Beyond Brand Loyalty

It always amazes me that Penny Arcade, regular home to some of the most vicious (and exquisitely penned) observational critique of our industry and ourselves as gamers, is routinely celebrated by those most commonly the target of its attacks. My theory in explanation of this is that the reason Mike and Jerry disdain these folk is that they are stupid, and so stupid as to not even realise they are amongst the despised and derided.

I consider this demographic to include those referenced in Wednesday’s strip and, more importantly, news post:

“People who play Halo specifically, people who play Halo because it is Halo and not because it is a videogame.”

Oh yes. Them.

Any long term reader of the strip ought to recognise the modern archetype invoked here. Sometimes called “the frat boy”, this guy (and, alas, girl) pretty much discovered the whole world of gaming with the first Xbox, and in doing so, assumes their late arrival on the scene, and their limited knowledge of the hobby, encompass all there is to being a gamer. This gamer wasn’t beaten up at school for being a geek. This gamer watches sports and drinks beer and thinks Army of Two‘s fist bumps are the coolest thing since Master Chief – who, by the way, they worship as a pinnacle of all that is masculine with a total fanaticism which is completely straight, no homo.

Cut the HUD out; can you honestly tell them apart?
Battlefield: Bad Company 2

Although it makes me shudder in horror that such people exist, there’s not actually anything wrong with being them; they just offend mine eyes and mine sensibilities. But there is a serious problem with their brand loyalty, and that is an issue which extends well beyond the popped-collar crowd.

An analogy: if you are a reader (and you’ll know if you are, because the existence of those that aren’t is both a mystery and a cause of depression to you), you must know one person who isn’t, and yet firmly believes he or she is. You know the one I mean. the one who tells you they wouldn’t normally waste money on books but did buy Harry Potter because they could read those over and over again. The one who is amazed you haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. The one who proudly shows you to their walls of bookshelves lined with Mills & Boons or “chick lit” (I believe the “lit” stands for “lit us set it on fire, god“). The one who buys auto-generated biographies of celebrities and sportsmen.

Nier's Kaine

Nier is a self-consciously literate affair.

That last one is particularly apt, because the book has been purchased not out of a love of literature; not for intellectual challenge; not even for the sheer pleasure of a good read. It’s been purchased because of the picture on the cover. The damage this purchase does to the industry, eroding away at the profitability of innovative, artistic, and lively writing, does not get a look in, for at least three reasons:

  1. They are a mindless consumer who is unable or unwilling to consider how their purchases shape the world;
  2. They would not value doing so even if they were capable of it, because accountability for the entire world is exhausting as well as being the very definition of existential angst;
  3. They don’t have the critical faculties to discriminate between challenging and rewarding reading and utter pap, and consider that anybody who does is somehow deficient; as delightful a piece of self-defensive projection as I have ever seen.

This is the people-who-play-Halo-because-it-is-Halo crowd. Is there anything objectively wrong with Halo? No; there is no sin in taking something tired and doing it exceptionally well. The sin comes not from the creator but the consumer, who, like bacteria, proliferates wildly but never grows up, never evolves, never gets past the chomp-chomp-chomp away stage to consider tackling something rather more substantial.

Capitalism is a force and a way of life we have to live with, and in its way, it is the ultimate democracy, giving everyone with a dollar or two to rub together a say in how businesses are run; when unthinking consumerism of identical games stops being profitable, publishers and developers will start pushing boundaries again.

The game, as an object, is akin to the novel or the film early in the lifetime of both art forms; something for the masses, deemed lowbrow, and desperately, wildly exciting for those awake enough to realise they’re standing on the brink of a revolution. Games are art. They are our art, a world we understand and which the mainstream is slowly waking up to. Not the kind in galleries, guarded ferociously by elitist practitioners and out of touch with the every day world of making ends meet and having a quiet good time, but the kind that is rapidly evolving, all-embracing, and more interested in pleasing people than spawning an intellectual snobbery. And its within our power to make sure that they keep pleasing us, that we continue to have fun, that games remain accessible and challenging; silly and serious; straightforward and explorative. It is up to us to ensure diversity and innovation.

Shadow of the Colossus

Breathtaking artistry; killer gameplay.

If not, we’re signing ourselves up for another Great Crash, when games once more disappear as major companies gamble all on yet another cloned game and promptly go broke when we all suddenly realise the long slide of the last few years has dropped us at ET.

So next time you buy a bloody game, do try to get something besides “Shooter 4: Shooty McShoot”, won’t you?

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