The State of Gaming, Revisited

Reconsidering #GamerGate 6 Years Later.

Six years and one month ago, at the height of the cultural battle that would become known as #GamerGate, I wrote a publisher’s note for The Escapist entitled “The State of Gaming.” Since it can no longer be found on the Internet, I’ve re-published the article below. Re-reading it now, it’s remarkable to me how much I got right — and wrong. I’ll discuss that, and some other thoughts, at the conclusion of this post. For now, let’s turn back time to 2014 and consider…

The State of Gaming

Gamer culture has been in turmoil for the past few weeks. An angry blog post has exploded into a wider discussion about game journalism, gamer behavior, and now, the very identity of gamers. Gamers have taken to twitter hashtag #GamerGate to demand transparency in journalism while game journalists have unleashed the power of the pen to proclaim the death of gamers. “We might be witnessing the death of an identity,” says Luke Plunkett of Kotaku. “Gamers are over,” says Leigh Alexander of Gamasutra.  Gamasutra’s Devin Wilson offers “A Guide to Ending ‘Gamers”. “From now on, there are no more gamers—only players,” says Dan Golding. Casey Johnson of Ars Technica proclaims “The death of the ‘gamers’ and the women who ‘killed’ them.”  Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein announces “Gaming is leaving ‘gamers’ behind”.

These articles have understandably caused outrage among the gamers whose death they proclaim. Yet the questions these writers are raising are important. When everyone plays games, what meaning does “gamer” have? Should we welcome games' emergence as a part of mainstream culture, or fear it? How does one balance pride in hard-earned skills and knowledge with a welcoming attitude to newcomers? How ought one best cover games as a journalist?

Important – but not new. Since the very first issue ever published of The Escapist, our writers have been grappling with these questions. 9 years ago, in issue 1, we wrote, "to celebrate our new validation as a distinct culture, we have created the first issue of The Escapist, centered around the impact gaming has had, and continues to have, on our society."

In Issue 1, we alerted our readers that games were not just the small, secret pastime we shared in yesteryear; we cautioned them to worry what might happen to their favorite hobby if it thoughtlessly plunged headlong into the mainstream without staying true to what had made gaming grow in the first place; and most of all, we argued that we had to plunge forward regardless of the risks because gaming would be the most important entertainment medium of the 21st century.

Nowadays more people than ever play games, and that’s a wonderful thing!

But let us not be fooled: Not everyone who plays games is a gamer. A gamer is a game enthusiast, a person whose primary hobby or avocation is the enjoyment of games. The “enjoyment of games” is a deeper pursuit than merely playing them. It encompasses dedication towards their mastery; understanding of their history; commentary on the design; insight as to their relationships into the web of source material from which they are derived.

Every field of human leisure has similarly dedicated individuals. Everyone drives, but not everyone is a gearhead. A gearhead is a car enthusiast - someone whose primary hobby is the enjoyment of automobiles, broadly understood to include fixing them, modifying them, studying them, and driving them. Everyone wears clothes, but not everyone is a fashionista, or fashion enthusiast. Everyone eats, but not everyone is a foodie, or food enthusiast. Everyone watches movies, but not everyone is a cinemaphile, or movie enthusiast. Everyone takes trips, but not everyone is a traveler, or vacation enthusiast. I could go on and on.

Because these dedicated individuals have interests within their field that are deeper than those of the average consumer, they sort themselves into communities of like-minded enthusiasts. The existence of these communities in turn creates opportunities for businesses, which support the communities with news, apparel, supplementary media, and accessories that are designed to be of interest to that community. The collection of the enthusiast’s media, community, and businesses creates that field’s enthusiast culture.

Let’s consider gearhead culture. I have selected gearhead culture in particular because nothing in the United States is more ubiquitous or inclusive than the car. Driving is a daily activity for almost everyone over the age of 16, and the automotive industry is among the most successful and universal markets in existence.  There are more cars than households in the US. The very cities we live in are designed with the car in mind. Education in how to drive is mandatory at most public schools. The license to drive is the most common form of ID in the nation.

And yet in no way does this ubiquitous success preclude the existence of dedicated car enthusiast culture! Car enthusiasts are served by the eponymous Gearhead Magazine, which “covers all topics for the car enthusiast's lifestyle, including pop culture, music, and clothing”, and its many competitors Modified, Car Craft, Motorsports, Sort Compact Car, Hot Rod, Car, Car & Drive, Top Gear, Street Machine, Car Action, Lowrider, and more; by retailers like EatSleepRace.com, which sell gearhead apparel; by various auto parts shops and car garages; by organizations like the Sports Car Club of America; by hubs like CarShowCentral, the community for car enthusiasts; and of course by the enormous number of giant car shows themselves. 

Can we imagine for a moment the editors of Gearhead magazine or Top Gear announcing that gearhead culture is dead because everyone drives now? The notion is laughable.

But the automotive industry does something amazing that the game industry does not: The automotive industry sells a car for every type of consumer. They sell cars aimed at entry-level drivers (Scion), and cars aimed at car enthusiasts for whom money is no object (Ferrari); cars aimed at red state patriots (Jeep Liberty) and blue state progressives (Toyota Prius); cars for people who think driving fast is awesome (Corvettes) and for people who think driving fast is scary (Volvos). They sell affordable cars that are easily tuned-up (Honda Civics) and expensive cars that can be absurdly tuned-up (Toyota Supras).

And as a result there is never any conflict between car consumers and car enthusiasts. Why would there be? They have nothing to fight about!

But imagine, if you will, an alternative universe where the only cars available are sports cars. In this universe, you are a Corvette enthusiast who has driven Corvettes for decades. Mustangs? No way. You're hardcore for Chevy in the Muscle Car Wars. Then one day, Chevrolet announces that the new 2015 Corvette will have a smaller engine, to make room in the back for a new set of pre-installed child seats. The automotive press lauds the fact that Corvette has become a more inclusive brand which has embraced the family driver. When you, an outraged Corvette fan, begin complaining loudly that this is a betrayal of the Corvette brand... you are criticized for hating children! 

Now, imagine that you are a single parent with three children in this same alternative universe. You don't want a sports car. You want a safe, affordable car for driving to work and school. You are worried about pollution and want to save money on gas. Ford, suddenly waking up to a market opportunity, decides to build a new factory that will create a new line of four-door sedans with hybrid gas-electric engines. As a result, the release of the new Mustang is delayed six months. An outraged Mustang-driving sociopath goes on Twitter and threatens to crash his car into the first parent he sees driving a Ford sedan. The automotive press warns that car enthusiasts hate parents and proclaim that gearhead culture must die so that everyone can drive without fear.

This type of absurdity does not happen in the automotive industry because car companies understand that creating consumer goods is not a zero sum game. By segmenting their market and selling products that are different for each segment, they can service the mainstream and the enthusiast.

And yet… “Why do game publishers have to service the mainstream?” some will ask. “Why can’t they just keep selling games for GAMERS?” One word: Economics. As gaming hardware has become more powerful, utilizing that hardware has become more expensive, and this has driven the cost of games up. When a AAA game cost $500,000 and sold for $40, a game could have a narrow appeal (“turn-based strategy”) and still turn a profit. Nowadays a top game costs as much as $250,000,000, but still sells for about the same inflation-adjusted price as it did when it cost $500,000.

Big game publishers had two ways of responding to this challenging economic trend:

1.       Develop different types of products at different price points for different consumers.

2.       Make Ferraris and sell them to Honda buyers at Chevrolet prices.

Car manufacturers, movie studios, television companies, clothing retailers, and everyone else have chosen the first course of action.

Big game publishers have, until very recently, pursued the second course of action. They have kept on making and selling AAA games at higher and higher cost, kept the price the same, and tried to appeal to a wider audience—typically by reducing complexity and challenge and adding features that some new target consumer might find appealing. You might think of it as the One Ring strategy – “One Game to Sell to Them All, and in their Ubiquity Bind Them.”

That the big game publishers chose this route is understandable. Historically their competitive advantage has been in making and publishing expensive AAA game franchises. In order to profit from these they now need to sell more copies. To sell more copies, they are making AAA games as easy, accessible, inclusive, as mainstream, as they can without making them so much so that they alienate the gamer audience that they depend on for free marketing and heavy purchase. (Compare the complexity of multi-base 20-trooper X-Com: UFO Defense to single-base 6-trooper X-Com: Enemy Unknown for an example of this trend even within a game aimed at legacy fans in a hardcore genre.)

And game media? Historically our websites have depended on ad dollars from big game publishers aiming to reach a gamer audience. Big game publishers can now reach gamers directly via their own websites without spending as much money advertising on game media websites, so they spend more of their ad dollars on mainstream consumers among whom their products are less known. Therefore of necessity game media sites must either try to position themselves as more mainstream-friendly in order to retain ad dollars or they must find new sources of revenue.

So the notions that “gamers are dead” and “games must be for everyone” are, in part, realistic reflections of these cold economic realities. But gamer culture is not dying. It has simply been bruised by the spasms of a shell-shocked industry trying to figure out how best to stay in business during changing times.

Fortunately, the big game publishers are beginning to realize that “one game to sell to them all” might be the wrong strategy. Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto recently declared that mainstream game consumers are “passive” and “kind of pathetic” and announced that Nintendo EAD will focus on core gamers, leaving the company’s mobile division to expand the gaming population instead. (What, nobody told Shigeru that gamers are dead? Huh.)

The game industry will sort itself out. The automotive industry did. After all, Henry Ford once said, “You can have your Model T in any color you’d like, as long as its black.” Right now, you can have your AAA game in any style you’d like, as long as it’s an online-enabled multiplayer game from one of 4 acceptable genres with a T or M rating with cutting-edge graphics and about 10 hours of single player gameplay that costs $60. That’ll change, in time.

We’re beginning to see game publishers make and sell the equivalent of Volvo S60s for working parents. We’re beginning to see publishers figure out how to profitably develop and sell Corvettes to Corvette enthusiasts. And we’re even seeing publishers make Ferraris, price them like bicycles, and ask us to pay more for gas to make up the difference. (Those games are called free-to-play MMOs.)

So the trends are in the right direction. We’ll get through the shake-ups. And gamer culture will live on. There will always be enthusiasts, and games that are conducive to enthusiastic play. Why? Because enthusiasts buy a lot of games! And those games will always be closer to World of Warcraft than Candy Crush, more Corvette than Volvo S60, because the former rewards an investment of time and energy in a way the latter simply doesn’t. True, as the industry grows, some publishers or media sites that once catered to gamers may decide to aim their efforts at different segments of game consumers. But there will always be publishers, websites, and communities that cater to the needs of enthusiasts –like this one, The Escapist. Gamers are welcome here.

In the storm of this change, the beliefs that made us found The Escapist have not changed. We were right that gaming culture was an important one--and it still is. We were right that gaming was emerging into the mainstream--and it will continue to do so even more. We were right that there would be battles fought for the soul of the culture--and there are now and will be more. And we were right that those battles were worth fighting, because gaming was important--and it still is.

***

Gamers and game culture are, of course, alive and well; while many of the websites which prophesied the death of gamers are either dead or pale shadows of their former glory. But the gamers didn’t “win” #GamerGate; the battle never ended. It just expanded, growing to encompass an entire theater of the culture war. Comic book fans were soon turning on each other in the bloody #ComicsGate struggle. Star Wars fans were torn apart by the #SubvertedExpectations of the Disney sequels. Even blandly apolitical sportsball games like the NFL and NBA became politicized.

When I wrote “the notions that ‘gamers are dead’ and ‘games must be for everyone’ are realistic reflections of cold economic realities,” I thought I had correctly deduced an economic explanation and an economic solution to the problem at hand. But I was wrong. I did not foresee — and still have trouble believing — that the entertainment industry would be willing to alienate so many of its fans for reasons that were ideological rather than economic. #GamerGate turned out be first and foremost a philosophical struggle, not an economic one.

I intuited something important was happening. But I vastly underestimated how important it was. #GamerGate was the opening salvo of a great Culture War that has inflamed the United States ever since. It was the first place where the ever-advancing tide of progressivism encountered strong and enduring opposition. Steve Bannon later claimed that #GamerGate had been immensely valuable to the Trump campaign. Given the narrow margin of Trump’s victory, and the number of gamers that have openly admitted to moving politically right because of #GamerGate, #GamerGate may well have gotten Trump elected. Perhaps as a result, the hashtag became categorized as a hate group and gamer culture was branded as toxic in the popular imagination.

Personally, the effects were profound; I could chart the events of my life on a graph with a clear dividing line before and after #GamerGate. I do not regret taking the gamers’ side in the debate. I do regret that I didn’t fully understand how tumultuous things were going to get; how much the industries I loved would erupt into cultural warfare; how much America would suffer. If I only had known, I would have bought more Bitcoin.