One Move Behind – Standing Athwart History Yelling "Stop!"
I am not an optimist. I am skeptical of most changes and need to see evidence that my fears are unfounded before I can abandon them. So when it comes to developments like Facebook gaming or microtransactions, my instincts say that there is great potential for these to be negative developments. This is the source of my misgivings during this week’s Three Moves Ahead.
Quality of Life
When it comes to Facebook gaming, I must concede that my objections have very little to do with the likelihood that we will see good games on that platform. It has everything to do with the kind of gamer I am, and the way I prefer to live my life. Selfishly, I am afraid that gaming will increasingly move into an arena for which I have little patience: the social network.
Right now I have four tabs open in my browser: Gmail, Google Reader, Twitter, and the WordPress editor. Whenever I momentarily come to the end of a line of thought, I flick to one of the other tabs. It’s a reflex at this point, one I don’t completely feel capable of controlling. I struggle with the fears that Nicholas Carr described in his Atlantic piece: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
…Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets’reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)
These are serious areas of concern for me. I am often struck by the sudden fear that I’m not developing as a writer, because I’m nowhere near the reader I used to be. I use the same couple sentence structures and the same “go to” turns of phrase because I’m no longer capable of noticing things like sentence structure, or hearing the way a particular choice of words can change the texture of a thought. My eyes dance to and fro, the nouns, verbs, and modifiers strobing like runway landing lights in the expanse of the page. The general meaning of a paragraph quickly becomes clear. Its particulars are vanish as my attention moves on.
Engagement has become more a fight than it used to be. I sometimes feel like I’m living in “Harrison Bergeron”, unable to form a complex thought because something always happens to break my concentration. Right now, for instance, the Twitter tab shows a (5). Five tweets have appeared on my feed since I last checked it. I badly want to go see what they are, even though I’m not really interested. I’d rather stay here and keep writing.
To an extent, Facebook is my line in the sand. I fear its endlessness, and the social economy that drives users to toss notes and gifts at their friends, exchanging daily updates with people that they are not particularly close to. With my prestigious collection of insecurities, and my predilection to get addicted to just about anything, I can almost guarantee that my relationship with Facebook would grow unhealthy. Add Facebook gaming to that mix, and I’ll end up with another perpetually open tab on my browser. Another drain on my already atomized attention, potentially worse than the others.
When I play a game, I don’t want to be “sort of” playing a game and sort of chatting with my acquaintances. I want to be playing the game. When I get back to my apartment tonight, if I still have enough energy left, I’m going to clear my desk, hook up the racing wheel, and do a Formula 3000 qualifying session at the Brno circuit. The only thing in the world that I’m going to care about for a half-hour is my car and the racing line. Everything else will be gone.
And when I’m done with that, I might turn off my computer and sit down with the novel I’m reading, or perhaps continue with the organizational history of Napoleon’s Grand Armee. If I keep playing, I might lose myself in Clear Sky some more, or I’ll try to salvage my Prussian campaign in Napoleon: Total War. Perhaps MK will want to continue our game of Sins of a Solar Empire. But whatever I do next, I will be all in.
The Myth of Progress
It may be that the days of this type of gamer are already numbered, and have been for quite awhile. But inevitability isn’t synonymous with desirability. Rabbit may be correct when he says that people have already voted for Facebook gaming and microtransactions with their dollars and quarters, but that doesn’t mean they actually want a future where that is gaming’s dominant form. But by their very nature, these little casual games and microtransactional models can give rise to the tyranny of small decisions. We’re about to change the course of an entire industry and a young art form based on nickel-and-dime whims, and I think there’s a huge danger there that should worry people who love videogames.
Nor am I convinced that having millions of new gamers taking up the hobby is a good thing. It depends. If I thought the rise of free-to-play models and Facebook gaming were going to bring a flood of new players into gaming as it exists right now, I’d be more excited. But I think this might be a Chinatown situation: we can’t bring new players to gaming, so we bring gaming to new players. We redefine what “gaming” means, and then call the new people who like this easier, more accessible activity gamers, and we say what a great thing it is for the hobby. But nothing has really changed. We share little in common with the newcomers, and their games have little in common with ours. What has changed is that our market share just got smaller. That rarely means anything good. Just ask Ensemble.
Now Rabbit mentioned that a lot of the counterarguments resemble the anti-console arguments that PC gamers used to make. That the rise of Xbox would spell trouble, and would hurt gaming. And obviously, the industry has survived and flourished even as the PC has receded as the dominant platform and consoles have moved onto more and more of what used to PC turf.
Or has it? I don’t find myself wanting for good games to play, but I also can’t deny how much I identify with this comment that Ken Levine made on Twitter: “Innovation wise, the aughts didn’t really hold a candle to the 90s.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the decade of the PlayStation and the Xbox was also a decade of slowed innovation. We were right to worry ten years ago, and many of our fears came to pass. That we’ve learned to live with the new reality doesn’t mean it was all for the best.
As we consider what might turn out to be the most significant change in the game industry since the Famicom, we should ponder the ramifications, and what we stand to lose.