4 Ways You Are Being 'Aged Out' By The Gaming Industry
Video games are a lot like Saturday Night Live or The Simpsons. They all typically have audiences who form bonds, and then by virtue of simply getting older suddenly find themselves having moved on to new forms of entertainment, like Bob's Burgers or cocaine. By the time they're in their late 20s, those crusty aficionados have wizened edicts about when the thing they loved peaked, exactly when it became irrelevant, and can tell you why what they're into now is way better instead. What many of us are blind to, though, is that we simply "aged out" and stopped being the audience. It isn't supposed to appeal to us anymore.
In the case of video games, this is harder to identify, because they have on the whole not really changed much in the last few decades. If you think E.T. for the Atari is any different from Overwatch, you're the wrongest wronger who ever wronged. If you haven't been keeping up, just imagine that every big band is Guns N' Roses and every big album coming out is a single of "November Rain." You can only shoot a guy in the face so many times, in so many countries, in so many time periods, and in so many dimensions while Slash plays a wicked guitar solo before shooting one guy in the face is just like shooting every other guy in the face.
Look at the video game titles that make the most money and what's in them, and the correct framing of the video game industry isn't that it's forgotten to change -- it's that it doesn't want to. The video game industry is the South, sitting on the porch with a Confederate flag, sippin' sweet tea and not giving a good goddamn. And if you grew up playing video games, cursing out titles like Battletoads for being dirty, cheating pieces of garbage, and wonder why in hindsight nothing seems to interest you anymore, there are plenty of good reasons that isn't at all your fault -- and a few that are.
Before reading on and concluding that I'm just some guy from the internet weighing in with a bunch of half-formed opinions formulated over a bottle of gin and hard boiled eggs for one in a dingy studio apartment: I'm an entertainment journalist who has spent countless hours over the last year and a half essentially giving the game industry therapy, having about 200 conversations so far on how and why video games are losing and frustrating people. These aren't only my opinions. They're also yours. I'm like the Lorax; I speak for the trees ... if the trees had spent the last few years honing their GTA skills.
You Can't Find a Sense Of Community In Games
It's no mystery that a lot of the atmosphere around gaming can be poisonous. Large portions -- or a vocal minority, it's hard to measure -- of the audience are afflicted with a hybrid of a hijacking complex and a level of defensiveness so pronounced that they choose to give the hairy eyeball to anyone who dares share the hobby. If you have memories of growing up and meeting someone unlike you who was into the same thing as you and thinking, "Oh wow, cool!" then you would be among the stifled portions of the video game audience quietly suffering and indulging others.
Thanks to the internet and how it brings extreme minorities together, the "wrong" kinds of people into the "wrong" kinds of games can find themselves receiving death and rape threats just because they're curious about Firewatch or Undertale, neither of which are pornos or even euphemisms. Other sure ways to get ostracized including being someone who is enthused about video games that explore relatable topics like depression or social anxiety, or someone who just isn't "good enough" skill-wise at the "right" games. If none of that makes sense to you, pat yourself on the back, because you still have a soul.
What largely has not changed are the types of games which major companies put onto store shelves. Criticizing violence in video games typically gets you labeled a prude, but within most gaming communities, there remains in 2016 a lack of widespread acknowledgment that maybe it's getting boring to do the same things over and over. Ask anyone grinding toward a new mount or sword or armored bra in World Of Warcraft.
And people need a sense of community to truly and meaningfully coexist with a thing that they love. Just look at furries. It's hard to grow with a thing that doesn't want to grow with you, and given the blinders one needs to meaningfully engage with the video game community online -- nebulous and widespread as that is -- it's no wonder you'd unhook from that world when most of what you see is misogyny, sanctimony, Italian plumbers, and marketing. Reaching that conclusion is a slowly crystallizing reveal as you age, not an obvious fact when you are younger. Though maturity has a hard time taking hold in this culture. Even when it gives focus to a meaningful and worthwhile topic, it tends to have a narrowness in its approach. Take, for example, diversity. As it's being explored today, triumphs for diversity boil down to: "What color person am I killing with, and what color person am I killing?"
We can't say that video games are just for kids anymore, because that wasn't true in the first place. The generation we said that about have kids of their own now. But when you look out across the internet, you rarely see adults and human beings with emotional depth, unless you know exactly where to look. You hear reports of internet terrorists trying to prove their virility self-congratulating themselves, and rightfully wonder, "What the hell does this have to do with video games? Is this one of them prank videos from the YouTubes?"
You Just Want To Complain
Video games growing as risk-averse as they have is no mass conspiracy by corporate evils. It's a byproduct of real-world economic factors compounded by industry irresponsibly allowing its budgets to swell by a factor of 10 every hardware generation, even after the crash of 2008. Remember that crash? Donkey Kong is still suffering PTSD from it.
Rather than empowering their teams' creativity and ensuring that everybody has health insurance, CEOs and producers are choosing instead to practice Slash's soloing and remeasure his top hat size for the next sequel. Since game companies largely communicate with their audiences via tightfisted marketing points, this has created a dynamic whereby consumers think they know "better" about how a game should have turned out, or its ending, or the entire series in hindsight. They spent $60 and have no experience making video games, but they've read about it through marketing, so listen up, companies! First we tackle why Call Of Duty is as fun to play with as old man balls, and then we work on the healthcare system.
But what a lot of people issuing condescending and entitled mandates don't realize is that they are making declarations while absolving themselves from the personal responsibility mature adults demonstrate when they feel dissatisfied. To be fair, if you haven't grown up with video games, the landscape seems daunting, full of cliques, and impossible to navigate for a foothold. There are no olive branches; just burnt twigs people have been using to poke poo. The websites have intimidating, foreign-sounding names like Kotaku and Destructoid or The Lusty Hedgehog's Lament, and their vocabularies make no concessions to newcomers. Compare this to trying to get into indie music, which is relatively easy: Pitchfork, many MP3 blogs, and even Rolling Stone have shifted their coverage, and that's in an ecosystem in which Arcade Fire won a Grammy when mass market folks didn't even know who they were. We know who they are, though. The thing that they do is just the tops.
Where the heck are you supposed to go to learn about different and more creative video games if all you've ever seen is what's on the shelves at Target? Most adults would rather dive into their new love of pig wrestling or Thai cooking than spend their free time researching all the interesting video games.
And honestly? The enthusiast media does a poor job of taking risks on championing truly unusual or oddball games. So there's a widespread feeling that what you see out there is all there is. But it isn't. Video games are not as stagnant as they seem at a glance, but they also aren't much better than that, either.
You're Realizing That Games Won't Make You Look At Life Any Differently
If you grew up playing video games, sooner or later you have an epiphany: "This isn't going to make me look at my life any differently." Video game culture has a deep foundation of insecurity, and this manifests in many ways. For example, many maintain that the mark of a truly significant and worthwhile video game is whether it made its player cry. This is, in a word, stupid. Like, remarkably stupid. "Forrest Gump sniffing glue after a concussion" stupid.
As video games attempt to assert themselves as a worthwhile method of creative expression, they are struggling to do so effectively. Many industry series, like Fallout or BioShock, draw heavy inspiration from films, but seem to be recreations of action movies as explained to them via a game of telephone a week or two afterward by a kid abusing Ritalin and Monster. This is not to say that people who make video games don't understand how other mediums work and how to integrate what they learn, but we don't get to see that by the time it's been project-managed, market-tested, focus-grouped, and finger-blasted by GameStop executives for critical feedback on how they think their audience will feel about what they're being shown based on early, formative stages. These are the meticulous sneeze guards that protect an industry's audience from seeing different experiences, meaningful stories, and relatable characters.
Video games are also a rare subculture in which the adults want to see things change drastically, but the youth wants to see things stay the same. Adults want five-hour games with interesting stories. People without responsibilities and bills want video games that never end and function as their version of going out to the garage and trying to put ships in bottles. This is still not a euphemism.
And somewhere around 8 p.m. on a weekday night in the dark on a couch, when you are playing a video game that has you drag a giant sword behind you who talks to you in a robot voice, you will have this epiphany: "This isn't helping me look at my life any differently." Not that this alone is inherently bad. Both adults and video games fail to recognize that play and turning off your brain is a valuable, even necessary part of life. But it's also kind of like eating cheeseburgers. You reach a point where you realize that maybe you want to try sushi or vegetables. And by the time you've read some profound books or heard some great albums or read some amazing graphic novels or seen some solid movies, you can reasonably conclude: "I could have been getting laid instead of beating Kingdom Hearts. I've wasted my life." That most video games that do try do something different rarely make money and get ridiculed for even existing only makes all this worse.
You Don't Realize You've Already Been Aged Out
You'll want to protect anything you spend a lot of time with and grow attached to, like children or symbiotic super-powered parasites. What's interesting about video games, though, is that so many people have opinions about what the medium should or shouldn't be. There are countless self-appointed guardians dictating terms for things they can't control being done by people they don't know or even talk to. It's as dated a dynamic and as boring a fight as Eminem trying to end boy bands. Google it, you won't be disappointed (except existentially).
The sad thing is that these kinds of shenanigans happen hourly in video games. This summer, the popular '90s shooter Doom is getting a reboot. To look at parts of the internet, though, "nobody wants this new Doom." What it ultimately comes down to is that the new game is somehow different from the original in a way that these critics -- Twitter users, game "journalists," whoever -- don't personally care for. Many media outlets prematurely mocked and dismissed it based on its packaging alone.
However, these types of remakes are nothing new in other mediums, even if they are overdone. Releases like The Departed or Ghost In The Shell or True Grit (think of them what you will) are intended to both open these things up to new audiences and feel like slipping on your favorite sweater if you remember the original. To please both groups, though, the challenge is to recreate the feelings the original instilled while hopefully also elaborating on or evolving it somehow. That ain't easy, and you often end up with a sweater full of holes that smells faintly of cat pee.
But if that new version smells too much like a money grab (just like cat pee, trust me), or even worse, like the person resurrecting it doesn't understand what they're reintroducing while trying to desperately recreate what was so great about it without communicating the sentiment, then self-described fans reject it. And video games are probably the most difficult medium for creating feelings and then recreating them.
So part of it is that people see treasured games from their youth being remade and it makes them feel old. On a deeper level, though, it's because for decades video games by major companies have offered very little to identify with. If you've separated, it's because you want something more from your entertainment. If you don't notice you haven't aged out, it might be because you haven't grown up. Most people don't grow up, have that realization, and make peace with it. They want something more from their video games, don't see it, and disengage.
But to claim that Doom has somehow gone off the rails is impossible. I shot an email to someone working on the upcoming remake and he responded, "I don't know how you jump the shark in a game about a space marine on Mars fighting off demonic invaders using mega nuke weapons." And he's right. You don't jump that shark; you sear its flesh with terrible weapons and laugh about it while eating pizza.
So much of the rhetoric around video games has lost so much perspective that it doesn't even realize its complaints and activism and allegiances sometimes center on assertions like these. It's no wonder that some people find that stifling and choose to do something else instead. Because so many people like to blame corporations and avoid introspection. You look at who's sticking with it and who's moving on. What is that talking sword really gonna tell you?
Because so many people see that, tap out, and move on, it creates a sort of perpetual motion consumerism machine whereby those who age out don't stick around to try to improve the scenery for people like them, and so they're just lost. And then we all keep losing, instead of seeing more that speaks for and interests everyone.
David Wolinsky is an independent journalist and the creator and moderator of Don't Die, an interview series trying to paint video games and their industry onto a broader cultural canvas. It and he have a Patreon.
Learn why young people make the best professional gamers in We're All On Speed: 6 Insane Reasons Pro Gamers Retire At 26, and check out why the gaming community can be so sexist in 5 Ways The Gaming Industry Is Way More Sexist Than You Think.
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