Lucy takes a look at the troubles and misunderstandings facing gamers today
Yesterday, I told a friend of a friend that I write about videogames. The look I received in return was a familiar one: a quizzical raise of the eyebrows, a nod of the head, an obligatory 'ohhhh....' from the lips. 'So, like, um. Crash Bandicoot?' 'Yes!' I exclaimed, grasping their hands. 'Thank you! Just like Crash Bandicoot.'
I was surprised at my reaction. It was over-emphatic and ponged of that same kind of desperate gratitude one feels after cooking a bad meal and your partner tells you the ginger added a real interesting kick.
It's a sad truth that the casual mention of my gaming lifestyle increasingly feels more like a confession, and this friend-of-a-friend's response was a comparatively learned one. It is rare, in my social circle at least, that the PlayStation icon is a known entity; it seems that the old school fallback Tetris or the media-soaked World of Warcraft are the titles at the tip of every non-gamer's tongue.
My fellow writer Tristan Clark, who also spends his time being a successful indie iPhone developer, recently had an experience at the hairdresser that drove him to write a rare Facebook update: "Tristan Clark doesn't like having to defend his profession, however polite, to the hairdresser. Getting pretty used to it though".
Upon questioning, Tristan expanded on his experience. "There have now been two occasions recently where I was asked what I did for a living. Upon answering that I made video games, I was greeted by the now-expected moment of silence as the other party tried to think of something to say."
Many of us memorize a snappy or flippant line to fill this conversational gap. "You were envisioning either running over prostitutes or Pac-Man, weren't you?" said Mr. Clark to said hairdresser. And said hairdresser sheepishly nodded.
So why this gaping ignorance? Why is there no industry overlap with my very own social circle, whom I value to be intelligent, media-savvy and creative?
For years, the news media has been an easy scapegoat for those of us lamenting the ineptitude of the 'general public'. The features on videogames one catches on the six-o-clock news are invariably fluff pieces, or intertwined with violent tragedy. Parents of young children have been a particularly susceptible group to reactionary pieces, and I frequently hear the claim of a videogame-free household bandied about like a badge of honor. As long as there is a demand for violent content in videogames, this cyclical trend will continue, and it does nothing but perpetrate the myth that videogames are a social and intellectual drain on our (otherwise stable?) society.
Yet one cannot place all blame on overexcited headlines, which are the inevitable byproduct of any entertainment mass media. It comes down to something more complicated: much of the non-gaming populace have no real aversion to the medium, they just see it as a 'kids thing', or a completely absurd means of escapism.
For years, the industry itself has been trying to bridge the gap. One cannot deny the success of Nintendo's efforts, yet the Wii still has a long, long way to go before it becomes an integral part of every (financially sound) household. Here's a hypothetical question: Considering its perfectly accessible control system and range of casual party and puzzle games, why doesn't every non-gamer now own a Wii?
Two Christmases ago, after a few glasses of wine, I convinced a non-gamer friend to have a go at Wii Tennis. She got the gist of the motion-controls immediately, and was soon jumping around the living room, shrieking with enjoyment. I left the room to get a drink, confident in my assumption that my friend was having the time of her life, and I'd converted another into 'my world'.
But when I re-appeared two minutes later, the Wiimote lay neglected on the sofa.
Why? I asked. "The game ended," she replied, "and I couldn't figure out how to start a new one."
My offer to tutor her on the mechanics of the simple interface was to no avail. She was bored now, and wanted to move onto something less challenging (which I believe was a screening of Mary Poppins with another wine in hand.)
So is it, at its most basic level, a matter of providing the player with an easier learning curve? I am unsure. There seemed to be an intrinsic miscommunication between the language of the game and the non-gamer, even with something as boldly accessible as Wii Tennis.
Some choose to blame that abstract, versatile piece of technology: the controller. As Steven Spielberg stated in his Project Natal (Kinect) address at E3 2009:
"How can interactive entertainment become as approachable as all other forms of entertainment? The only way... is to make the technology invisible".
Indeed, letting a non-gamer go all Andy Serkis around their living room without a foreign object in their hands might prove enticing. Yet Kinect carries with it an intrinsic dorkiness that may further isolate those who see videogames as a childish pastime, or worse, 'uncool'. Those that are of this prickly opinion are the most difficult converts, as their prejudices are often deep-seated and based on a lack of proper knowledge, which, in this hysterically fanboyish Internet society, is hard to come by.
These are the people I direct towards a presentation by Jane Mcgonigal, or, if I can be arsed to make the effort, FUN INC by Tom Chatfield. Subtitled 'Why Games Are the 21st Century's Most Serious Business', this is a particularly good one to lend to your Dad. Both Mcgonigal and Chatfield are able to speak intelligently and eloquently on the finer sides of the medium, and come with my highest recommendation as educators for the non-gamer.
But perhaps I am over-analyzing. In my experience, the best way to get non-gamers to learn about gaming is a simple one: gift them a game. Here, they can pick up and play on their own terms, in their own time, and get a feeling for the game's mechanics without a nervous enthusiast hovering over their shoulder. They are not embarrassed to fail, as there is nobody round to judge them if they do. Incidentally, Machinarium and Portal have proved my most successful gifts: it turns out smart people like smart challenges.
As we look down into the abyss of what could potentially be a new generation of hands-free gaming, as more and more consumers pick up iPhones and Androids where apps are sold for $1.25 and strategists are beginning to embrace free-to-play digital distribution business models, there is a small glimmer of hope that the gap might close one day.
I hope, for my sake and for Tristan's, that it does.