Hail to the Hard Core

In my time on this Earth I have often been accused of taking things too seriously. As I’ve grown older and seen more of the world, I have tried to keep a tighter hold on my tendency to do this because if there is anything I have learned it’s that no matter how seriously you take something, there is always some guy living in a basement somewhere who is working much harder that you are.

I have found this to be especially true in gaming. I think this is why I find the behavior of the so-called “hard core” gamer so strange and fascinating at the same time. Core gamers are a group of people are like me on the surface: we both like video games. What is striking is that they are alien to me in almost every other possible way.

The most obvious difference between me and a hard core guy is that I suck. I’m just really bad. I’m the guy who you really don’t want to be the fourth on your Gears of War team unless you need a quick decoy to run out into the middle of the map to draw out the other team in a frenzy of chainsaw action. I’m slow. I have a bad sense of direction. The controls do not come naturally to me.

One reason I suck is that I don’t like to play hard games. I am not in this to beat the game. I am in this to see how the game turns out. I don’t mind hard games. I’m happy to let other people play them. Hard core players, on the other hand, seem genuinely offended by the idea of an easy game. They complain about how newer games are too easy, or how Blizzard nerfs the game in some way every time they update it. Or how Oblivion is just a retarded first person shooter because of the little compass thing that tells you where to go next.

I don’t understand complaints like this. It seems like we are put on this Earth to play the games the developers develop, and if we don’t like what they do, we are free to ignore them. It’s not like there is any shortage of titles to go searching through while looking for something that matches your particular taste. If the game is pissing you off, stop playing it. But the core gamer set seems to work much harder at actively disliking games or gaming trends that they find distasteful.

A lot of recent forum angst has been targetted at Nintendo, who now stands accused of “abandoning” the hard core. Apparently the fear is that Nintendo has made such a killing by selling people games that they actually enjoy that soon the entire industry is going to try and copy them and start making crappy knockoffs of Wii Sports instead of the crappy knockoffs of products from Valve or Rockstar or Bungie that they make now. Thus, the hard core gamer will be deprived of “real games”, and instead be forced to play shallow game-like skeletons that lack “depth” and “maturity”. Forums and blogs all over the Internets were buzzing with these thoughts in the wake of the Wii Fit announcement. Even the usually intelligent Gamers With Jobs got into the act here in their post-E3 podcast.

Nintendo has correctly been ignoring these people. I say correctly because these are the same people who wrote Nintendo off a decade ago for making nothing but candy-colored kids games, when in fact Nintendo was creating some of the most enduring and brilliant gaming experiences of the time. Nintendo owes these people nothing, and it’s incredible to me that they can have such an inflated sense of entitlement as to complain that Nintendo’s future directions do not include their interests. I say that Nintendo should follow the course that their well-developed instincts have set for them. It’s more important for them to continue to create their own unique brand of experience than to try and cater to people who don’t understand what they are doing.

Of course, if Nintendo is abandoning the hard core, this means they are embracing the so-called “mainstream”. To me, this is a fabulous idea. It will make them money. It will force them to make games that can be stripped of the historical chains of awkward user interfaces or cripplingly stupid gameplay conventions. I say bring it on.

Many core gamers see this differently. The mainstream is looked upon with a high level of suspicion. The terms used to describe mainstream games, when not actively hostile, are often tinged with a certain level of condescension. Thus, the overused moniker of “casual games” has been thrown around as the next big thing, the implication being that there is a second class of player in the world who is not to be taken seriously except as a source of commerce because he will only play a game “casually.” Casual games are seen as simplified shallow minigames that you only need to use half a brain to play. While certainly useful as a way to unwind after that 15 hour raiding session with 60 of your favorite World of Warcraft buddies, they aren’t “real” games. They are only casual.

I don’t like this term because I think it sets up a false hierarchy of gamers and gaming experiences. At the top of this hierarchy, of course, are the hard core gamers and their favorite games. According to them, they deserve to be up on top because they are the most dedicated and the most knowledgeable people in the industry and their favorite games are deep, complex explorations of mature themes like how many times you can shoot someone in the testicles. The mainstream experience they claim, will be watered down, diluted, or dumbed down in order to appeal to the unwashed masses. In other words, moving to the mainstream is a threat to the high brow, challenging core gamer experience.

Well, I don’t think so. First, I disagree wth the premise that the current core gamer experience is anything to be high and mighty about. But that ground has been covered before. Second, I am old enough to have lived through the mainstreaming of several technical industries from computer hardware to desktop software to The Internet. As each one lurched into the public consciousness, there was a lot of hue and cry about letting the barbarians into the gates of paradise. My observation, in general, is that letting in the barbarians forces you to really fix things that are wrong with what you do. And this is a good thing. The mainstreaming of gaming will be no different. Yes, some old and beloved products may fall by the wayside. Yes, the industry may not always build what you would like them to build. Yes, we’ll get our share of cynical cash grabs and questionable business practices. But, I am optimistic that if we can put away that whiny sense of Internet forum entitlement, in twenty or thirty years we’ll look up and be surrounded by a set of gaming experiences that we can’t even imagine now.