Those three words, an implementation of a rather tired and banal journalistic cliché indicating that a fad is over, sparked a rather disgusting outpouring of hatred in the world over the past month. And I risk reigniting it with this article, but I do so knowingly and willingly, because, quite frankly, it doesn’t go far enough. The concept of being a “gamer” is not only a dead concept, but its rotted and decaying corpse is being paraded around on strings, made to dance for the whims of a handful of misanthropes who are desperate to cling to the only piece of identity that they have left. Gamers aren’t just dead, they’re undead. And like the undead, we have to stop this zombie outbreak before it threatens the world.
The idea of being a “gamer” was originally created as a result of advertisers trying to pigeonhole the customers who were buying their clients’ products into a cohesive demographic at a time when there wasn’t one. Nobody knew what magazines to advertise games and consoles in, outside of general computing magazines. Eventually, people like Larry Flynt picked up on the fact that there were people out there who were buying those computing magazines only for gaming coverage. Flynt then bankrolled the creation of Video Games and Computer Entertainment, one of the first post-Crash magazines to cover the newly resurrected industry exclusively. VGCE was one of the first magazines that had to wrestle with a new problem: what else could we sell to people who bought video games?
Eventually, that question began to answer itself in a rather distressing form: “more video games”. I still remember with a certain twisted sense of fondness the overambitious and somewhat dodgy advertisements in the first few issues of VGCE, for things like arcade-style NES controllers and a mail-in trade-in store (which itself would be unsettlingly prescient a couple decades down the line). But by and large, advertisers in the magazine were restricted to games and gaming stuff. A huge part of this could also be understood to be reticence on the part of more mainstream advertisers; remember that the Crash had only been a few years prior, and that as of 1983, “video games were dead”. Unsold copies of E.T. stood as grave markers in Hills and Ames, memorializing the amount of time, energy, and space wasted on what was still going to be seen as a fad for another twenty years.
Faced with this mindshare ouroboros, consumers of video games began to self-radicalize. I note with some amount of wry amusement that I’m using the 2014 sense of the word “radical” to refer to people who would be using the 1987 sense of the word. Obsessiveness with games became a hallmark of people who played them. This wasn’t out of any addictiveness of the games themselves (though let’s be honest, Tetris is a hell of a drug) but rather because they simply weren’t exposed to anything else. Rather than attempt to bring them into the circles of other interests– which would be counterproductive to the goal of making more money on video games– the publishers of the now-somewhat-established gaming journalist corps, consisting of magazines like Gamepro, VGCE, and Electronic Gaming Monthly, began actively excluding outside interests from their magazines. One of the irregular features of Nintendo’s in-house publication (Nintendo Power) had been to highlight a celebrity or other outside luminary who was a fan of their games, in the hopes of leveraging some of the rather devoted Nintendo fanbase to that celebrity’s newest project. Obviously, it failed dramatically, and by the third or fourth anniversary of the magazine it was a distant and frequently covered-up memory.
In the post-Crash landscape of the video game hobby, this singular focus on promoting games and only games was, arguably, necessary to ensure the survival of the hobby as a whole. Thus, when faced with the question of identity, consumers really only had the carefully-crafted and exclusive concept of “gamer” to fall back on. It was what they did for fun, and they didn’t really have that many other outside interests. It made sense, of a sort, to say that one was a “gamer” in the sense that one could also say they were a “fisher” or a “reader”. And at the time, there was nothing wrong with that, because the hobby was still small enough that a game that didn’t have widespread support would be too risky to release, and it was more efficient at the time to produce games that fit the demographic than it would have been to advertise to expand the demographic.
A couple years back, I wrote a somewhat meandering series of posts on the differences between being a “community” and being an “enclave”. When I wrote that, in early 2012, I was still thinking primarily of the rather heated backlash against efforts that had been made to expand the market for consumers of video games. The Wii, hallmark of what “gamers” considered to be everything wrong with those efforts, was five years old, and the Wii U was just around the corner. What was remarkable about the concept of the Wii, and by extension Nintendo’s “blue ocean” strategy, wasn’t that there were supposedly “weak” games being made but rather than Nintendo– one of the companies most directly responsible for the recovery of the North American video game industry after the Crash– was recognizing that the approach of exclusive reinforcement was no longer viable. The industry was no longer in its crisis mode; it did not live and die over the success or failure of the Next Big Thing. It hadn’t since 1992, and Mortal Kombat.
Most people nowadays think of the original Mortal Kombat as a rather poorly-designed Street Fighter clone that was notable only for its gore levels (which are tame by today’s standards). However, it was a huge risk for an industry that was slowly coming to terms with the fact that its consumer base was going through adolescence. Games like the Super Mario and Sonic series were perennial sellers; anyone could pick them up, and they appealed to kids of all ages. But the people who had bought the very first iterations of Mario and suchlike were now being seen as “outgrowing” the idea of video games, and Midway took a huge gamble in creating a game that was more “mature”. For better or worse, the gamble paid off. MK became a smash hit, and while it wasn’t universally praised or even universally bought, it was successful enough to not only kickstart a new franchise, it also opened up the market to a newer section of players. It was the “blue ocean” strategy before it was called “the ‘blue ocean’ strategy”.
And that’s where the wheels fell off. Mortal Kombat was a risk, and it had opened up the market to newer players who were then inculcated into the self-affirming and exclusive “gamer” demographic. Rather than learn the lesson that there were untapped markets out there waiting to expand the numbers of potential consumers, the industry as a collective whole decided to simply strip-mine the metaphorical “new challengers” for everything they were worth. It baffles me that nobody at the time was taking the long view, and realizing that the whole of the industry didn’t collapse just because one game wasn’t “for everyone”. What happened instead was a culture of immediacy: starting in the mid-90s, there was a “new mega-hit” every few months, which would seize the whole of the market for a time, then bow out in favor of the next one.
This paradigm, a steady rhythm of games that would explode onto the scene and then fade away, attracted the attention of people who had started out playing Super Mario Bros. in their elementary and middle school days, but were now graduates of college with degrees in computing. There was money to be made in being that Next Big Thing, even just once. This resulted in a population explosion in the development and production sphere, like a 32-bit Baby Boom. More than that, though, the rise of the Internet in the mid-to-late 90s made it possible for smaller developers to not only target their work directly to their customers for far less than it would cost to do so through traditional channels, it enabled those developers to come together in the first place to see the underserved sections of the population who might want to play a game once in a while. The first cracks in the wall built around the idea of being a “gamer” were forming, in the shape of three gems in a row.
Originally a Flash game, Bejeweled, by the studio that would eventually become PopCap Games, was one of the first in a series of simple to play abstract puzzle games that would define the schism between so-called “hardcore” and “casual” games. Again, it was the wrong lesson being learned, this time not by the industry but by the traditional consumer base. Flash (and its predecessor, Shockwave) were technologies that made it easy for “ordinary” people to play games on their computers. There was no setup, no tinkering necessary, just put a URL in and start playing. The money in these games wasn’t in selling access, but rather in the advertisements surrounding them. Ads which, thanks to peeking in on what the user did on the computer when they weren’t playing the game, had a much better understanding of the user’s habits and preferences than Larry Flynt’s team did back in 1987. Advertisers started to realize that people who played games did more than just play games.
It went the other way, too. In the runup to the release of the Dreamcast, Sega embarked on a massive advertisement campaign that rivaled any before it for a video game product. While Sony’s “U R NOT (red)E” campaign in the mid-90s had garnered some limited exposure, the “It’s Thinking” ads for the Dreamcast were everywhere. Television, magazines, billboards, you name it. It worked, to an extent; the Dreamcast enjoyed several months of success before Sega cut the legs out from under it. That’s not the point, though: it showed other developers that ads in “mainstream” media worked. Soon EA’s Madden NFL series started having ads in sports programming of all kinds, introducing a smaller secondary population boom into the consumer base– one which only bought sports games, continuing both the culture of enclave-building and the proof that there were distinct segments of the market within the market.
It wouldn’t be until 2006, with the release of the Wii, that a company outright addressed this segmentation of the market with games for all. From the very beginning, the Wii was meant for an audience that was not already on board; Nintendo at the time asserted that “mature gamers” were already well-served, and that there was an entire generation of people who would be willing to play games if only they weren’t so complicated or insular. The traditional consumers reacted with disgust; the rest of the world, however, reacted by opening their wallets. The Wii was a massive cash injection for Nintendo. The industry again learned the wrong lesson, leading to the flood of shovelware for the Wii and its contemporaries, all trying to cash in on the second coming of the “fad”. When the churned-out “simple” games failed to catch on, mostly because they looked and felt cheap and had no forethought put into them, motion controls were picked up on as the “reason” for the Wii’s success, and quickly imitated. Again, these were mostly failures, and even Nintendo began shying away from its motion controls later on.
This left those people who had forged their identities around the concept of being “gamers” in a bind. For over twenty years, these people had had an entire industry at their beck and call; games had been made “for them exclusively”, and if a game was a smash hit, it had almost universal acclaim within the enclave. Now, though, there were huge schisms among “gamers”, those who liked how the expansion was happening, and those who felt betrayed. Anger multiplies faster than understanding, especially on the Internet, and soon the dominant meme in the so-called “community” was “Are ‘casual’ games destroying gaming?” In 2008, this was a pressing and worrying question. In 2014, we finally have our answer:
“Yes, they did. And doing so was a good thing.”
To be blunt, the idea of being a “gamer” as a sole indicator of one’s identity is an outmoded and dangerous concept, and must be discarded. It was carefully crafted from 1986 to 2006 through a sweet and subtle brainwashing, the Kool-Aid of which I freely admit that I drank deeply. The generation that saved an entire industry in North America should be proud of having undone what the Crash of 1983 did, but that in no way means that they should rest on their laurels. But like a parent clutching the bike long after the child has proven they can balance without the training wheels or their support, the “gamers” are now doing more harm than good to the industry they love. The “Weekend At Bernie’s“-style manipulation of the remains of the identity has to stop.
Bereft of any other identity, though, is a dangerous way to go through life, and the past few months have been perfect crystallizations of exactly why that is. Under the pretense of necromanticizing the “gamer” label, hatred and evil have crept in to fill the void. The ouroboros is now digesting itself; the circle is closing. People who once held the label of “gamer” are being used; having proven that they can be molded and manipulated as a whole, they are a useful tool for pushing an agenda of marginalization. It’s a conspiracy of the perceived majority: deluded into thinking that they speak for everyone, “gamers” are pushing back against the inevitable understanding that “gamer” and “person who plays games” are no longer exact synonyms.
The recurring theme throughout this entire story is that the video game industry has actively resisted very nearly every attempt to “grow up” that it has ever been backed into trying. It’s unsurprising, and it’s a little bit sad. But if you’re looking for the bright side in all of this, take this one: I personally feel that video games have given me so much more than I could have hoped to experience on my own. The dorky little eight-year-old me who played Kid Icarus went on to check out books on mythology from the library, lecturing my relatives on the Greek gods at every chance I got. The fourteen-year-old me who was enthralled by the concept of magical technology in Final Fantasy VI started writing (bad) stories about a world where magic replaced electricity. The twenty-one-year-old me parlayed a love of Pokémon into a job at a game store, where I could share the games that I loved with people who came in– where I could bring people the joy that games had brought me. Being a “gamer” has given me the seeds– and only the seeds– to most of the good that I’ve accomplished in my life. But it’s been the rest of my life that made those seeds germinate and bloom.
Gamers are dead. Long live those who survived being gamers.