X of the Year
The humble case

Notes from the wild


This holiday season I went off the grid. No email. No Twitter or Feedly. Notifications disabled. Nothing chirping for my attention except my kid, whose startup sequence deploys at 6:30 A.M.

This wasn’t something I planned, but after a few days I decided to stick with it. I expected to feel disconnected, but instead it felt cleansing, liberating…necessary. If you can manage to cut the cord, even for a few days, I recommend giving it a try. You may find yourself noticing things like the UPS man’s nifty gloves, the sound of snow crunching under your feet, or your own breathing.

During my time in the analog wild, I thought a lot about games. I made a point of discussing them with anyone willing to chat with me about them. My circumstances in recent weeks brought me into contact with students from all over the world, travelers, family members, and a broad assortment of friendly folks I met between Indianapolis and Los Angeles.

Recently I’ve begun to reflect on how we think and talk about games and the industry producing them. By “we” I mean developers, critics, enthusiasts - basically anyone likely to visit this site or others like it.

The upside of our evolving community is an enhanced critical focus on games and quality writing about them. The downside is that we’re growing increasingly detached from the people who play games and fuel the market for them. I see this as a predictable (and not altogether negative) result of several factors: growing specialization among critics and a trajectory toward more micro-analysis; an increasingly segmented market of games and players; and a natural tendency to overestimate the prominence of the echo chamber we’ve built to host our conversations.

My informal chats with “regular gamers” have led me to a few conclusions, none of which I’ll attempt to quantify. I’m relying on impressions gathered through careful listening here, so if you’re looking for hard data, you should probably get off the bus now. I’m an artist, not a sociologist, folks. :-)

  • We don’t pay enough attention to the games people actually play.
    Many of us were happy to learn that Dishonored recently topped 2 million in sales, exceeding expectations of its publisher. According to Bethesda’s Pete Hines, “We clearly have a new franchise." Good news for a good game, but consider it in context with Rovio’s recent announcement that its Angry Birds games were downloaded 8 million times on Christmas Day alone, and 30 million times in the week of December 22–29. 

    Clearly, I’m comparing apples and oranges in terms of design and price, but my point is that we routinely ignore mobile/tablet games that utterly dominate the games marketplace. Sure, many of these games are throwaways (as are some console games that receive far more attention), and a few receive critical-darling treatment (e.g. Superbrothers: S&S, Osmos). But most mobile/tablet games appear and disappear quietly with little critical fanfare outside mobile-centric sites like Touch Arcade or Slide to Play. For games like Dream of Pixels, Gua-Le-Ni, Girls Like Robots, or The Room, that’s a shame.

  • No one appears eager for a new generation of consoles.
    I couldn’t find a single person who expressed anything resembling excitement for the next generation of consoles. Some believe new hardware will lead to better looking games…but not a lot better, and that’s the sticky point. In this economy, with current systems still perceived as viable, it’s apparently hard for many people to muster much enthusiasm for pricy new systems with incremental improvements.

  • Very few people have even heard of the Wii U
    I wish I had a dollar for every person who looked at me quizzically when I asked them about the Wii U. Few knew anything about it, and the ones who did had fuzzy ideas about its touchscreen controller or how it differed from the Wii. Even those who had seen a TV or print ad for the system seemed confused about it. I didn’t speak to a single person who expressed an interest in owning one. That’s probably bad, right?

  • Lots of people are perfectly happy with their outdated, outmoded, hopelessly dead-end Wii systems.
    In fact, when I asked people what games they play at home, Wii titles like Sports Resort, and Dance Party came up more often than other games. When you read someone in the games press say “I dusted off my Wii to play X,” remember that for lots of people, it’s the only system they own, and it’s still lots of fun, especially at family gatherings. I shot this bit of evidence the day after Christmas.

  • Nobody cares about 3D or voice-control, and nobody wants to navigate a menu by waving their hands.
    I don’t think I can add anything to that statement.

  • Indie games like Journey have a tiny footprint.
    I may feel strongly that Journey is a masterpiece of game design, but the reality is that most people have never heard of it and will never play it. Chalk it up to indie games still making their way in the marketplace. Minecraft is more significant in this regard, at least among the people I spoke to. 

    But the real culprit remains the self-defeating marginalization of system-exclusive releases. I can preach to a class of 30 students that they simply must play Journey, but when only 2 of those students own a PS3, few will respond. I realize the industry is what it is, but until I can recommend games, or loan them out like I do books and movies, games will remain culturally balkanized. Here again, moble/tablet games are knocking down such arbitrary walls. When I say “you must play Triple Town” to a person with a smartphone, chances are she will because she can.

  • Intelligent people are genuinely worried about violence in games.
    You and I can debate the question and exchange scholarly studies, but recent events have sensitized people to the issue of violence in games like never before. We (critics, press, designers) must address this now. Claiming a lack of data or citing studies that say violent crime has dropped in recent years won’t cut it. 

    Why not? Because those arguments fail the sniff test. It no longer matters whether or not games contributed to the massacre at Newtown. What matters is that lots of reasonable people have come to believe we’re awash in depictions of bloody violence across media, and repeatedly exposing our kids to this stuff is just plain wrong. In all my years of playing shooters and brawlers, my mother never expressed a shred of concern. But this year at Christmas she looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you worry that video games make killing seem like fun?” And for the first time I answered yes.