Recently I sat on a panel at a games event where the organisers were discussing ways to attract more people to their festival, and lowering the intimidation barrier to make games culture more welcoming. The panellists talked about their experience with diversity initiatives and ways to spark non-gamer interest in playable exhibitions.
The conversation solicited feedback from the audience, and was mostly fruitful. But at one point a young man raised his hand and said he didn’t like the idea of accessibility. He described how much less he would enjoy Dark Souls if it were friendlier. As he spoke, one of a row of men who’d had their arms crossed throughout shouted a supportive “woo!”
Of course, his point wasn’t really relevant to the discussion, which wasn’t about making hard games easy or diluting traditional videogames but about how to share a passion for games with others who may be less exposed to them or have preconceptions about them. Other participants tried to get the discussion back on track, but nearly every one of them preceded their statements with the reinforcement that they liked Dark Souls, they really did, but other people might find it too intimidating. It’s as if they felt expressing a preference for easier, more welcoming games would somehow rob them of their credibility.
Now, I like Dark Souls, I really do. But that turn in the conversation crystallised some thoughts I’ve had since reading argumentative comments on articles I’ve written calling for more diversity in gaming. Oh my goodness, I thought: people associate accessibility and diversity with the ‘dumbing down’ of an entire medium. How did that happen?
I remember the mass exodus just a few years ago of traditional developers and experienced studio execs into the mobile and social space, which at its outset was highly focused on Facebook. These developers were entering a stage of life when marriage and family meant it no longer suited them to work the usual long hours. But more than that, they no longer had the time themselves to invest in the all-consuming 40-hour games they used to make.
The Facebook boom heralded an uncomfortable identity crisis in the developer community, coinciding with the rise of Zynga. Why take years of skill, experience and faith in the medium of design, and work on products designed to forcibly monetise consumers through friction and pinch points? It wasn’t just the industry’s moral unease with social game monetisation, though. It was hard to admire endless cartoonish requests for farm goods and not see the player as a bug-eyed bobblehead eager for White Mystery Eggs.
Even though traditional houses like Electronic Arts bought into the Zynga-led ecosystem, the Facebook bubble has clearly since burst, validating a lot of those early concerns about the integrity and viability of that kind of game design. But while Facebook developers were still searching for a moral centre in their dubious work, many kept coming back to one common statement: they wanted to make games their mum would like, and isn’t your mum a valid audience member?
The ‘mum audience’ became the flag around which Facebook developers tried to rally, and when problems emerged in the business and design of ‘social’ games, perhaps it’s understandable that some gamers, leery of Facebook to begin with, began to associate ‘appealing to women’ with tacky design.
Remember the Wii launch conference? At the unveiling of Nintendo’s family-friendly machine, fans were baffled by the lack of news on beloved brands in favour of the console as a health device. The pitch for a wider audience felt like a kind of betrayal to long-term gamers. It turns out that motion controllers had a fairly short-lived popularity arc, with limited long-term applications. Nintendo’s struggle to convert Wii owners into Wii U owners seems to support the idea that a lot of new audiences bought a Wii but few developed a long-term relationship with games. Gamers stung by the notion that a game company would appeal to anyone outside their core culture now can point to the interest of ‘outsiders’ as fleeting, gimmicky and irrelevant.
Recent attempts to open up the gaming market to previously unreached players have resulted in disappointment – or at least what serious fans would call disappointment, since the pleasures of the Wii or FarmVille are hardly ‘failures’ just for their impermanence.
What is missing in the conversation is that both the Wii and Facebook are rich with learning experiences about enhancing the mass appeal of games. A handful of social brands still dominate mainstream play, like Candy Crush Saga, and it’s too early to say that social gaming hasn’t played a role in evolving the ways wider audiences can be reached.
But the simplification of the argument – a broader audience is somehow a stupider one – is a misconception that’s constraining our efforts to welcome more diverse perspectives to game development and play. How will we show players and developers that being welcoming doesn’t automatically lead to gimmicky games? That’s the important challenge for the future.
Illustration: Marsh Davies