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.

  1. This is a good article, and deserves a lengthy, well, thought out comment. Sadly, I don’t have one.

    I do have one comment, though. I think you’re simply wrong about the rise of social gaming necessarily causing the non-social gaming industry to shrink. Social gaming doesn’t cannibalize existing gaming-time; it has a whole different audience. How many of the people playing FarmVille would otherwise be playing rise of nations– or even Halo? The average social gamer is… what? a 45 year old woman? As a 32 year old man, I’d love to see more of _that_ demographic in my hobby– but I don’t see it.

    • I mean something slightly different. My fear is that the non-social gaming industry (let’s call it “traditional”) will contain a significantly smaller proportion of consumers (gamers) and / or profits when compared to gaming across all genres and platforms. As that proportion shrinks, so does the interest and resources devoted to making traditional games. Especially because microtransactional or social gaming models offer the promise of much higher return on investment. I think there’s a decent chance that social gaming would start to siphon talent and investment from traditional gaming. We might still be able to support profitable games, but would they be profitable enough for major publishers?

      That said, I do think there’s a good chance that we’ll also see an App Store effect in social gaming and free-to-play models: it will so much easier to produce something for those markets that it becomes difficult for consumers to hear about your product over all the noise being generated. Furthermore, a lot of these games depend on getting a player-base hooked. These new gamers may not be migrating from title to title, the same way most WoW players never really leave, making the potential audience smaller for each subsequent game in the vein.

  2. Regarding the prominence of “traditional” games, I agree with you, Rob and Flitcraft.
    However, I do think that while the percentage of “traditional” gamers may decline, I think the number of such players will only continue to rise.
    This means that while big publishers may move to mainly casual- or socially-centered games, there will still be enough money for developers who love games to be profitable.

    Answer me this (I really don’t know what the answer is): How many text adventures, a.k.a Interactive Fiction, have been published in 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010? obviously the percentage from total number of games has decreased, but what about the numbers. In addition, how do the enthusiast efforts of today measure against the professional games of 1980? Are they worse?

    While the comparison might not be apt, as the resources to create high quality “traditional” games are outside the reach of bedroom coders today, the tools are only getting stronger and more freely available.

    Regarding the innovation remark, consider this: how much innovation has the film industry seen in the last decade? or the one before? What impressive innovations has the book buplishing business seen in the last CENTURY, if you consider only the paper form, relative to the number of books published? I think Levine’s remark is true simply because innovation is easier to come by the younger the medium is and not because the doom of gaming is upon us.

  3. By the way, I think you should split this into two posts, s it tackles two different topics.
    I found the Quality of Life bit fascinating and thought provoking.

    • You raise some very good points and I’m certainly not competent to answer them all. I might argue that interactive fiction is kind of a special case, because unlike other types of game, it cannot really change with technology. Whereas Doom could be produced by a half-dozen guys and be as professional an effort as any other shooter out there, and now a first-rate shooter might require a couple hundred people at the height of the production.

      I’m not ashamed to admit that I am a bit shallow here. I really wish that more wargames looked like Company of Heroes or Empire: Total War instead of like Combat Mission and Horse & Musket. But they can’t ever look that good, because the entire genre is served by smaller specialty developers who lack the resources and often the skillset to reach those production values. The games might be great, but I have to be willing to completely set aside graphics and, too often, interface while I play. I think that also introduces a bit of a snowball effect: the players already converted to the genre will continue to put up with its antiquated technology, but you won’t ever have anything interesting to show anyone who doesn’t already know what he’s looking for.

      So my fear is that I’d see history repeating with a a new set of genres, where they don’t quite produce a lot of blockbusters but are still consistently profitable. That’s why I cited Ensemble in this entry. As far as I know, nobody has ever come out and said that Ensemble’s games were no longer successful, or that they weren’t any good. Microsoft still pulled the plug on them, however, and I strongly suspect that’s because Microsoft reached a point where Ensemble and the Age games were no longer profitable enough to satisfy MS. Furthermore, MS might have been cannibalizing the series by making that the only thing Ensemble were allowed to work on. Ensemble had a sure thing, and MS never permitted them to go looking for another big success. Then they killed the studio.

      Firaxis is working on Civilization V and a social network version of the franchise. When do you expect another oddball project from them, like the Civil War games or Alpha Centauri? And who would let them make a Civ game now if it weren’t already an established success?

      In general, I think we tend to be overly optimistic about what “bedroom programmers”, “guys in a garage”, and other indie heroes can accomplish. I don’t say that to denigrate them, I just mean that there are advantages you get from a well-financed, fully-staffed, full-time, professional operation. Not least of the which is that you can make a living doing that kind of work. I get nervous when people say that indies will fill the gaps left by publisher indifference.

      As for innovation, I think you’re mostly right. The 90s coincided with a couple technological developments that totally changed what was possible. On the other hand, we got Deus Ex in 2000, and saw surprisingly little like it afterwards. Bioshock is, in many ways, a far less interesting game than System Shock 2. Tactical shooters like Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon got a lot less tactical (and interesting, I would argue) as they chased after console audiences. Other genres have pretty much dried up. I would argue there’s been a depressing trend toward homogenization with the expansion of gaming, and that’s chilled innovation and variety. From a PC gamer’s perspective, the industry has taken some wrong turns, and I don’t feel like the fact that more people are playing games is compensation.

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