In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, the titular young artist, Stephen Daedalus, lectures his friend Lynch at length about the nature of the beautiful in art. He argues that when art is apprehended properly that its audience is arrested by a static emotion. By contrast, he refers to “kinetic emotions”, which he deems to be emotions that excite in their viewers desire or loathing. He claims that art that generates such visceral responses are either “pornographical or didactic” in nature.
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The release and poor sales of SEGA’s Madworld is just another notch in what is becoming a very real gap between the different groups of people who play video games. Often blamed directly on Nintendo’s Wii, the poor sales of a highly rated game by mainstream gaming websites is just another indication that the people buying Wii Fit are not going to be following up that purchase with Call of Duty 5. Even articles making the claim that video games are responsible for torture, violence, the housing bust, traffic, bad breath, etc. are now qualifying their criticisms with statements like, “While I happen to enjoy the ‘G’ rated Wii…” Despite the fact that there are games for stalking and murdering people on the Wii, it is consistently seen as something safe for children or as something okay for the everyday person to claim they enjoy but not for that “other” stuff. The question is…what does that make all of these hardcore gamers?
Part of the problem with the hardcore gamer is that the meaning of “hardcore” is such a nebulous concept to begin with. You can’t exactly claim that it revolves around playing games excessively because people regardless of gender or social background do this. The person who plays Bejeweled 2 for hours is, despite the fact that they’re both playing video games, not considered the same animal as someone who plays Halo 3 for hours. The definition doesn’t exactly revolve around violence or subject matter either because the hardcore demographic will readily enjoy The Sims or Super Mario Brothers despite the cute graphics and low amounts of violence. It doesn’t revolve around game design depth or quality because there are numerous challenging games with complex systems labeled as casual. At the core of either group is that same problem with people thinking the Wii only has casual games on it: perception. The company creating the game has to start marketing it towards one group or the other from the very beginning. Tom Endo over at The Escapist wrote that the division is so intense that games that appeal to either groups are no longer possible, “The business models and the audiences for the two gaming segments are so fundamentally different that attempting to force the two under one roof just doesn’t make sense. While it’s already started, the bifurcation in the largest publishers between business units devoted solely to core and casual game interests will only grow more distinct in the future.” In this way, the division of the hardcore gamer from the casual player mostly becomes an exercise in what they are not: they are not whatever casual gamers are.
The practice of being counter-culture, to actively define yourself by what you are not, is only fairly new to video games. Absent a political agenda or purpose like other counter-culture movements, there is a comparison to the division that exists between casual gamers and hardcore gamers that seems a bit more apt. They are the cultural equivalent of hipsters.
Like the hardcore gamer, the hipster is a nebulous concept to define. These are the people wearing random thriftstore shirts, engaging with the latest indie band, or perhaps just carrying with them a pervasive sense of the ironic. One of the strongest articles on the subject is by Adbusters, which defines hipsters as indicative of the death of culture. The article opines, “Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group—using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. But the moment a trend, band, sound, style or feeling gains too much exposure, it is suddenly looked upon with disdain. Hipsters cannot afford to maintain any cultural loyalties or affiliations for fear they will lose relevance.” The article goes on to explain that they are a mirror of the shallowness of mainstream society, a failed youth movement that doesn’t even challenge the decadence of their elders. Instead, the hipster is just a counter-point to Gen-X, an identity based on meaninglessness instead of brand names. Rob Horning here at the Popmatters blog Marginal Utility has done excellent coverage of the topic drawing in a wide variety of opinions. In one piece he provides an excellent quote from Dara Lind who wonders why a generation of typically privileged people with opportunity are ending up in such a cultural state of zombification. In the post “The Death of the Hipster”, he points out, “The problem with hipsters seems to me the way in which they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how “cool” it is perceived to be. Everything becomes just another signifier of personal identity.”
On the surface, these two groups could not be more alien. A post by PixelVixen707 discussing the comparison points out many of the flaws in the analogy. She writes, “Gamers accumulate knowledge; hipsters move through it, consuming and relinquishing it daily. Gamers accumulate years’ worth of garbage and trivia, and never let it go. They are still making Portal jokes. A hipster is judged by what’s now; gamers, by what they were playing in 1993.” Easily the most popular critics of video games is Penny Arcade, and as she points out, they accomplish this through a sense of inclusiveness. But past these social difference, they are technically performing the same cultural activity. Both identities are self-created and enforced by the community’s own tastes.
Consider how a game becomes “high art” in gamer culture. The means by which we judge which ten year old game is significant is mostly artificial. Critics just choose games that they will then discuss in a more complex fashion. Using Shadow of the Colossus as an example, a blogger named Vanderblade explains how gaming websites elevated the game’s status. He comments, “Whether or not a videogame is highbrow depends largely on if the gaming community positions it and defines it as such. In the case of Shadow of the Colossus, the discourse surrounding the game clearly identifies it as culturally superior to most other games.” Although that specific example deals with the vagaries of highbrow video games, it also explores the same mechanism by which gamers select whether something is casual or hardcore. We just make it up.
Video games have very recently attained their moment in the mainstream spotlight and the reaction is just starting to turn hostile. An example of a typical hardcore rant against casual games at Good Gear Guide places the blame squarely on Nintendo and the Wii for the downfall of video games. The author rants, “Call it a fad or a gimmick if you will, but this is exactly what the masses want — and they’re gatecrashing the party in their millions. Nintendo’s “come one, come all” approach to gaming has revolutionized our once-insular industry, with grannies, girlfriends and non-gamers all getting in on the action.” The hipster tone begins to set in once the article defines anything as hardcore that is not a “casual/party” game or put more colloquially, whatever is not mainstream. The symptoms of this do not just relate to Nintendo games either. The Halo 3 backlash is taking on somewhat mythic proportions as posters and message boards continue to complain that the game is not worthy of its popularity. Whatever your opinion on the game, a title doesn’t host over one billion multiplayer matches because it’s doing something wrong. Ultimately, the hardcore gamer will probably fall into the same cultural cycle as the hipster as it repudiates what is mainstream for the sake of remaining against such a culture. As Horning at PopMatters dryly jokes, “One can’t be against hipsters. Hipsterism consists of its own repudiation. Recognizing the existence of hipsters to a certain degree makes one a hipster.” One could easily say the same about hardcore gamers.
As anyone reading this blog probably knows, E3 has been going on all week in L.A. (which seems even farther away from Buffalo than usual these last few days), and as such, a barrage of game announcements and trailers for new product have been finding their way to the internets mere minutes after they are revealed to the Expo’s attendants. Of those trailers, there is one that I simply can’t shake after having seen it, and it’s this one:
Having recently finished Far Cry 2 I found myself wondering what I should play next. I had embraced the holiday rush last year, so I had plenty of games to choose from, and I browsed through my collection looking for one that sparked my interest. Since this happened to coincide with E3, I bombarded myself with press conferences, videos, write-ups, and hands-on previews, all hyping the big games to be released in the coming year, and suddenly my collection didn’t seem as interesting as it did last week. I found myself getting more excited for those upcoming games than for the games I already own.
So much of the gaming culture revolves around upcoming games. Previews make up a major part of any news coverage, especially during the build up to E3. Gamers’ desire for the “next big game” is so strong that a ten second trailer for Modern Warfare 2 is cause for a surprising amount of fanfare, and companies make announcements of announcements in order to start the hype as soon as possible. Many people sell older games in order to afford newer games, and Gamestop’s record profits are a testament to how common the practice is. It makes sense then that E3 is the biggest event of the gaming industry. Whereas movies and music have the Oscars and Grammys, award shows that focus on what has come out in the past year, gaming’s major show is a preview event that looks ahead at what’s coming out in the next year.
This kind of attitude is necessary for an industry that relies so heavily on technology. New tech is always being introduced to the gaming world, so developers must always be looking ahead and thinking of new ways to incorporate that tech into their games. Just this week, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo all showed off new forms of motion control, so now it falls to developers to figure out how to integrate that new kind of control into games. The future of gaming is always changing, so it’s understandable that the industry would focus more on its future than its past.
A problem arises when consumers adopt this point of view, and become more concerned with what lies in the future rather then the present. I remember times as a teenager when I would be playing a game and all I could think about was what I wanted to play next. I’d continue playing the first game just to beat it, feeling an odd obligation to finish it before moving on, but the moment I was done with it I would never think of it again. Even if I loved a game, once I beat it I no longer cared about it. Such an attitude is not only a disservice to the game and its creators but to me as a gamer. Instead of savoring my time with those games, I’d rush though them so I could stay up-to-date with each new release: Games were a disposable media to be used once and then forgotten.
I enjoy E3. I enjoy the press conferences, videos, write-ups, and hands-on previews, all hyping the big games to be released in the coming year, but I think it’s important not to get too caught up in the hype. I was giddy with every mention of Assassin’s Creed 2, Uncharted 2, and (to my pleasant surprise) Scribblenauts, but I’ve also recently become enthralled with the voice recognition of EndWar and the wonderful absurdity of No More Heroes. In the wake of E3, I’d encourage every gamer to play a game from last year or even from last console generation just to put things in perspective: older games are still worth your time.
Nintendo’s Wii Music
Wii Music is where it started, I think.
Somewhere along the way—sometime in the first year during which Wii Sports was starting to show up in retirement homes, schools, and libraries across the nation (not to mention more homes than any game, like, ever), Nintendo came up with a strategy to try and maintain their new constituency, an audience that defied easily-formed generalizations. Namely, they decided that it was in their best interest to not offend anybody with their first-party software.
Wii Music was derided, and rightly so, for being a joke of an entrance to the world of music. As a little toy for me and my kids to fire up when we were bored, it was fine, but even in that context, its replay value was terribly limited. The point of Wii Music was to be as inclusive as possible, to give anyone the opportunity to pantomime—and, in effect, “play”—any instrument pretty much immediately. “Playing” the violin was easy as moving the Wii remote like a bow, “playing” the drums involved flailing around with the Wii remote and nunchuck (and, optionally, the balance board), “playing” a trumpet involved holding the Wii remote up toward the player’s mouth and alternating the ‘1’ and ‘2’ buttons. It was all terribly easy to “master”, if “mastering” it was the goal, and those looking for some sort of challenge—some sort of game—were left disappointed.
It would have been easy to believe that this was some sort of one-off, a case of Nintendo’s pandering teaching a valuable lesson, but the recent beginnings of the coming flood of Fitness apps for the Nintendo systems is telling a different story:
Nintendo’s too nice.
Nintendo’s Wii Fit
Look at Wii Fit, the one that started it all. It starts off well enough, by measuring your weight and turning your Mii into a distorted, roly-poly version of itself if you’re in the overweight or obese categories, and it allows you to set a goal for yourself, to lose (or gain) however many pounds you like in a certain amount of time. And after that…what?
On my second day, I gained weight. Wii Fit was still being nice to me.
On my third day, ashamed as I am to say it, I gained a bit more weight. Wii Fit was still being nice to me.
On the fourth day, when I held constant to the previous day’s weight, Wii Fit‘s only admonition was the acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, I might not meet my weight loss goal. And then I was free to keep doing as many (or as few) of Wii Fit‘s “exercises” as I wanted.
Nintendo’s Personal Trainer: Walking
Personal Trainer: Walking, on the DS, suffers from the same problem. It sets a goal for you, records your progress, and is full of encouraging words. If you meet the daily goal (which starts at 3,000 steps, which is actually obscenely easy to reach if your ass hasn’t grown roots in your sofa yet), it says “hooray for you!” and your Mii does a little dance. If you miss the goal, the shortcoming is barely even acknowledged, and the game just moves on. The only penalty? A red stamp on your calendar instead of a green one and slower progress toward unlocking the little treasures in the game’s cutely-designed “Walk the World” and “Space Walk” (the latter of which owes a tip of the hat to Noby Noby Boy if I do say so myself) diversions. Other than that, it just moves on. No “what happened?” or “what the hell is wrong with you?” or “what, you didn’t even have it in you to pretend to want to get in shape today?” Just a “hey, whatever!” and the game goes on.
Now, these games are not meant as standalone weight-loss tools; I can respect that. They’re tools, guides to help you along the way, but not full-fledged plans. Fine. This seems all well and good until you start up with something like EA Sports Active, whose goal seems to be to kick you in the ass and get you into shape if it kills you.
Electronic Arts’ EA Sports Active
EA Sports Active will, on your first workout with it, very likely make you sweat, huff, and puff more than all of your “workouts” with Wii Fit combined. It places particular emphasis on the upper legs toward the beginning, building muscles that are going to make running long distances seem like much more feasible an activity. It does this by telling you it’s going to put you on a program based on your current weight, giving you a set of 20 or so workouts to do back-to-back, and making sure you do them in a manner that will maximize the return on your investment, as measured by muscle mass (not to mention the ache you’ll have the next day).
The point is that by not being afraid to crack the whip a bit, EA Sports Active feels like far more effective a “tool” toward fitness than Wii Fit‘s software component ever could. It offers a lesson that Nintendo might do well to learn: stop pandering to us. Most of us are mature enough to take a little criticism, to be offered a challenge. In fact, we crave a challenge, and without being challenged, all we’ll take your products for are disposable toys. While they’re very slick, very well-designed toys, they can’t help but leave a bad taste in our mouths when our expectations are so dramatically better fulfilled by third-party entries into the same arena.
Oh, and since I started the 30-day program in EA Sports Active? Four pounds down and counting.