Gaming is booming! Amazon bought the game-broadcasting service Twitch for close to a billion dollars; A game tournament in Seattle paid out an $11 million dollar purse; An (accredited!) college in Chicago is offering e-sports scholarships.
Gaming is dying! Game journalists, game developers, and game fans are locked in an unprecedentedly bitter civil war over the ownership of game culture, one that now has its own ubiquitous hashtag: #gamergate.
At the very least, gaming is suddenly everywhere — including an A1 spread in Sunday’s New York Times. And, as is common when it comes to the medium, the coverage has been a little schizophrenic. How can gaming both be both ascendant and threatened? How does the rise of game spectatorship relate to the embattled “gamer” identity? To make sense of it, we first have to look, with a touch of sympathy, at the places where “real gamers” gather on the internet.
One popular misconception about the strongholds of traditional online gaming culture—places like the discussion board NeoGAF, the subreddits r/gaming and r/games, and the 4chan /v/ board—is that they’re entirely comprised of bile. These sites, where many of the people behind the #gamergate hashtag congregate, certainly host their share of trolling, misogyny, and racism. But the main project of these boards, as far as I’ve gathered in the two years I’ve reported on them, is a kind of real-time cultural archaeology, the constant and committed reexamination and reevaluation of the buried minutiae of console and computer games.
Minutiae: exhaustive debates about the hardest boss in an obscure 1990s Japanese role-playing game, or the most affecting theme music in a Super Nintendo platformer, or the most enjoyable forgotten action game on the first Playstation. In their constant sifting judgments and “finds” and reappraisals, the people who engage in these debates remind me of vinyl freaks, searching for rare recordings and bickering—lovingly—over best live performances.
Like jazz or blues or garage rock bin hunters, these gamers have a shared conception of what is “good” or “normal” or “ideal” that is so widely assumed that it is never articulated. (It’s largely the collision of these unconscious assumptions with a larger gaming world that no longer shares them that is responsible for a lot of the handwringing going on right now.) At the risk of oversimplifying, that assumed standard is the 3D single-player narrative, that 10-50 hour solo epic that encompasses everything from Mario 64 to Skyrim. I would venture that 90 percent of the games discussed on these sites were released in the years 1996-2011, when these games were preeminent. It is almost unquestionably this standard—this kind of game—that the people behind the #gamergate hashtag think they are defending.
The thing is, this kind of game—and the culture it engendered—isn’t replenishing itself. Two years ago, writing in Grantland, Tom Bissell predicted its demise:
Remember back in the day, when you were in your early twenties or getting over your divorce or right after you got fired or when your wife or husband was out of town, and you went out and bought that big, meaty single-player narrative game and spent the entire weekend in a state of dopaminic enchantment while you and the game figured out what made each other tick? Well, those days, and those games, do seem to be coming to a kind of modulated end…the sort of game that has ruled the video-game roost for much of the last decade is effectively a dinosaur in a state of pre-starvation.
Fearsomely expensive to make, these games no longer make good business sense in all but the most extreme cases (say, Grand Theft Auto V). And at stake because of this shift is the assumed “normal” mode of playing games, that solitary “dopaminic enchantment.” In a very real way, this traditional gamer culture is running out of games to talk about, new single-player narrative titles to integrate into their endless discussion. If you want to understand the ravenous appetite for new information about the as-yet-unannounced Fallout 4 and Half-Life 3, that’s a good place to start. An uncharitable way to think of the endless iterative conversations about these old single player games is that they are a form of cannibalism for a culture that has nothing else to feed on.
The major growth areas in gaming right now are spectatorship, e-sports, Kim Kardashian, and procedural sandboxes like Minecraft. The new consoles baked sharing and social interaction into their design. None—not one—of the games expressing these trends is played best alone. The next generation of game players—hell, the ones in middle school now—don’t take it for granted that their digital escapism should be solitary. Interaction with other people from around the world is the prerequisite to enjoying the gaming that will dominate the next decade. Unsurprisingly, NeoGAF and r/gaming have very little to say about League of Legends.
And when collaboration and competition are the guiding principles of a culture, its hard to imagine that culture becoming as ossified as the culture that has produced #gamergate. There’s simply too much cross-pollination, too many people from too many places playing to share such fundamental assumptions about what playing should be.
Of course, there will always be people who think that games should look like the games of their childhood and adolescence, who will extol their virtues and bemoan the lack of authenticity of what the kinds are playing today. Those people will age. Those people will have children. And those children will have a name for the simple and elegant games that their parents keep in pristine condition in cabinets in the basement, the games from when, they’re told at the dinner table, things were better: