"Why, Oh Why?" by Cayusa. CCLicence.

Sometimes you get a situation where all the worst aspects of our current new media environment collide and form a perfect storm of hideousness.  So when you take Reddit, add in a sprinkling of Twitter and stir it all with a bunch of rabid gaming fanbois you might expect something truly appalling to emerge.

Way back in the gaming Dark Ages (2006) a woman who was then a senior writer for Bioware gave an interview in which she expressed the opinion that game developers should build in an interface option that allowed players who were more interested in story and character interaction to skip the boring combat portions of the game in the same way that most story-driven games allow you to rapidly skip through all the story and dialogue in order to get back to ripping out entrails with a pike.  It is a pretty inoffensive proposal, all things considered.   She never says that games should be less combat-oriented, or that stories should play an even more prominent role, simply that there should be an option that allows for the gameplay preferences of a particular group.

The Sewer Opens
Fast forward to the moment when her interview is dug up and tossed into the Reddit hopper.  An article labeling the woman “the cancer that is killing Bioware” set-off a firestorm of righteous indignation. . .er, sorry, we’re talking about Reddit here, so that is to say a torrent of unfiltered, mis-spelled, ungrammatical, profanity-laced vomit thinly disguised as language.

Completely oblivious to this shit-storm, the writer in question, Jennifer Hepler, made the classic mistake.  She opened a Twitter account.  And came face to face with the power of the Internet sewer pipe.  A recent Gamespot article provides a useful account of what happened next.  You would have thought that Hepler had proposed that everyone stop making any new games ever.  A constant stream of abuse directed at Hepler’s Twitter account was matched by similar levels of abuse directed at Bioware itself for employing Hepler in the first place.  Finally, a senior Bioware employee responded (again, via Twitter, surprise, surprise) in kind (i.e. she used the F-Bomb. . .no, not “Feminist” the other F-Bomb!).  This, of course, produced an almost instant chorus of wailing: “Waaaaaaaaah!  Bioware doesn’t care about its players!  Waaaaaaaaaah!”

The really striking thing about this, as many others have observed, is the entirely disproportionate level of vitriol.  Hepler’s proposal really shouldn’t be all that controversial.  As Gamespot’s Laura Parker observed, this idea has in fact been tried before by an obscure game called LA Noire.  The immediate escalation to the nuclear option is the kind of thing that the NRA trots out when someone proposes not allowing people to buy five assault rifles a day.  So what is going on here?

Shame on Us?
Well, there’s the obvious.  It is gamers.  A while ago I wrote a piece talking about my increasingly uncomfortable sense that the vast majority of gamers are simply dicks.  This was based on my addition to the venerable Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap), a supplement that I am calling Guppy’s Law (90% of people are morons).  This in fact is the standard line taken by people criticizing the self-appointed guardians of gaming purity in this case:  “Oh, there are jerks everywhere.”

But the specific communication channels at issue are also important.  I mean, we’re talking Reddit here.  Reddit is a giant, pustulent boil on the butt of humanity.  It is however representative of a problem that I’ve been writing about from time to time on this blog.  It’s a problem that’s been pointed out by an expanding group of people embracing everyone from literary critics (Zadie Smith) to technology designers (Jaron Lanier): that over the past couple of decades we have deliberately, artfully, painstakingly, been building a communication structure designed both to bring out the worst in ourselves and the absolute worst in others.  This is the other line taken by critics of the loutish behavior: “It’s the Internets people, what do you expect?!”  Not unsurprisingly, this is also the line taken by defenders of the loutish behavior: “Ha ha.  It’s the Internet, get used to it Bioware.”

Tempted as I am to revert to my default settings, neither of these explanations quite cover what is happening here.

The Gamespot article takes a different tack, arguing that the controversy demonstrates the degree to which many gamers are part of a culture of entitlement, believing that they own the games the play which Parker says is a “common mistake:”

Gamers who feel this sense of entitlement fail to view the player-developer relationship as the multifaceted construct that it is. They fail to see that a relationship between an individual and a company requires a different set of guidelines, emotions, and responses to a relationship between two separate individuals. Jennifer Hepler is the consequence of that misconstrued connection. She is an individual whose attackers, angered by her suggestion that games should focus less on combat, acted on the belief that they are the only ones who can, and should, dictate how games are made and played.

Now there are a couple of obvious problems with this.  Gamers in fact do own the games they purchase.  Likewise, the question of ownership is a simmering source of discontent in many MMOs.  In fact, it may well be a potential revolution in the making that is only being contained by publishers turning a blind-eye to assertions of player ownership (character sales) or grabbing a cut of the action by creating their own marketplaces.  Gamers own their games in the same way we own the cars we purchase.  But I don’t assume that I own the process that creates the car that I buy and that is the crucial difference: gamers do seem increasingly to believe they own the entire game creation process.

I think Parker is only partially right.  She is focusing on a sense of entitlement that seems to be evident in the way in which people are conducting themselves online; she argues that the actual content of the vitriol is irrelevant, because no one could possibly see Hepler’s proposal as being that offensive.  But as moronic as the abuse hurled at Hepler is, in its magnitude and fury it looks very much like the kind of reaction of people who feel themselves suddenly, massively threatened.  So maybe it is worth actually taking a look at the content of the abuse rather than just its form.

Barbarians at the Gate
There are, I think, two sources of concern to which gamers are giving voice and you can see more civilized versions of each in the comments appended to the Gamespot article.  In responding to a previous poster who had talked about how his sister might have appreciated the combat-skip button for one particular sequence in Kingdom Hearts, Meerkat456 responded:

Then tell her to go watch a let’s play. Or better yet learn how to defeat a boss. Christ, it’s Kingdom Hearts, not Dark Souls. Has Squaresoft ever released anything even resembling a difficult game? You want to talk about entitlement? That’s entitlement right there, thinking that game designers should have to put in a fast forward button because you don’t want to play a game. If you don’t want to play a game then don’t play it and if you pay $60 just for the story, then read a book. Unless you’re a complete philistine you should have a much better time of it. And guess what? You can flip past the action sequences!

This is giving voice to the fear that games are becoming more like other media and less like games; that as story seems to be playing a bigger role (measured by the huge commercial success of heavily story-driven titles like those offered by Bioware) the element of interactive gameplay will be lost.  The second concern picks up on the other criticism voiced by Meerkat456 and articulates what is probably the major fear that has caused so many players to lose their bottle over this:

I think the “sense of entitlement” comes from the fact that us gamers are the people these companies made their fortune off of. We stuck by them BEFORE casuals were on the scene. We have a special relationship with them because we’ve grown up together. Now that casuals have hit the gaming scene (hard) it seems like more and more companies are catering to them instead of the older gamers. This is understandable but when companies we trust like Bioware begin “streamlining” their games it should come as no surprise to anyone that gamers are going to be hurt and angered. This does not justify or excuse the personal attacks but it does make it easier to understand. Hepler and her idea of skipping combat is part of a larger trend. This poor woman was singled out and gamers took out their years of frustration out on her. She did not deserve it but as a gamer I certainly understand the frustration and feeling of abandonment that fueled this fiasco (KontroLz85).

Yes, you saw it here folks.  Someone actually offered a temperate and reasoned point of view in a comments thread!  This is, however, a little less temperate than it appears and to get that sense you just have to imagine a sneer in the voice as the writer spits out that word, “casuals.”  This is what it is all about: “traditional” gamers feel (and, according to this writer, have felt for some time) that their world is being invaded by casual gamers.  Casual gamers, according to this view, are in point of fact not real gamers at all.  Sure, they may play games, but they don’t play “real” (i.e. traditional) games and therefore their opinions shouldn’t be taken seriously.  Unfortunately, traditional gamers are starting to realize that there are a lot of casual gamers.  In fact, there are more casual gamers than “traditional” gamers.  And that far from constituting a gaming population that is happy to stay in their own little Angry Bejeweled Plants and Zombies niche, these casual gamers are sometimes having the temerity to actually try “traditional” games.  Because the “casuals” (spit!) play differently and have different gaming expectations, gaming companies are inevitably going to change the kinds of games they offer in order to accommodate the tastes of these players.

The thing is, players like KontroLz85 are partially right.  Jesper Juul’s recent book A Casual Revolution looks at the explosion in casual gaming  over the last few years.  While the stereotype of the casual gamer is the Angry Birds player or the Wii Tennis enthusiast, Juul’s definitional criteria also incorporate games like Dance Dance RevolutionRock Band, and the like.  His book incorporates data from surveys and follow-up interviews conducted with both self-identified casual game players and developers.  Now, due to Guppy’s Law you wouldn’t expect anyone involved in an internet flame war to resort to mere evidence; they are generally much too busy flinging their soiled diapers at one another.  But if they had, and they turned to someone like Juul for data about the casual gaming phenomenon, they would find some surprising information.

The first thing is that “casual” gameplay of casual games by casual players is often anything but casual.  Juul finds that a substantial portion of casual gamers play their casual game of choice for up to two-hours at a time, as many as nine times a week (anyone who lost an entire afternoon to Angry Birds will attest to the truth of this).  With those numbers, session times and cumulative play time rivals and even exceeds that of many players of traditional videogames.

The second interesting finding, one especially pertinent to this tragic facade of a discussion, is that a surprising proportion of casual gamers are self-identified former “traditional” gamers.  Did they fall out of love with “traditional” games?  Not at all.  They simply got a life.  Or, to be more accurate, life got them.  Jobs, kids, a non-gaming spouse, a mortgage, compulsory family holidays right when all the best games are being released. . .you get the idea.  Furthermore, when they tried to get back into “traditional” games, they found that the landscape had changed.  No more loading up Doom and blazing away.  Now, even your single-player games are massively complicated undertakings requiring expensive hardware, player matching services, internet communication, let alone all the DRM and DLC BS that developers lard them with.  So casual games are serving three distinct populations: people new to the world of gaming, people who never got into “traditional” gaming in the first place, and former “traditional” players who now have to squeeze their gaming into a complex life.

I’ve been putting scare quotes around “traditional” because although this is the term that a lot of players love to use, it is a deeply misleading term.  It serves the same function as “family values” in that it is designed to represent the partisan ideology of a particular group as a universal truth.  “Traditional” games are in fact all the games that people used to play (and, in fact, still do) before videogames came along: card games, board games, catch, frisbee, hop scotch, etc.  The vast majority of these games were casual: easy to pick up and play for short periods, accessible to all.  Juul argues that this is in fact the most revolutionary thing about the casual revolution: it is returning us to the universal accessibility of gaming in our culture:

This is the moment in which the simplicity of early video games is being rediscovered, while new flexible designs are letting video games fit into the lives of players.  Video games are being reinvented, and so is our image of those who play games.  This is the moment when we realize that everybody can be a video game player (p. 2).

Thus the shrill, enraged masses of “traditional” gamers are in fact a rapidly dwindling minority of hardcore gamers.  And they are dwindling not by choice but simply by the harsh colliding reality of demographics and capitalism.  Our population is aging; this is not news.  As a result, the average age of game-players has steadily been drifting upwards and is now, according to the Entertainment Software Association, firmly ensconced in the mid-30s.  But that age is also driting upward for another reason.  The kinds of games beloved of the hardcore gamer are becoming increasingly expensive to produce and therefore increasingly expensive to buy.  While the cultural stereotype of the rabid gamer is someone in their teens or early twenties, in fact the greatest quantity of games is purchased by people in my elderly age bracket.  Because they are expensive and we have the disposable income.  (This is even more true overseas; if you bleat about how expensive games are in the US, try walking into a game store downunder.  Last time I was in New Zealand I thought I’d mistakenly wandered into a store where all the games were shrinkwrapped in goldleaf or included a free figurine encrusted with rare jewels).

The Revenge of the Guppy
So yes, Mr. Hardcore gamer, your gaming world is changing.  Suck it up.  Move on.  Do what you’ve always done: look for great games, reject the crap ones, buy and praise the good ones.

Except.  Except that isn’t what Mr. Hardcore gamer has spent his life doing.  Mr. Hardcore gamer has spent his life purchasing mainly mediocre, re-skinned versions of the same game that he has always been playing, praising incremental variances in tried-and-true gameplay formulas as “innovative” and “revolutionary” while bleating about the need for games with greater variety and more player choice.

This brings us to the most disturbing element of the Hepler/Bioware controversy.  Because there is gamer entitlement in evidence here, but it isn’t simply feelings of ownership for specific games or even for the entire game production process, as I mentioned above.  The sense of entitlement is that associated with being the only ones who get to define for everyone else what counts as a real game.   In that respect it is important not to look past the core idiocy that lies at the heart of this.  If players were really serious about greater choice and variety in games and if they were really serious about more people enjoying games, Hepler’s proposal would be completely uncontroversial.  Nothing is being taken away from the traditional hardcore play style.  If you don’t want to skip through the combat options you don’t have to.  Hepler’s suggestion simply broadens choice so that more people could participate in one of the core cultural activities of our age.  This is a great thing.

Unless you are a hardcore gamer.

In Hardcore Land, this woman is trying to allow people to complete a game in a fashion that is not the way in which you think it should be completed.  More importantly, the great evil being perpetrated by this woman, what makes her a cancer, is the very fact that she is trying to make games accessible to more people.   There are many interesting ways that people play games, a massive variety of motivations, and a host of intriguing mechanisms according to which they integrate them into their lives.  The least interesting has always been playing games for a cheap hit of self-empowerment. We play to feel mighty in ways that we almost never do in our real lives.  We all do it, many kinds of games deliver only this kind of hit, and it can be enormous fun.  But if the only reason you do something is to make you feel better about yourself (it could be gaming, it could also be drinking or playing the stockmarket or buying a BMW) then that is simply sad.

Sad, however, rules in Hardcore Land.  Mr. Hardcore gamer has been strutting around in his little universe, convinced that playing games makes him cool, edgy, part of the wave of the future, a privileged elite.  He hasn’t noticed of course that videogames are now a ubiquitous cultural activity but that is because he is firmly lodged in the Guppy’s Law 90%.

Now if Mr. Hardcore gamer were only sad in this way, that fact wouldn’t really be worth our notice.  But Mr. Hardcore is a lot of other things as well, characteristics that were pretty obviously on display in the criticism of Hepler.  Because it is pretty clear that the fact that Hepler is a woman was instrumental in the way this played out.  If a senior male writer at Bioware had made this suggestion you can bet there would still be a storm of protest but it wouldn’t have taken the form that it did.  You only have to look at the official Gamespot Forum thread on this controversy to see what I mean.  Before you reach the end of the page you’ll see comments about Hepler’s appearance, weight, sexuality, ethnicity, among many other things.

Videogaming has been trying to clean up its public image over the last few years, to pretend that it isn’t the sink of moral turpitude that a transcript of the average Vent session during a Halo deathmatch would seem to indicate.  Those of us on the academic and popular sides of game studies have been culpable in this endeavor.  We have tried to pretend that gaming has gradually become more inclusive, more tolerant, more urbane.  Much as I admire the work of Jane McGonigal, for example, one of the things that drives me nuts about her book is the operative assumption that all gamers are caring people just waiting for their opportunity to go out and save the real world.  It makes me wonder what kind of bubble she is living in that she has never encountered the kind of gamer that feels perfectly comfortable calling Hepler a cunt for voicing an opinion contrary to his own.

It is high time we stopped pretending that the Internet is somehow a world apart, that it is just a place where people come to vent and rant in ways that have no connection with their real selves out in the world.  In fact, it is high time we stopped pretending that the world is a world apart; part of the reason this crap exists is because of the cheerful insistence, especially among the twenty-somethings, that we’re all “post-feminist” and “post-racial;” when they encounter undeniable evidence of misogyny and racism they don’t call it out because a) it isn’t supposed to exist, and b) we’re all supposed to get along.  But when Mel Gibson gets shit-faced and starts spouting anti-semitic claptrap we don’t (unless our delusory sense of the world knows no bounds) assume that those sentiments aren’t somehow connected to the “real” sober Mel.  When your best friend has a few too many drinks one night and suddenly confesses her love for you, you don’t assume that those feelings have disappeared when she sobers up (although attempting to do so may ensure a lot of entertaining awkwardness for others around you).

So, Mr. Hardcore gamer, there is a reason why in the future you will not and should not get to legislate what games the rest of us get to play and how we play them.  It is because you have continually proven yourself to be a racist, misogynist, ethnically stereotyping homophobe (I am trying desperately not to conform to Godwin’s Law here).  If the rise of casual gaming and the invasion of the hardcore world by “casuals” is the asteroid that will ensure the dinsosaurian extinction of your kind, then I for one am quite happy about that.