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.