Community is a word that is used continually when referring to the Internet. Almost as though it had not existed prior to 2000. Social Networks have proliferated and with it have dragged the reluctant and the misanthropic into a mire of engagement that leads to high expectations and failed attempts to connect. Community therefore has become a ‘grey area’, that is as fluid as those who make up each node jarring against the next. Personal cliques give way to a myriad of on-line niches, groups, forums and fan-sites.
Wikipedia identifies a clique as being ” …an exclusive group of people who share interests, views, purposes, patterns of behavior, or ethnicity” whilst a community (in biological terms at least) is described as “…a group of interacting organisms sharing an environment”. This therefore leads to the question: Does a community of gamers exist? Or is it simply a clutch of cliques?
Being a gamer in 2009 is a highly complex, expensive and involved endeavour.
Let me caveat that comment. Being a dedicated gamer involves a lot of time and effort. Therefore it could be surmised that gamers, united through adversity would be unified in the enjoyment of a common goal. As Seth Godin might say a ‘tribe’. A community perhaps? Nothing could be further from the truth, gamers as an audience are highly stratified, competitive and parochial. Even the act of purchasing a video game is fraught with tension and, in some cases derision.
In the UK (bricks and mortar) game retail is split into a number of different experiences. Non Specialist high street retail is an odd and soulless experience, where games are towards the back of the store, whilst the front line releases shout at you from the front of store racking. As music continues to wane in importance for retailers and consumers alike, DVDs provide the cash cow, and set the tone for the rest of the store. Staff are often apathetic, uninformed and dispassionate. Rare enthusiasts are to be cherished.
Specialist retailers are split into a couple of subdivisions: the larger chains and the indies. By far the most engaging and interesting experiences are to be found in stores like CEX on Rathbone Place, London. CEX has 86 stores in the UK, but has still, in the ones I visit at least still managed to distill the essence of what makes an interesting and alarming retail experience.
Upon entering the store there are a number of things you notice, firstly the corrugated Mad Max/generic Sci-Fi spacecraft style flooring reminiscent of an 80s nightclub that had been done out purely inspired by ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome“. The walls are lined with an adhoc collection of games, all second hand, all of which are jumbled, erroneous and slightly tatty looking. Once this has assailed your visual senses, and you struggle to determine which part of the Thunderdome houses the staff, you are assaulted by one of two things: Dated sounding drum and bass circa ‘Super Sharp Shooter’ Era or ‘Extreme Metal’. These two are often placed together in an unwieldy (yet compelling) mixtape combination. The music is always too loud and is only broken by the theatrical stage laughter of the staff (who appear to be having the time of their lives). Their attitude towards you exemplifies the best tradition of ‘record shop culture’. The basic tenents of which are ‘always presume you know more than the customer’, ‘always try to be cleverer or cooler than your customers’ and ‘wherever possible look like you’d rather be somewhere else’. CEX, Rathbone Place has this down to a fine art and for that it should be applauded. Buying a game there is an odd, frustrating and exciting process. That said it is the perfect antidote to the anodyne experience of other retailers.
These experiences illustrate a key fact. Gamers are entirely lacking in empathy for others who share their passion. Instead of providing a fetile breeding ground for the gaming community, they simply serve to amplify the differences. The culture of video games seems to be created upon competition between platforms, franchises, genres and even regions. Fanboys proliferate flame wars at will, the net provides a breeding ground of sneering and name calling and print magazines appeal to niches separated by platform. Connected game-play environments such as Xbox LIVE provide a crucible for animosity to fester and be made flesh.
Xbox LIVE is not community, despite the fact that each of it’s users shares a common interest. For that matter neither is Myspace or Faceboook as they are all simply collections of individuals connected by technology. The interactions that take place do not signify that it is a community, but a network. At worst Xbox LIVE is a place filled with venomous young men desperate to instill their values and vent their frustration in a digital form. At best it can provide an architecture that can house a persistent world like Paradise City. Xbox LIVE provides a connected game-play environment and a retail experience. Neither of these are indicators of a community. Xbox LIVE is a platform for an audience.
The continued differences between casual and hardcore gamers, the elevation and continuation of the console wars and the race towards new input methods will all contribute to the stratifcation and alienation of the different segments of the collective gaming audience.
As games strive towards mass media acceptance with increasing marketing budgets and development cycles, it seems like the audience is splintering into a universe of mass non-conformity lacking an overarching objective that can drive and unify the audience into a community. Is there any coincidence that there has not yet been a successful social network built upon a shared passion for games?
Gaming Community? The words themselves feel like an oxymoron.