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The Threat to Gaming's Oral Tradition

In this post, I describe an ongoing threat to gaming's "oral history" and culture that comes not from angry politicians or mothers, but from the gamers themselves...

When I tell people that I study, teach, and write about video games as a form of media, people often look at me with disbelief.  To them, games are just pastimes or toys.  To myself and many others involved with game studies, gaming is a powerful new force of communication with the potential to speak and transmit meaning kinesthetically. 

Games have the visual appeal of film and the ability to be as dense as literature with the added benefit of interactivity.  So, as you can imagine, the ability to communicate gaming’s power and folklore is a large concern of mine.  However, I believe that within the gaming community itself, this communication is not happening as it should. 

As a gamer who has experienced many of gaming’s formative years, I believe that there is a lot to share with younger gamers who are growing up in a climate where gaming is beginning to move towards a more socially excepted media form. 

From the feeling of the first time I saw a friend beat Super Mario Bros. 3 to analyses of the metaphors present in games like Braid, these are important pieces of information that we gamers of today must share with those that come after us. 

freeman van gogh

Look at us getting all sophisticated

This past weekend while attending MAGfest (Music And Gaming Festival) in Alexandria, VA, I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of intellectually focused gaming panels on the schedule.  Even more impressive was the number of gamers these panels pulled in, with attendees having to stand in the back or sit on the floor. 

In these panels there was lots of meaningful discussion of topics ranging from how games are used to educate, to games as storytelling media.  After one of the panels, I recall an attendee turning to me and saying, “This discussion really makes you wonder how many PhD’s are in the room right now…”

To me, this highlights a positive shift in gaming culture, where gamers are starting to think more about what they are playing and are beginning to achieve the type of meaningful discussions that will help us ensure gaming evolves in the future. 

Sure, those in the industry have been discussing these things for years, but with this higher-end industry information being disseminated to the gaming public through books, blogs, websites like Gamasutra and Kotaku, and mass media exposure of game journalists like Michael Thomsen, gamers can get in on the action.  Yet, with all the new intellectualism appearing in the fringes of the gaming culture, there are still some things holding us back. 

Now, the average gamer reading this article will immediately think of the reports on how games will turn children into murder machines, film critics declaring that games will never be art, and mothers arguing that the games just aren’t very productive/educational/healthy; obstacles that threaten from outside the culture. 

What they won’t notice is their own defensiveness.  This defensiveness is a reaction that a lot of gamers share when confronted with “other” opinions on gaming that do not match their own. 

Along with the positive discussion at the MAGfest panels, there was also a fair share of gamers who were dispensing a fair amount of what the internet would call “nerd rage.” What most of these gamers fail to realize is that what holds games back as a topic of widely accepted intellectual discourse is themselves. 

nerd rage

Because every blog needs more Brian Posehn

As pointed out by a VG Cats strip (number 269:  Nerd Rage), gamers are very attached to their pastime so much so that in some cases, the casual gaming boom allowing previous non-gamers into the hobby ignites feelings of hate.  It seems as though gaming’s reputation for being a hobby for “nerds” and “outcasts” has caused the victims of the derision to actually embrace their labels. 

Now that gaming is “cool”, they feel dejected.  This reminds me of a time when I was riding the DC Metro train system (similar to the NY Subway) and I saw two attractive girls get on a train with a skinny guy with glasses.  The girls were discussing the at-the-time new J. J. Abrams Star Trek movie and saying that despite wanting to see it very much, they knew very little about Star Trek and would rather see it with someone that knew the series. 

Now, not to sound like I always fall for stereotypes, but upon looking at the guy these girls were with, I KNEW that he was a Trekkie, and I watched with anticipation as I realized that his time had come; two gorgeous women wanted to know everything a person like him knew about his favorite thing in the world.  My hands clinched in anticipation of seeing a potentially groundbreaking moment in nerd-to-attractive-woman relations…

But what did he say?  “*Sigh*…That’s not real Star Trek, it’s way too mainstream.  Waste your time if you wish.” 

My head hung as I considered this person’s sad, crippling worldview, the same shared by hipsters learning that their favorite obscure indie band has just signed a recording contract with Sony.  Gamers, unfortunately, are the same way: fighting back with noses cast into the air when their hobby becomes mainstream, pretending that the new enthusiasts are inferior. 

hipster dinosaur

I wonder what PBR tasted like 65,000,000 years ago....

This defensiveness even lashes out at other gamers who may not have the same gaming memories.  This can manifest itself in many ways, such as the “console wars.”  While the various console manufacturers compete with one another, as companies are wont to do, the gamers with these machines often fight over which is best.

From the days of debating the virtues of Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo on playgrounds to having twelve year olds typing, “XBox 360 is t3h r0Xorz!  PS3 and Wii are &%*$ing %#@!  LOL!” on an IGN forum, gamers have defensively backed their own system if unable to own all the available consoles. 

why can't we all just get along?

Why can't we all just get along?

The even larger threat to the ongoing folklore of gaming than fanboy-ism, however, is the tendency of gamers to reject all but their own gaming experiences.  Tied intrinsically to the notion of defensiveness, many gamers become attached to their own gaming experiences; especially those tied to their youth that create nostalgia; and denounce others. 

For example, one female attendee of the MAGfest conference proudly exclaimed during a panel, “After Final Fantasy VI, they just stopped making Final Fantasy games for me!”  This statement was followed by raucous applause by many in the room and several admonishments of the popular Final Fantasy VII. 

Many gamers find VII very compelling and list it as one of their favorites in the series.  Additionally, many even younger gamers affectionately look back on Final Fantasy X as their favorite.  What is it that makes X so popular?  Why don’t older gamers care? 

Further evidence of this generational rejection was one gamer’s rant that his own experiences with the game 1993 game X-Wing for the PC were more legitimate than his own brother’s experiences with the game Star Wars: Rogue Squadron.  He loudly told the group that his brother didn’t know what a “real” Star Wars game was. 

If this person had taken a chance to play Rogue Squadron, might he have noticed that it and X-Wing are two completely different styles of games (an arcade flying shooter and a space combat simulation)?  In this writer’s opinion, it is difficult to compare the two when even the core mechanics of the titles are so vastly different:  each has the player controlling similar Rebel starfighters in vastly different ways, the former simplified to focus on twitchy action and the latter a detailed cockpit simulation, to create vastly different experiences. 

Yet, because X-Wing was his favorite Star Wars game and Rogue Squadron was his younger brother’s, the huge discrepencies in gameplay styles mattered little.  This case further demonstrates how gamers are quick to pass judgment on a game based solely on looks and their own prejudices. 

don herzfelt

What some older gamers do to younger gamers (because every blog also needs more Donald Hertzfeld)

During the panel on “Games as Modern Folklore”, (which in case you haven’t guessed, this post is largely a reaction to) there was a call to make younger gamers more aware of where gaming had been before it reached the state it’s in today.  In an industry that values the next release more than the one that is out now, this is not an easy task.

It was pointed out by one of the panelists that when sitting in a room of early arcade and Atari enthusiasts, he felt that he had nothing to talk to them about, which he thought was an overall problem when getting gamers of different ages together.  Some present at the panel suggested that rereleases of old content are an awareness by gaming companies of the need for a dissemination of information about old games, but others would argue that these are largely an effort to cash in on past hits. 

I think that the outlook on these titles needs to change.  Soon, there will be a rerelease of Beyond Good and Evil for the XBox Live Arcade and Playstation Network online services.  The attention given to games that have not sold well, but are widely discussed and greatly admired fan favorites, is a positive step.  As has been discussed, older gamers or those who admire “cult classic” titles are not shy about discussing their favorite games to anyone, young or old, who would be willing to listen.

Seriously…just ask a room full of people at a gaming convention about Earthbound

However, while it is up to us as older gamers to help those newer to the medium enjoy the achievements of consoles (or PC’s) past, we must also meet these younger gamers in the middle, rather than having them come completely to us.  To return to the example of Final Fantasy, the woman at the conference did herself and others around her a great injustice by being so bigoted of newer Final Fantasy titles. 

The popular assumption is that younger gamers think X is so great because they simply don’t know any better.  “They just haven’t played the older ones enough.”  These are the kinds of statements that start generation wars between gamers.  What older gamers SHOULD be doing is observing what games are popular among these younger gamers.  Final Fantasy X is a good example, since many younger JRPG players list it as one of their favorites. 

What is it about X that makes it so compelling?  Has any fan of Final Fantasies I-VI considered that?  This may seem like a simple case of “don’t knock it until you’ve tried it”, but even games that don’t appeal to the older gamer may have something to teach them when they are enjoyed by the younger crowd. 

For a series like Final Fantasy, gamers of different generations can compare and contrast their favorite parts of each game, finding what is similar and different about each.  Younger gamers may be able to see how some of their favorite features or characters have evolved over time, while older players can see how the experiences younger players have are like or unlike the ones they had when they were the same age with the newer types of games.

working together

Working together

This type of dialog will be difficult.  With the sophistication of today’s graphics and younger gamers being used to this new wave of graphic sophistication, it is easy to see why a divide exists.  Games without 3D environments, online support, or the immediate gratification of being able to play a game without having to blow in it are foreign to them just as the requirement of playing against your friends on an internet connection rather than next to them on a couch is foreign to some of us. 

What we have to remember is that gaming experiences belong very much to the cultural context of the time in which they are created.  Games from the 1980’s show an evolution from very abstract visuals to the foundations of representation found today.  Games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda dazzled us gamers used to single screen arcade titles with their vast landscapes, rendered in glorious 8-bit on a CRT television and played in a wood-paneled room in our parents’ (or your friend’s parents’) houses. 

Games of today, however, belong to sleek entertainment setups centered on sophisticated HD screens and multimedia devices.  The space in which the game is enjoyed becomes more fluid as much of the interaction between players occurs online thanks to modern usage of the Internet.  Graphics are nearly photorealistic and can carry a visual power that can render our wildest dreams in near-perfection, eliminating the need for imagining what things on the screen really look like. 

How can we have the same meaningful play experiences of the less technologically sophisticated days with gamers who thrive in the age of cold internet-gaming super-technology?  Games that support a few players locally that can enter online matches together are a good step. 

Cooperative games like the Left 4 Dead series even foster the kind of communication that players sitting next to one another enjoy.  The enjoyment of video games, regardless of their level of technology, is enhanced by the involvement of other players.  Whether playing new or old-school games with retro gamers or younger gamers, an inclusive and fun atmosphere is a must and can help build that cross-generational gaming communication that will keep gaming folklore alive. 

think of the children

Think of the children!

Gaming is unique among other forms of media for its ability to be interactive.  Where other forms of media may have oral folklore traditions attached to them describing the particularly difficult production of a movie monster or the long process of getting a certain novel to publication, games have these and the emergent folklore and experience of each player’s personal input. 

What becomes fascinating about this is that while each person is different and may have different stories, certain games or parts of games become the things of legend, like Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple, Colossus’s X-Men Arcade yell, or Punch Out!!!’s Mike Tyson dream fight.  While the assumption is that these things will carry through generations of gamers, that is not often the case. 

Thus far, generations of gamers are each isolated from one another by misunderstandings of the games that have come both before and after their time.  If we are to develop the folklore of our gaming culture, we must learn to build bridges between generations of gamers and properly prepare the collective gaming knowledge for generations to come.  

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