[In a new opinion piece, producer & journalist Simon Parkin wonders why more time devoted to a single game -- at the expense of all others -- is seen as a bad thing for consumers.]
If games are lovers then our promiscuity knows no bounds.
For many gamers, their relationship with the hobby is characterized by a string of flings: transient passions expressed through a fortnight’s worth of devoted and frantic interaction.
But, aside from those controlling, abusive marriages that MMO players find themselves in, the fling usually remains a fling. In almost every case, a game exerts only a short-term hold on the head and the heart, one that loosens once the end credits roll or the zeitgeist moves on.
Many gamers have become addicted to the fling cycle. The pre-release hype reaches an irresistible fever pitch, deepening the pleasure of the release. Then, during the days following consummation, forum impressions are devoured, the to-ing and fro-ing of discussion articulating our own experiences and crystallizing our own opinions.
Perhaps Youtube videos are digested during lunch breaks like cherished home movies, screenshots pored over like worn photographs, lover’s guide FAQ techniques noted and absorbed.
Then, at night we tussle again, learning one another’s form and function, exploring the boundaries of the experience, our skill and confidence growing with familiarly.
So it is with all video games that grip us and it's the memory of these firework love affairs and the promise of future ones that keep us invested in the hobby, which acts like a pimp to our appetite.
But rarely does the fling blossom into a sustained relationship. Of course, there are those titles, the Wii Sport
s and Rock Band
s that make continued appearances at the weekend when friends come to dinner, but these are games of convenience, not ongoing infatuation.
Because, when a game does get its claws into us to the extent that all other video games become obsolete every gamer is aware that there is an unspoken cost. We may love games but our addiction is to gaming. It is a love of the ghetto, the culture and commentary and community that surround those games. For most, gaming is our hobby, not any one particular game.
And for those of us who write about games and their culture for a living or for fun, a prolonged addiction to a single title threatens our effectiveness in that role. Obsession with a single title is useful only as long as it's a fidelity mirrored by the general gaming populace, those who consume our thoughts and commentary.
As we plumb a game’s depths, observations of its intricacies maturing and becoming ever more specific and nuanced, so the audience who are interested in those opinions shrinks to those who are just as invested.
There is a danger for the games writer, as for the consumer who is addicted to gaming as a community pursuit, that we can never fully commit to a game lest we are left behind, snagged on a title over which the zeitgeist passed a few weeks ago.
Joseph Conrad in his seminal novel Heart of Darkness wrote of a flaw in every well-traveled seaman. For those men that call the sea their home, Conrad said, "a casual stroll or casual spree on [a new] shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of the whole continent."
So it is for many gamers who are content to dip into a new game, sample its shoreline and presume that this brief survey reveals all of its depths and secrets. Of course, in a great many cases this is true.
Most games lay out their rules and interactions in the first few hours and then do little to develop those core ideas much, instead repeating themes with slightly different words and pictures. But in our rush to form and disseminate opinions, how often to we neglect to discover the wonders that do lie deeper in-land?
Conversations are important. Community is what gives games context and relevance and there are few things as interesting and compelling as a discussion with another human being about a shared passion. But when our passion becomes the very act of conversation rather than its subject matter are we not doomed?
And if a game reveals its depths to be so compelling to warrant weeks and months of investigation, if a game is so well put together that, for its player, it becomes a hobby within a hobby, surely that is why we started playing games in the first place?
In part the problem is one of bulk. There are so many new games to experience that hobbyist games with jobs, mortgages and families can no longer feasibly engage them all.
Whereas during gaming’s earlier years it was perfectly possible to remain abreast of its key developments, today’s tidal wave of full console releases, downloadable releases, remakes, Flash games, indie titles, DLC and homebrew demands a specialization of interest for consumers.
Perhaps the recession will not only cause “a lot of the riff-raff to go bankrupt” as EA’s John Riccitiello bluntly puts it, but will also reduce the very body of games that await our consumption. It’s with a perverse sort of jealously that we bloated Westerners read reports of gamers in developing countries
, whose new titles arrive in drip feed rather than a torrent.
This scarcity of supply forces a thoroughness of play, one that most of us experienced when we were children saving for games month by month, but which has been lost in the relative wealth of adulthood.
It’s not even the idea that we play too much but rather that we play too shallow, splashing about in the reefs of a game without ever swimming out into its depths.
But gaming’s commentators, be they forum users, bloggers or journalists should hunt out those games with beautiful depths and should never be afraid to stay within those depths until the relationship reaches a natural conclusion.
Any damage that a commitment to a single game does to your ability to stay abreast of gaming’s latest developments will surely be outweighed by the sort of deep, enduring sense of reward that comes from a long-term relationship.
If not, then truly we are nothing more than players getting played.
[Simon Parkin is feeling guilty about having logged nearly 96 hours on Street Fighter IV.]