Between 2010 and 2014 the traditional gaming media could be broken up into two broad camps: the Old Guard and the New Elite. These were not opposing factions, but rather each was sympathetic to the other. In many cases the Old Guard mistook the New Elite for their successors, even as it became increasingly obvious their goals were not the same.
The New Elite wants and needs a better, less white, less male audience. This audience which they imagine for themselves isn’t bound by culture or gender, and as such is potentially much wider than the regressive white male nerds they are reluctantly servicing.
It’s what you would call, in business, a Blue Ocean strategy: an attempt to expand one’s audience at the cost of alienating a portion of the older and hopefully smaller audience. The New Elite is operating on the assumption that gaming is the way it is because they haven’t had the opportunity to exercise their transformative power on it. While their legion has many members with various motives, some of whom are out and out shysters, it would be better to focus on the ones who are relatively serious. The serious ones were there first and actually believe they have a chance to make the world a better place, and the prize for doing so is respect as a journalist and its attendant status. This same fire drives, to a greater or lesser degree, all journalists. The difference is what change they are trying to effect and whose respect they are trying to earn. The Old Guard wanted to make games better and earn the respect of their readers. The New Elite wants to change what gaming is and by doing so earn the respect of their own peers and, often, of third parties in the culture war. In their quest for status they encountered an expected, yet major and potentially insurmountable barrier: respect.
The level of respect accorded to different kinds of reportage vary widely. Journalistic greats doing actual reporting of real events are the pinnacle of journalism and have more status than even a gold-standard film critic such as A. O. Scott. Big name film, music, and literary critics have more status than sports reporters and other entertainment reporters. Then you have the video game journalists who are, to their annoyance, a step below that. At the very bottom of this heap you have people who talk about comic books. People on the comic beat can only comfort themselves with the notion that, if nothing else, at least they aren’t talking about anime.
The larger point here is that for a journalist video games are a dead-end in terms of them changing the world, being relevant, or garnering respect. Journalists without an overblown sense of self importance and a basic love of the medium knew what they were getting into from the start, and were happy with their lot. No one is going to make movies about their courage or sing their praises in the mead halls of the elite, but they were doing something they loved and that was enough. Many of them accumulated, along the way, a deep well of knowledge about the medium. Those people are what you would call the Old Guard, and many of them are still around.
The New Elite has a plan. Since games are a relatively young medium there is an outside chance that they’ll become an artistically legitimate form of entertainment alongside books, movies, music, and other established, official Art. This event, which is a sort of journalistic Rapture, will present huge rewards to the people who appear to have initiated it, and anyone nearby, really.
This is what the New Elite wants and works towards, and as a theory it explains most of their seemingly counterproductive behavior. They believe that through their efforts they can elevate the medium to a place where it becomes respectable, visionary, and mainstream, instead of the official distraction of children and man-children. This is why the New Elite descended on games at the very moment they appeared on the cusp of mainstream acceptance.
Their need for mainstream acceptance presents a few problems for the NE. The audience of their reporting is unfortunately and overwhelmingly male. They can lie to themselves (and us) by citing misleading statistics which conflate the women who play Farmville or Candy Crush with the men who have bought and devoured every iteration of Age of Empires or Heroes of Might and Magic. The truth of the matter is that gaming is a male-dominated pursuit at present and in the past.
The terrifying thing for the New Elite is that it might always be. Sports are, and the reasons that sports appeal to men have many significant overlaps with why video games do, not the least of which is that sports are games. If that’s the case, they will never achieve real legitimacy as journalists. It is vitally important to the New Elite that video games cease to be a nerdy backwater as soon as possible. Their motives for doing this are pure as new snow, since we’re the regressive ones holding everything back. Without the nerdy men (and Vichy women who have internalized misogyny and therefore don’t count) who actually enjoy and play games as they are, the medium would be free to ascend into the heavens.
If video games are to be transformed, we first have to establish what they are. What is a video game, and what is it not? A book is primarily a thing to be read, a movie is primarily a thing to be watched. A game, then, is primarily a thing to be played. The art of video games is in the gameplay. The story of a game, the visual appearance, the music—these may be art in their own right, but they absolutely do not make the game art. They are their own forms of art, and collectively form the presentation of the game. The presentation of a game is important but it’s certainly not the art of a game, which is the gameplay.
This seemingly obvious point is purposefully missed time and again by the New Elite. Games which are accessible and vaguely resemble art people already understand are the way forward for them, for multiple reasons.
The first and most relevant of these is the problematic identity of the people who fundamentally enjoy gameplay. Some people are mentally wired to enjoy competition and systematizing, two core aspects of gameplay. Most of these people are men. But even if you added up all the men and women who had a high degree of this type of personality, it still wouldn’t be a majority of the population. This is a double bind for a group of people whose stated goal is to make gaming for everyone and especially women.
You can make a game for a mass audience only by stripping out and dumbing down everything that makes it its own form of art. The art of a game is in the play. Is this an elitist notion? Sort of. The individual complexities and triumphs of a particular piece of art are only appreciable by the initiated. The masterpieces of gaming are bound to be inaccessible to many, or actually most, people. This is even more true than in other forms of art. If you aren’t understanding the paintings you’re viewing, the curator doesn’t take you back to the entrance.
Both men and women enjoy books, movies, and television because the ability to fully enjoy a story is not sex-limited. At most they have products designed for different demographics. Men like a certain kind of story, women like a certain kind of story, and some stories have crossover appeal. Even in the cases of a man being dragged out to a chick flick, the gulf is not so great as to prevent understanding and even enjoyment.
Can you say the same for gameplay? The percentage of women who enjoy gameplay in the same way and to the same degree that men do is small and apt to remain so. It’s at least small enough that the New Elite won’t be satisfied with it. It’s not the fault of cultural factors. Men like games, in some cases, more than anything. Pathology? Sometimes. But it’s a common one for men and boys.
I’m hardly the only one who believes this gameplay-as-inherently-sexist theory. Judging by their actions, the New Elite does as well. Year after year they continue to champion and make games with simplistic gameplay or even no gameplay. Their calling cards are 2d platformers, visual novels, choose your own adventure, and so-called walking simulators. It’s no coincidence that these things are heavy on presentational elements, or even totally dependent on them, since if games are to become truly mainstream the presentational elements will have to come to the fore. Games which are 2d are also easier on women, who on average have a lower degree of spatial reasoning by a standard deviation. Are these games necessarily bad? Of course not. Should people stop making them? No. Should women get out of gaming if they can’t into space? No. Should we be be skeptical when games fitting this profile are forwarded as the pinnacle of the artform? Yes.
In this push for simplicity and accessibility they are joined by elements of the Old Guard astroturfing ‘geek culture’ such as your Wheatons and Days. They were sort of a proto-New Elite, since they were pushing inclusivity and mass-acceptance before, but lacked the political angle. The third member of this axis is corporate interests operating in the core demographic, which have every reason to want expand their market share. If acceding to the New Elite’s puritanical demands might open up a new market, they’ll give it a shot, even if the truth is that getting rid of boob plate is about as wise as putting the men on romance novel covers in burkas because some MRAs told you they would read. Meanwhile the Old Guard itself was sympathetic to their goals, and remains so, which is why they have done such a terrible job of defending their readers, their brands, and their artform from this band of socjus apparatchiks.
Between these three incestuous factions, the complacency of the Old Guard, and a broad swathe of useful idiots, they managed to seize a substantial portion of the cultural high ground. The only people who didn’t like them were the ones they wanted to destroy: large parts of their audience. Before GG broke out, discontent with their heavy-handedness had been bubbling up for a while, especially in places where their proselytizing was unwelcome and out of place. ‘Gamers are dead’ was the simultaneous declaration of open war by the New Elite on their detractors, issued at the height of their power.
Unlike previous generations of gaming journalists who loved games and accepted, even cherished, their humble role in the world, the New Elite aspires to more. Once we’re gone, things will be far less problematic.
As the possibility of mainstream acceptance and the transformation of games recedes in the distance they will start jumping ship for greener political pastures. In a few cases this has already happened, as with the developers of Sunset. The ones who actually do like video games (a minority) will concentrate in specialized containment publications where the rest of us can easily avoid them. A particular example of this effect is the departure of Patrick Klepek from Giant Bomb to Kotaku. While the circumstances behind this move are unknown, Klepek’s ability to balkanize and burn down the community with his divisive hectoring couldn’t have made him feel welcome in a space which prided itself on being relaxed and informal.
In Bubsy 3d: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective, at one point Bubsy muses to himself:
Light has its own thingness. If you are using light to tell a story, you are using the power of a story, not the power of light.
My objection to the New Elite is that they want to wield the power of games to advance their own agendas. Gameplay is too apolitical and inaccessible to affect this, and because of their egos they are not content to simply erect a separate stage and make their own. That would be completely acceptable, and I might even play some of them and entertain the ideas contained within… as long as the gameplay was there. The problem is they want to take the main stage, and their understanding of the artform is too malformed and ignorant to allow this. The real irony is that if they were given the main stage, gaming would—far from flowering into a glorious mainstream artform—collapse into irrelevance.
Their insecurity and the source of much of their apparent anger lay in the niggling suspicion that they have made a bad investment. Is it possible they’ve hitched their egos to something that isn’t, progressively speaking, going anywhere?