Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Monday, Jul 14, 2008
A collection of observations and essays about the ongoing effort to sell video games to older players.

One of the biggest transitions occurring with gamers is the wide diversity of people playing video games today. A recent speech and blog post by David Hayward outlines the huge variety of gamers and personalities now playing. Architects, undergrads, casual gamers, women, and men are all active participants with a huge diversity of games to play. He cites a statistic claiming that 40% of the U.K. now plays video games, beating out soccer and cinema respectively. The people he references as gamers are all employed, sociable, and far from the negative stereotypes video games still sometimes hold. They’re also all in their 20s and 30s. From a cultural point of view, that’s awesome. From an economic point of view, that’s troubling. The issue is not what can we do to get more people playing games, it’s what can we do to get people with money playing games.


I don’t have the statistics of wealth distribution but it’s a safe assumption that the average young person starting their career (and maybe raising a family) does not have a lot of disposable income. It just takes time to get a steady job, pay for a family, pay off the mortgage, have free time, and start to have excess money. So although having a young consumer base creates a great image and culture, their capacity to spend lots of money on the hobby is somewhat limited. Enter the Baby Boomers. Unlike their children, this demographic generally has a decent amount of disposable income, lots of free time, and are up for spending those things on a hobby. This isn’t a very original observation either; if you’ve noticed the glut of film remakes and the general packaging of nostalgia in other consumer mediums, then you can see what I’m talking about. The movie industry long ago noticed that the ones with cash are the ones you make movies for, and have responded in kind. There are 78 million Baby Boomers out there and only 19% play video games. That’s a lot of untapped potential. The question now is…what kind of video games do Baby Boomers want to play?


Chris Miller at CNNMoney asked this same question in 2006 and outlined what games have made progress so far. Brain Age seems to strike a chord, Civilization IV works, and one grandma claimed that GTA was the only game out that really appealed to her. In other words, like Hayward’s examples of young gamers in the other article, it’s all over the map. There isn’t one game that will appeal to an entire demographic, but there may be one thing that’s drawing them to these various games. One of the more curious details in Miller’s piece is that one of the older gamers got into the hobby by participating in her son’s gaming website. It was a way for them to bond. Many other Baby Boomers made the same observation and have used video games to relate with their kids or grandkids. Lou Kesten with the AP wrote an article outlining the terse relationship parents have with this connection, noting that 43% of parents refuse to play games with their kids. The chief complaints are the lack of outdoor sports time or benefit to playing games as a hobby. There is a certain cultural barrier present here but it’s unlikely that this is actually based on the simple argument that games are a waste of time. We live in a society where a basketball player is paid more than an EMT, so people are certainly capable of assigning value to sport and play. The issue with these parents, many of whom are in their fifties and about to have the same financial status as Baby Boomers, is getting them to find value in time spent gaming. Having it be a way to bond with their kids could be the way to create that.


After putting together the basics for this gargoyle of a piece, I decided to take a novel approach to the question: I asked my Dad what kind of video game he wanted to play. He responded with the very helpful, “I don’t know.” So the next time I was in town I broke out the Wii and sampled as many games as I could with him. An avid guitar player, my first guess was Guitar Hero. He was excited about trying the game but after bombing a few levels he complained that it was too different from the real thing. Wii Sports went over well and we had a good game of golf together. Zelda never perked his interest, and I decided to avoid No More Heroes. The goal was to find a game that he would play on his own, not just with me, but nothing seemed to really click. The only time I can ever remember him taking an interest when I was a kid was when he saw me playing Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father. He helped me figure out some of the trickier puzzles and after I beat the game he had me show him the ending. After trying out the Wii he did ask if there was anything like that available and I had to tell him no.


Many developers have already started experimenting with family-based video game concepts. The Lego games do a good job of creating a fun children’s game that gives adults something to engage as well. Many of the puzzles incorporate co-op with the specific goal of having the family work together while playing. But is there a way to get them to play video games like the younger generation does? To see them as a fitting distraction to do alone like you do with T.V. or movies? Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer notes the extreme lack of fathers or parental relationships in games, suggesting a game narrative that deals with these issues head-on. Epic fantasy may be fun for some but perhaps other topics may need to be explored to appeal to this audience. Playing time duration is also different for older gamers, who tend to just play in brief bursts, as exemplified by Sudoku or the Brain Age games. What’s key to all these different examples is that they are based on a different value system than the games we, the younger generation, tend to play. Making a game for a Baby Boomer needs to provide different sensations and values than a game focused on graphics, challenge, or complex systems.


Gamasutra did an excellent piece sampling a series of older gamers and discovered a variety of interesting quirks to entice play: bigger text, shorter play sessions, and proper manuals to explain the games were all major complaints. You also have to explain a lot of alien gaming concepts that most people take for granted. Crossing the generation gap won’t be easy when there are so many new ideas for the audience to ingest, but perhaps just a little encouragement to try is all that’s necessary. As the article notes, just getting them used to video games is really the best approach. After the gaming marathon with my folks I’d given up on ever getting them into playing games the way I play them. But my Dad called me the other day to tell me that he had finally found a video game that he liked. It had to do with guitars and he told me to check it out. It’s essentially a 3-D guitar player that you can zoom in and around that has very detailed finger movements. It looks like something out of Unreal. He uses it to teach himself guitar licks and loves being able to observe the complex finger work. There’s no interaction outside of the camera and I don’t think many people would even call it a video game. But I’ve got to admit, it’s a start.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jul 14, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-07-14

Welcome to E3 Week, people!  Since nobody on our illustrious staff is actually going to E3, you’d probably be better off going to one of those other gaming sites if it’s comprehensive E3 news coverage that you’re looking for.  Otherwise, you can count on us to make occasional remarks on the big news stories and keep reviewing games.  You know, kind of like we always do.


McFadden is good and all, but he's no James Starks.

McFadden is good and all, but he’s
no James Starks.


I can’t imagine that most publishers think to themselves, “you know when a good time would be to release a game?  E3 week.  Nobody could possibly get too distracted by the overload of gaming news to forget about Big Release X, could they?”  Of course they could.  As such, there’s very little motivation to put out big releases this week, since the attention is bound to be diverted to other things.


Given the light and decidedly unimpressive list of releases this week, then, there’s only one thing that really sticks out as something I’d particularly like to play: NCAA Football 09.  Can EA put enough improvements into their yearly college football game to warrant yet another purchase?  ‘Tis the eternal question!  It is true, though, that I tend to welcome excuses to try and take my alma mater’s football program (University at Buffalo, and yes, they have a football team.  Kind of.) to a bowl game, since I’m relatively sure such an occurrence will never happen in the real world in my lifetime.  Um, Let’s go Buf-fa-lo!


OMG! INVIZABUL RAIFL!

OMG! INVIZABUL RAIFL!


Up and around the rest of the release list, Southpeak’s Mister Slime actually has nothing to do with the Dragon Quest series (unfortunately!) but it still looks like a fun little puzzle game, and Her Interactive moves their Nancy Drew series to the Nintendo DS, where it seems like it would be a perfect fit for its female adolescent target audience.  We Love Golf! is, for obvious reasons, a perfect fit for the Wii, and there’s a PlayStation 2 exclusive (I had no idea those still existed!) called B-Boy, which is You Got Served!-style breakdancing action.  Given that my 4-year-old fancies himself a breakdancer of late, I may just end up with that.


The full list of releases, along with a trailer for NCAA Football 09, is after the jump.  Happy E3 week, everyone!  Try


not

to hit information overload!


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Text:AAA
Friday, Jul 11, 2008
Poor Gordon has seen better days.

Hey, didja know there’s a Wii version of Hell’s Kitchen coming out this year?  It’ll even have a virtual Gordon Ramsay berating you after every misstep (though the unfortunate ‘T’ rating ensures that Ramsay will be a bit toned down from his TV self; I don’t think you can tell someone to “f(beep) off” and keep a ‘T’ rating…unless, of course, Ubisoft decides to fix this by inserting an audible beep where the “uck” would be, in keeping with the TV show, which would actually make me unnaturally happy.


That said…who else thinks Gordon’s devilish (ha) good looks have kind of gone down the drain in his video game rendering?  He looks a little bit more like a clean-cut Nick Nolte (with oddly wavy hair) than himself in this screen, and while his mouth is contorted in rage, his eyes scream indifference.  Also, his right cheek is in danger of falling off his face.  That’d be a nasty surprise in a plate of risotto.


Still, I have to play this game, if only for the fact that I keep dreaming up features like character customization, implemented for the sole purpose of hearing virualRamsay shout inappropriate things like “what’s wrong? Can the munchkin not reach the pot of boiling f(beep)ng water?!”


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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008
The appeal of the secondhand / vintage shop is spreading to the arena of video games.

If you’ve looked at the PopMatters front page recently, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the recent (and ongoing) set of features dealing with the world of secondhand books.  If you haven’t seen them, go look at them, because each and every one of them thus far is an interesting, absorbing look into either an individual store or the culture of the used bookstore in general.


Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first video game love.

Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first
video game love.


Perhaps because of the increasing age of the average gamer, or perhaps simply because there are enough different games out there to support it, we are starting to see a similar sort of phenomenon in video games—that is, more and more of the so-called “mom ‘n pop” stores that deal in games are bringing in lots of business dealing in vintage.


Being based in Buffalo, I didn’t really see this happening until recently—not until the last couple of weeks did I even realize that a shop dealing in vintage games even existed in this city, given that most of the web hotspots for locating such things (the Cheap Ass Gamer forums, the AtariAge forums, and so on) seem to leave a gaping hole where Buffalo should be in terms of shops in which to buy my old Nintendo / Dreamcast / Genesis / etc. games.  As such, any travel to another town is an immediate excuse to look up the possible vintage gaming destinations.  A trip to Columbus this past month revealed a number of potential hotspots, most notably a place called “BuyBacks”.


Now, BuyBacks isn’t your typical mom ‘n pop shop; at least one of their locations looks more like a competitor to Best Buy from the outside than anything else, though the Ohio State location was at least commingling with the rest of the shops in town.  Even so…wow, is it a rush to have an alternative to the GameStop / GameCrazy block that I’m used to. 


This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.

This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.


I popped in to a few other shops in Columbus, and came back with a treasure trove of stuff…Metal Gear Solid for the PS1, Qix Neo for the PS1, Sneak King for the Xbox (hey, it was $1.99 and I didn’t even have to give my money to Burger King), Faxanadu for the NES…it felt like everything I’d been missing in Buffalo.  There’s something beautifully tactile about walking into a vintage games shop and being able to see what’s there; there’s a certain smell in the air when there’s that much beat-up plastic in the room.  Sure, I could get pretty much everything on eBay or Craigslist or even used on Amazon, but online browsing tends to be so search-based that who’s to say I wouldn’t miss out on some little secret treasure?  Did I even know that Qix Neo existed?  Goodness no.  Would I ever have remembered the joy of Faxanadu if I didn’t see it on a shelf between Ice Hockey and Gotcha!?  Not likely.


Vintage shops are where we can indulge in a minor case of arrested development and recapture the joy of walking into the toy store and seeing, say, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link up there on the shelf in all its golden glory.  Even better, Zelda II won’t even cost you $69.99 (+ tax!) anymore.


Vintage gaming also invites us to remember a time whenbox art had something in common with Harlequin novels.

Vintage gaming also invites us to
remember a time when box art had something
in common with Harlequin romance novels.


Vintage game shops will likely never approach the notoriety or the popularity of the best secondhand book stores, if only because unlike a book, the appeal of a vintage game is limited to a shrinking few who might have a console that can still play the game.  There just aren’t all that many people floating around who have working Intellivision systems anymore, meaning that a store that chooses to stock Intellivision games is severely limiting the number of people who might have any interest in buying something off that section of not-all-that-cheap shelf space.  The only time you see a similar issue with books is through language disparities; the truth is, most people who frequent a bookstore will at least be able to read almost anything on that bookstore’s shelves.  The same can’t be said for the game shop.


Still, more and more aging gamers (such as myself) are finding joy in playing, in the most pure way possible, the games of their youth, and discovering games that they may have missed all those years ago.


Retrogaming fans might want to check out the excellent newsletters at Retrogaming Times Monthly for some good reading that’ll bring you back.  Or, you could join The Brainy Gamer’s newly established (and highly informal) Vintage Game Club, if you actually want to participate in the discussion.  Me, I’m off to scratch the itch at a Buffalo-based shop that copious Googling eventually uncovered.  Hopefully, it’s worth the search.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 8, 2008
Apparently, L.B. read one too many ludology versus narrative debates and decided to have a little fun...by writing a narrative about video games and plot getting divorced, from the perspective of plot.


Caught in the Act


Oh my God! Video Games! You’re home early! I…I don’t know what to say. Look, this is just a one time thing. It’s just some cheap book I found, okay? I promise the story will be dumb, I’ll hardly give her the time of day. Her name? Oh…I think it’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or some silly thing like that. You’ve never met her. Don’t shout at me like that! Don’t turn it into a showdown. You know what I mean, turning it into a competition where there is only a winner and a loser. You always do that! Everything has to be a score or a strategy. It’s not like you’ve never cheated on me before. I’ve seen you with those fancy visual graphics cards. “Oh what will plot care, I’m fun and you look good.” You think I don’t hear that kind of stuff? You think it doesn’t hurt me? Literature and I go way back. She’s kind, she doesn’t complain about my linearity, she doesn’t…oh, come back! Of course I think you’re art! I didn’t mean it like that.


 


The Fight


Yeah, I’ve had a bit to drink. So what? As soon as I have a couple of beers you get all fidgety and stop working. You know what? A plot like me needs a couple of beers. Sometimes more than a couple. It’s called relaxing. It’s not like you even know the meaning of that. You’re always demanding I do this meaningless nonsense. Level up the character before this scene. Let me have a sidequest. But I don’t want her to die, let me choose something else. Waah, waah. Everything is a skill tree to you. You think you’re gonna find emotion in a skill tree? You think you’re gonna find compassion? When are you ever there for me? When I’m doing something sad, you just sit and wait until you can fix it. That’s when you’re even willing to sit there! Every time I want to have a cutscene it’s just bitch, bitch. I wanna talk, me me me. You said you don’t get to talk enough when I’m telling a story, well I’m saying you can’t talk all the time either! You talk about experience. You know what I experience when I’m with you, Video Games? Do you know what happens when I finally get to the end? You making some insane last boss that makes me want to give up. I get to the end, I’ve told this great story, I’ve put up with all your bullshit, and then you save the biggest challenge for the end. When is the end of a story supposed to be the damned hard part? You could at least have the hardest level be in the third act when the conflict is peaking! Where are you going? Don’t turn your back on me, video games! Oh no! No plot twist this time. No amnesia back story, there’s no skipping this cutscene. We’re through, do you hear me? I want a divorce. Plot and video games…are no more.


 


The Divorce


I want dialog trees and map exploration. You can keep the dungeons and booby traps, but I want joint custody of crypts and underground cities. Because we already agreed you didn’t get to keep fantasy settings, Video Games. Alright, alright, take the Pokemon. It’s not like they’re happy without constant grinding anyways. I’m keeping the photo mechanic too. Oh, like you even used the thing! We already agreed to keep joint custody of art & design, so it’s not like they won’t still be able to use it. I…aw geez, don’t cry. I thought we agreed this was for the best. You can just…use a scan visor or something. I don’t know what it will say! Have it give the monster’s stats. Hey, okay, okay. It’s both our faults, alright? Look…take the Wii Fit. Yeah, take it. It’s not like I can do anything with it. You said yourself half the time you don’t even know why you keep me around. Well, half the time I wonder the same thing about you. We’re just not meant for each other. I want to tell a linear story that brings out emotion and…I guess I just don’t know how to deal with your interactivity. Damn video games you just…you keep wanting every story I tell to be about winning and player input. I can’t always do that. Not if I’m going to be true to myself. Hey, keep survival horror. Yeah, really, I mean it.


Ten Years Later


Oh wow, how’s it going? Its been ages! Yeah, yeah I’m fine. Me and Interactive Fiction started dating after you and I ended things. Lots of exploring gorgeous landscapes, talking to people, maybe pick some stuff up. We try to keep the challenge at really easy though, keep things smooth. She’s good to me, y’know? I don’t make her go through every little scene I think up and she respects my talking time. But enough of that, how are you? You look great! I hear about you and virtual reality all the time in the news. You finally got that light saber thing going, huh? Still griping about the physics and all that? Ha…man, I can’t believe I ran into you like this. Y’know, people still ask about you. About us, really. I can’t tell you how many times someone asks me to do the insult swordfighting gag. And Christ, Bioshock, no one will shut up about that one. I keep telling everyone I left half-way through, but they just shout me down. Remember Portal? I bet you do. You talked about that night like you coul-… I, no, yeah. Sorry, that was inappropriate. It’s weird, we used to fight so much. You got so mad at me for Lair. And I still don’t know if I can forgive you for making me show up to your Super Mario Galaxy party. But still…we had some good times. We should get together again.


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