Crispy Gamer

I Call Bullshit: Hardcore Elitism

ICBS: Hardcore Elitism

I noticed a weird bit of subject synchronicity when scanning through my gaming Web comics yesterday. Both VGCats and Real Life Comics seemed to be hammering home the same somewhat crotchety message: Today's gamers aren't worthy; we had REAL gamers back in our day, dagnabbit!

I've got to say, I'm getting a little tired of this kind of us-versus-the-newcomers mentality among the "hardcore" gaming set. Yes, more people are playing games now, but this is not a bad thing! In fact, it's been vital to making the industry as exciting and varied and downright enjoyable as it is today.

ICBS: Hardcore Elitism

The argument that new gamers are somehow ruining the industry is not new. Penny Arcade laid out the case back in 2001 as part of a four-part series of comics analyzing why "videogames suck now" (as the introduction put it). The problem started, apparently, when Sony tried to market the PlayStation to "the same f***ing guys who used to beat us up in P.E. They'd never turned into an eggplant in Kid Icarus. They had friends and girls and sports. Why did they need games?"

Believe me, I get where this argument is coming from. Games were an overwhelming, integral part of my youth. From just before I got my first NES at age seven through about my senior year of high school, practically the only way I interacted with my peers was by either playing games or talking about them. Games gave this shy, scrawny kid a vital social outlet that helped him get through adolescence relatively pain-free with a group of other awkward, like-minded children, and I'll be forever indebted to the medium for that.

ICBS: Hardcore Elitism

But back to Penny Arcade's eight-year-old question, echoed in this week in other Web comics: "Why did they need games?" The answer is, of course, they didn't need them. But that doesn't mean they wouldn't want them, if they were offered in the right way. More importantly, it doesn't mean they don't deserve them now.

Just because games were centrally important to us growing up doesn't mean we have to jealously guard the medium from all outside influence. Nobody's trying to take away your happy memories of past gaming bliss -- as if they could even if they wanted to. Extending gaming to a new audience doesn't harm your relationship to games or make it any less important. In fact, extending gaming to more gamers should only strengthen your connection to the medium [insert controversial analogy to the gay marriage debate here].

I keep hearing arguments about how the rise of "casual" gamers is ruining our industry; how today's games are becoming too commercial; how companies are designing games for the lowest common denominator; how the unwashed masses who play Halo and Madden and Grand Theft Auto and Guitar Hero and Bejeweled are somehow skewing our hobby in a new and worse direction, the argument goes.

ICBS: Hardcore Elitism

I'm sorry, but I don't see how the existence of these popular games automatically ruins the rest of the industry, which is healthier and more vibrant than ever. Gaming isn't some sort of either/or dichotomy between casual and hardcore. The era of Halo and Grand Theft Auto has also been the era of Shadow of the Colossus and Psychonauts, of Beyond Good and Evil and Portal, of Geometry Wars and Mega Man 9, of Rhythm Heaven and Bit.trip Beat, of World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth and dozens of other original, inventive, old-school -- OK, I'll say it without scare quotes (but I will use italics) -- hardcore titles.

Sure, these hardcore games might seem too few and far between these days, but Sturgeon's Law didn't just magically come into effect in the last few years. If 90 percent of everything is going to be crap, the best way to increase the size of the "good" 10 percent is to increase the size of that "everything." And don't delude yourself into thinking things were better back in the day. While you fondly remember all those old-school gems that have stood the test of time, I can almost guarantee you're glossing over the mountains of crappy, quick, cash-in games that have been around since the Atari era. There's a good reason people tend to forget about these games, of course ... they're eminently forgettable! Just like most games today. Of course, that crap is right in our faces, and thus kind of hard to ignore.

The ugly truth is, without the audience of "non-gamers" that's been growing since the original PlayStation, games were probably headed for the same sort of marginalization and insularity that set the comic book industry back for decades in the middle of the last century. The infusion of new players and new money in the 32-bit era led to opportunities for developers to try out new gameplay ideas -- to see what appealed to a new audience that did things besides playing games growing up. The resulting, mainstream games might not appeal to you, but they're essentially bankrolling the kinds of niche small-sellers that the hardcore continue to demand. It's a lot easier to push for that hardcore niche-friendly gamble if you have a nice, reliable mainstream million-seller up your sleeve.

ICBS: Hardcore Elitism

But I think this mentality goes deeper than the actual games and their effect on the industry. Defining who is and isn't a "gamer" is starting to seem to me like an elitist way of setting oneself apart (and above) other people who came into the hobby more recently, a passive-aggressive way to try and chase these outsiders away. You're not a real gamer because you only own a Wii. You're not a real gamer because you only like first-person shooters and sports games. You're not a real gamer because you didn't play Mega Man 2 as much as I did nearly 20 f***ing years ago. It's the same kind of "I liked it before it was cool" mentality that makes many indie music fans so insufferable, and I'm really sorry to see it starting to infect gaming.

The masses aren't playing games because they're trendy. They're playing games for the same reason you are -- because games are fun. You might not agree on which kinds of games are fun, but that doesn't mean you should berate these people for finally catching on to this essential fact that we've known all along. (Yes, you got there first. You're the cool one now. Congratulation. A winner is you. Clap. Clap.)

Sure, it's annoying when idiots show up in your favorite online game and run around like they don't know what they're doing. Might I suggest finding a private game or server with friends? If you don't have friends, there are plenty of Web sites dedicated to finding like-minded gamers, whatever your proclivities.

ICBS: Hardcore Elitism

One final thing to consider before putting down gaming newcomers: Today's member of the teeming masses could be tomorrow's member of the marginalized hardcore. Yeah, most of the people playing drunken Rock Band at that Saturday night party won't run out and buy a Dreamcast and Space Channel 5, but there are bound to be a few that are so enamored with rhythm gaming that they're inspired to check out what else it has to offer. Pretty soon you have a new gamer who's tracking down copies of Beatmania and UmJammer Lammy and Elite Beat Agents (yes, I know the Japanese version was better; shut up for a second). Before you know it, we've created a hardcore gamer where one didn't exist before, and we have one more person signing up for the Penny Arcade Expo and demanding that Mother 3 gets a U.S. release.

I do believe that all these casual-friendly games are the best ambassadors our hobby has. And we should follow their lead, welcoming these new gamers in the fold and acting as respectful, experienced guides to what makes gaming so great.

We're all gamers now, like it or not. You can be like this guy and whine that "Rock Band has made video gaming belong to me less," (yes, I know it's satire) or you can accept that gaming is growing up and that, maybe, just maybe, you should too.