lucrative enough for them to be mass-marketed, but niche enough for the marketers to not know almost anything about the breadth of people they're marketing to. I don't think we as game consumers really know where we fall in game culture sometimes either. Maybe it's bad to draw lines in the sand and "other" different types of gamers, but I think some discussion of different types of gamers would be valuable.


Derek said...

I'm not sure if you fully address games that might become "sports games", but the designers might have invested a great deal of effort into the narrative(Warcraft III has a story, but only fools really care about it). There is a market for "sports games"--I do not dispute there--but I think many games become sports due to abstracting content away. This abstracation is, I think, more so on the player's side than the designers(this is likely primarily, I think, to justify rampant violence with context more palatable for non-gamers).

Also, as someone who started gaming back with the NES, I (kindly) disupute your claim about narrative involvment. If I actually think back, I cared more about fighting Kefka than wondering how his character was written and conceived. Stories were second to gameplay because they were, and still are, so apart from the gameplay. Gameplay becomes non-diegetic, and hampers narrative development(if I can cast "Life", how the hell can Aeris die).

SnrIncognito said...

there seems to be some miscommunication here.

im not saying that playing a game as sport means focusing on rules. or that games that would not fall into the category of sport would mean that players are focusing on narrative.

i would not consider warcraft 3 a sport game. even if no attention is paid to plot.

your interest in besting kefka does not put you in a sport-gamer category.

"sport" refers to competition between yourself and other actual people. not the game. all games have goals and are therefore competitive at some level. but there's a big difference between competition between a simulated personality like a villain, and competition between people who can talk trash back to you.

my point here is that at some point the game itself actually becomes somewhat secondary. what matters is you and the other people. being at the top of the x-box live list doesn't mean you've completed the game or have succeeded in some challenge in the game itself. it means you've bested other people.

being the best at halo isn't necessarily even about halo. its about being better than others. the goal of beating kefka still involves final fantasy 6.

while narrative in games and rules can indeed hinder one another, i think for the most part we are always conscious of our projection into the role of our avatar.

i would never play ff7 were it not for the story. there's no point. its not fun playing a game comprised of a series of amorphos pixels. they have to be human shaped. objects have to be "weapons" in my mind for their use to be entertaining.

even in games like SMB where the narrative is quickly and easily abstracted in favor of focus on the rules, i wouldn't play if mario was a red block and the goomba was a brown block. i still say "i died" not "i lost".

i can't imagine narrative being seen as unnecessary in gaming. narrative is half of why we play. otherwise it's just checkers. or (!) sports.

Fred said...

I agree, and I think that "narrative" versus "sport" gamers is a more significant divide than "casual" and "hardcore".

I find myself entirely a narrative gamer because that is really what I value in my games, the experience and the story. This has kept me by and large from getting into online gaming, as the stories are nonexistent because they would hamper the freedom of interaction.

Interestingly, of the few online games I really have taken to, Team Fortress 2 has revealed a lot to me about my taste for "sport" gaming. I've played other first person shooters online, but often give them up because I find my skill does not come close to other players and I don't have the interest in those types of games to spend time becoming as skillful as they are. However, with a game like Team Fortress which is team-based, I always feel like I have a part to play regardless of my skill level. If I can't aim well, I can go medic and heal my teammates. If I can't be stealthy and figure out how best to hide myself, I can go demoman and lay bomb traps for enemies or clear obstacles around corners. And when I do feel like just shooting people I can go Heavy and wade into the enemy base shooting. Regardless of my skill level or the skill level of my enemies, I always feel useful because there is some important part on my team to play. There may be players who have spent all their time learning one class and how to play it very, very well, but often simply by the merit that I'm there as that class, I am contributing to the team's strategy.

So Team Fortress 2 has made me seriously interested in "sport" gaming for the first time.