I’ve been trying really hard to stay away from the kind of navel-gazing, philosophical posts that I have been writing for so long, but it’s been rather difficult. I had usually been using this space and that format to craft long-form (really long-form) comments on topics covered elsewhere, partly because this is my space, and partly because I’m afraid to get elbow-deep in the kind of commiseration that takes place on official comment threads.
However, I had to talk about Ben Kuchera’s post on Polygon (the second time I’ve been spurred to write by Mr. Kuchera) entitled “The invisible gamers: We’re not the mainstream, and we likely never will be“. Not to take eyeballs away from paying Mr. Kuchera’s rent, but the condensed version is that outside of the controversy and day-zero news and releases that many of us are aware of, there’s a group of indeterminate size that also buys and plays games, but who don’t dwell on the hobby. They don’t comment, don’t stream or watch streams, and don’t argue or blog. They just buy games that look interesting to them, or ones that they see their trusted friends playing, play those games, and then go about their business leaving no trace that they were ever there.
The “we” in Mr. Kuchera’s byline are those who would be reading his post. These are the people that, well, we would consider to be “video game enthusiasts”. If you’re reading this, that means you. Because I wrote this, that means me.
The post itself was excellent, but at the time of writing this post, the comments were unusually stellar, and I don’t mean that sarcastically. A lot of folks were coming out of the woodwork to claim that they considered themselves to be part of this “invisible class”. They mention that because of constraints on their time, they could only play for one or two hours a night a few nights a week, and many of them never frequent sites like Polygon (I assume they arrived there on the recommendation of a friend or colleague, then).
The weirdest part is that I check a lot of those boxes myself. Granted, I usually have to force myself to handle the housekeeping aspects of life when I get home from work — cleaning, exercising, cutting the grass, etc. — when I am thinking about how much I’d rather be relaxing while playing Stellaris or Uncharted 4. I don’t get to sit down and play anything until about 7PM, and then I only allow myself to play until about 10PM, lest I find myself unable to get my ass out of bed in the morning. But I do talk about games a lot (exhibit A…), and I’ve curated my Twitter and G+ feeds to include 99.95% other gamers and game companies. Despite these patterns, I still feel like I’m falling into this invisible class because I don’t leave comments, I don’t (usually, or at the level of the most hardcore folks) stream. I only blog here, chat with my small circle of friends, and play my games, which is exactly what Mr. Kuchera claims is the M.O. of this invisible class.
Is it an age thing? Possibly. Getting older generally means less time for leisure as our “adult” responsibilities increase. Supposedly our lives shift on their axes every seven years which means surprise! my 42nd year this year is one of those tilts. I’ve been attributing my supposed decline in interest in gaming to this milestone, which coincides with some random desire to get into woodworking or other alternative hobbies.
Of course, if we’re going to talk “not being mainstream”, then who is the mainstream? I suspect that the stereotypical yet patently incorrect demographic of “young adults” are widely considered to be the mainstream by some. Judging by what we hear about the most from an aggregation of gaming talk, we’re also talking about esports fans and players, streamers and wannabe personalities, and uberfans who only visit sites like Polygon or Kotaku so they can argue amongst themselves in the comments. But do these kinds of people really qualify as “mainstream”? And if so, mainstream to whom?
The article talks about the majority of people who game being invisible to the industry itself, which is telling in a lot of ways. Say we have two camps: the vocal minority, and the much larger, much more silent majority. The industry will only hear from the minority, but they’ll feel the impact of both groups as both groups purchase their goods. What can the industry do for and because of the camp that forms the bulk of their largess in order to hone their marketing machine? Absolutely nothing. All they know is that their game is or isn’t selling. They’ll certainly know about those who harass or praise their products on Twitter, which is why you’ll see companies “favoring” through RTs those who Tweet about their streams or the good things they have to say about their products. For everyone else, the industry has absolutely no way to tell why the silent majority bought their product, what they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it, and most importantly, what they the developer can do for those people to make it more likely that they buy the next installment.
Honestly, reading this as I write it, I suddenly understand better why the industry is so gun-shy about taking risks when they can’t even explain why their success are successful. The best they can do is cleave as close to the previous formula as possible without being entirely derivative, and hope to gawd that lightning strikes twice.
From the perspective of the invisible, then, is there a benefit, or a downside to being all consumer and not an uberfan? Yes on both counts, I think. The benefit is that I’m sure the most extreme invisible gamers are far more sane than the rest of us strictly because they aren’t inhaling the fumes of Gamergate or whatever controversy the community is perpetually fermenting. Games don’t rile them up. But on the flip side, they only take what’s made available to them, and if they don’t like the pickings, then they get nothing — which is fine by them, of course, because it’s obvious that the most intense invisible gamer can take it or leave it. Unfortunately, their selection is created by the mercy of developers who can only acquiesce to those who shout the loudest, which is a specific way of saying “you can’t complain if you didn’t vote”. Again, I don’t think these invisible folks care because, well, they don’t care at the level where they’d care.
My logic is getting circular here, so I’m going to put a nail in this one. It’s an interesting perspective, and probably one that was understood but only in a “seen from the corner of your eye” kind of way. It’s hard to imagine that every single person who bought Call of Duty or Fallout 4 was a banner-carrying uberfan; if that were the case, gamers would be swarming over everything, everywhere, and anecdotal evidence shows that it is not the case. So there’s a bottom part of the iceberg to this hobby composed of people who just like to play video games but who don’t care to live video games like the rest of us do. There’s something very Zen in that, I think…1229 words into this video game themed post on this video game themed blog. I don’t think I’ve got the knack for being quite that mellow about the hobby, so I guess I’m not as invisible as I thought I might be.