Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Videogamers, Casual and Otherwise

I've played video games ever since I was old enough to know that a Goomba wasn't just a terrible Italian stereotype, but while I've always maintained a foot in the door of the hobby, it's only been since attending PAX with one of my oldest friends this past September (an experience I documented here) that I've become a more avid member of the video gamer community again. With this reentry, one thing I'm keenly aware of is the odd divide there seems to be in the video game community between the ideas of the "casual" gamer and the "hardcore" gamer. I'm no stranger to these kinds of inane divisions, being a veteran of the Genesis/SNES and PC/Mac arguments from before adolescence, but one thing that I'm still surprised by is how much this can get reiterated and worsened by the video game media.

The brunt of this kind of division is usually borne by Nintendo. Case in point: Wired magazine's Game Life blog. In today's post about the best Wii games of the year, just in time for Christmas, editor Chris Kohler parrots the claim of message board trolls everywhere by claiming that Nintendo has lost its way by abandoning the hardcore gamer and focusing on the casual side of the hobby. There's no actual explanation of this, it's just stated as a universal fact. In the actual list of the year's top games for the console, three out of the five include jabs at Nintendo by mentioning low sales, delays, or even using the term "not as good" when describing the number one pick; each one of these blurbs is by Kohler. Contributor Gus Mastrapa is at least able to stick to describing why a game is good enough to be on the list.

This isn't the first time Kohler has done something like this. Hell, it's not even the first time this week: in yesterday's post about Nintendo's first quarter prospects for 2010, he placed everything in the context of "flagging Wii sales", ignoring the fact that last Thursday he posted that in November the Wii outsold its console competitors by over 50% and placed 4 games in the month's Top 10 for sales. When I asked Kohler about this, he explained that Wii sales are down from this time last year, but made no mention of his earlier note, alongside sales data, that the whole industry is down 7.6% last year. So Nintendo isn't doing as well as last year, but it's still outselling its competitors, who are also selling less. So why does Nintendo take the blame?

This can all be easily viewed through the frame of Kohler's claim today that Nintendo's fault is that it has abandoned "hardcore" gamers (perhaps ones like himself). Whether Nintendo is connecting with a wide audience seems to be irrelevant. One of the great Myths Of The Gamer is that he (and yes, it's a he) is isolated, socially inept, addicted, and overweight. Above all else, he's an outsider. From this direction, I'd think that Nintendo's emphasis with the Wii on the social aspect of gaming, low price of entry, and engaging a new audience with a new style of play should be considered a good thing, not a stab in the back to "hardcore" people like Kohler. From my experience, it's much easier to start up a conversation about the Wii than my Playstation 3, and a lot more of my friends own that instead of the XBox 360 or the Playstation 3. This last weekend I was on a wild goose chase looking for a copy of a Nintendo game, New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Stores had stacks of copies of the newest games for the other two consoles, but that wasn't what was in demand: by Sunday evening, the local Best Buy was selling out of the 125 copies of the game it got that very morning. This isn't new, either. Back in 2007 when the Playstation 3 and Wii had release dates a few days apart, it was the former that got the bulk of media attention, falsely treating the situation with breathless enthusiasm (Penny Arcade had an effective response here) even as the Wii remained difficult to find in stores a year later and well into 2008. Feel free to call me on it if you think I'm wrong, but that kind of wide audience could be the thing that helps change the gamer stereotype.

But Sony doesn't fare too well with Game Life either. The site routinely reports on T-shirts your XBox Live avatar can wear and Twitter and Facebook on the XBox, but posted no review of the PS3's biggest game of the year, Uncharted 2. If the XBox 360 is outsold by the Wii, well, the news is that at least it outsold the PS3. Ha! Take that, Sony! If a game has a multi-platform release, they'll review the XBox 360 version. I can't actually tell if any of the site's writers actually own a PS3. "Hardcore" might as well be "XBox" when they talk about it.

After all this, I can't understand why sites like Game Life place such misguided, often inaccurate importance on the "hardcore" gamer. Sales suggest they're not the majority, and I can't help but feel this is the problem for people like Kohler: the club's not exclusive anymore, even as it becomes less stigmatizing to be a part of it. Why is it worse to be a "casual" gamer? I guess I'm just a big tent gamer: the more the merrier. More people playing just means more people to play with, and that's more than good enough for me.