Versus Mode: Original IPs, Abstract Characters, Female Gamers, and More

GC writers Gina Holechko and Danielle Symonds-Yemm discuss whether original IPs can be successful anymore, whether abstract characters make the best heroes, and more.

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okamiYou know her from Link’s Burden: Time to Save the World Again, and you know the other her from Games for the Casual Gamer. That’s right! This month in Versus Mode it’s:

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Gina Holechko vs. Danielle Symonds-Yemm!

1. It’s more socially acceptable to be a gamer now than it was 10 years ago.

Gina Holechko“Perhaps the biggest factor in the industry’s success during 2006 wasn’t the glossy hardware or the cutting-edge games but instead a subtle shift in the once-geeky public perception of the gamer persona. Consumers just don’t feel so strange about buying or playing videogames anymore.” — Joystiq.com

According to the incredibly knowledgable ABC News, the videogame industry’s record-setting sales in 2007 can be attributed to a public perception shift. That’s right: Us gamers are warm, cuddly teddy bears. No longer the image of the proverbial dirty loser. We all want to be your friend and, at the same time, blow your heads off in Halo with a sniper rifle.

This kind of mindless media propaganda almost makes me wonder if Bill Gates is sitting somewhere in a gigantic office with a whole bunch of corporate “can do” employees crying out, “This is the key to launching Xbox 720. Let’s make everyone believe this type of behavior is normal for all. Quick! Get the people at Disney to write some obscure article on a Web site.”

Let’s look at some hard facts here. Videogames ten years ago didn’t look or sound like much. This isn’t true anymore, and that helps a lot when you’re spending fifty dollars on little Billy’s birthday present. Better-looking product means higher sales, no matter how you crunch the numbers.

In general, the type of people who once played videogames were usually middle-class white males trying to enjoy the fact that they understood what a computer program was while the rest of the world was still half stuck in the 19th century. (This is not to say that we aren’t somewhat still.) It was a smaller industry, and the culture of technophilia had not yet taken full root. In short, you could negatively stereotype a videogame player a lot easier in those days.

True, the videogame industry, like culture in general, has grown with the times. There are more people now who know what a videogame basically does. But honestly, where are the Gallop polls and in-depth researchers’ thoughts on this matter? Not everyone who is buying or playing videogames today necessarily are accepted. And I mean the word “ACCEPTED” like when you get into college at Harvard or Yale.

When it comes to videogame technology, there is a serious generation gap—hell, I can’t even explain to my parents, who are younger baby boomers I might add, how the heck a DVR works!

It’s from this generation gap that most of the negativity is derived, and it’s been maintained in terms of public perception about the gamer persona being unacceptable.  The gamer is seen as socially misanthropic for not engaging the family structure and engaging in an activity that is mainly pursued in isolation. Gaming itself is a product of a youth culture and is mainly associated with children amongst the majority of adults I come in contact with. How many parents have you talked to in a Gamestop who have no idea what they’re buying for their kids? I know I’ve met plenty. The parents are just there to cough up the dough.

So even if technology has become more accessible and convenient I don’t believe it will ever shake its rebel rouser youthful image. Videogames represent a virtual world of story, which means, in essence, that it’s an art form. Art will always be misunderstood by most since it doesn’t represent what people generally value. Videogames represent the values of two very new cultures: youth culture and technophilia. You add art on top of all of that and I can’t say any true videogamer will be finding a lot of influence and friends among the jockstraps and horsie set.

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Danielle Symonds-Yemm: Yep! And I guess that’s simply because the times are a’changing. Let’s face it: When we think of “the gamer,” our minds are plagued with stereotypes—tragic images of nerds with basin haircuts and thick black glasses (ahem) who hide in their parents’ basements all day doing nothing but trying to beat their last score. But of course, with the games that are doing the rounds nowadays, does such a stereotype exist anymore?

Probably, though it’s not quite as huge. Gaming is becoming more mainstream, what with widely-publicised games and hype over newly-released consoles. Of course it’s “socially acceptable” to be an owner of an Xbox 360 or Wii (*cough*) or whatever is next on the list of must-haves. Actually, isn’t that like a social MUST these days?

Gaming is probably considered quite normal now. Heck, I’ve got a big WoW tattoo and nobody’s hurled an (offline) insult my way yet.

The old gamer stereotype probably comes into play when you’re NOT just a casual gamer perusing the charts in Gamestation. Nope, it’s when you’re really and truly into gaming and always have been, right from the beginning. When you’ve tried out every console known to man. When you turn down the hottest new game for something old with tinny music.

Not that it should actually matter, of course. People have always been game enthusiasts, just like others have been movie enthusiasts and, well, train-spotters. I for one am a book enthusiast, and distinctly remember a similar question: “Do you think it’s more socially acceptable for teens to read now that Harry Potter’s trendy?” Cue the bored sigh.

Yeah, there are some of us “book nerds” who read all the time. Pity it takes a hype to make it “cool.”

2. It’s almost impossible for an original game to be a financial success.

Gina: I must say I can’t speak on this topic without being a little biased. In terms of artistic games, Okami takes the cake. It borrows its artistic style heavily from gorgeous ancient Japanese ukiyoe paintings, and the storyline itself is a retelling of a classic Japanese myth. It doesn’t surprise me for this reason alone that the game was poorly received in Japan. We have our myths here in America, too, some of them heavily borrowed from other cultures granted, but there is far more curiousity in America to embrace another culture’s myths since we have so few of our own, Big Foot and Grey Aliens aside.

But otherwise, Okami didn’t sell well because it’s very, very abstract. Even for a seasoned player like myself, Okami asks the gamer to really think outside of the box and think more like an artist than a gameplayer. Which is innovative, but I didn’t really feel like it was a game. As I played it, I felt like I was being exposed to a very intimate storytelling experience, which means it surpassed “game” in my mind. And yes, this is a compliment. If the videogame indsutry continues to produce art, maybe it will be taken more seriously by the political apparatus in this country.

But unfortunately, a lot of people who play videogames are not playing for intimate experiences. They are looking for the immediate pay off. (Get me into that one room so I can blow the guy’s head off!) But as far as original games not being financially successful, in general I feel Okami is a rather extreme example. When Valkyrie Profile came onto the scene, I never thought such an artistic and different RPG would see any sequel. Yet Valkyrie Profile 2’s: Silmeria outsold the New Super Mario Bros. when it came onto the market in Japan last summer. And I can easily say I don’t find it the traditional RPG in terms of concept or gameplay mechanics. So artistic orginal games can make it financially.

So as sad as I feel for Atsushi Inaba’s little monologue on being the artist who lost out, I think he needs to recognize that he may have made games that emphasize experience more than gameplay. And to get high sales, for any game, you really need to focus on the gameplay and then work out from there. This isn’t to say I don’t have my copy at home all shiny and lovingly held, but to be successful in ANY business you need to balance the art with the product’s intent. You tip the scale and often something suffers.

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Danielle: Granted, up until now I hadn’t heard of Okami (yeah, put me in the stocks and hurl the tomatoes. Heaven knows I haven’t had a decent face mask in ages.) But I guess it’s all to do with the marketing and how it’s promoted. Personally I don’t think it’s entirely impossible for something original to be a big hit, but it all depends on marketing mastery. And if you’re battling for the limelight with a whole host of other titles, then it’s down to the creators (and of course, the kick-ass PR sorts that they’re BOUND to hire, right?) to ensure that it gets the best coverage. Maybe sometimes it comes down to the fact that people aren’t necessarily after “original.” They often prefer similar. Or I might just be wrong….

3. Abstract characters make for the best videogame heroes because they’re easier for players to relate to.

GinaIf I played as Triangle Man for a whole entire game, I think I would get pretty damn tired of looking at that triangle. Outside of that, do you really want me to get into the whole racial identification stuff? Because that is like a can of worms with the black plague on top ready to be opened. But if you all don’t mind a little Bubonic fun, here we go!

It depends upon who’s playing the game and that person’s individual qualms and prejudices. There may be an older white male playing a golf game who doesn’t want to play Tiger Woods, so he’ll select someone closer to the color he likes. There may be someone who abhors Link in that awful forest green tunic and thus change him into the red one, even if he isn’t in the fire temple. So past the superficial aesthetics stuff, which as you can see is mainly based on preference, it comes down to identifying character qualities. Link is destined a hero. Everyone wants to feel heroic, generally, because it bolsters self-image. Ergo, Legend of Zelda games hugely popular.

So there are pyschological payoffs here that go way beyond just the visual makeup of a character. Even if, as a player, we do want to easily project ourselves upon the character we play so we can feel more entrenched in the game, I think most gamers are intellectual enough to identify with the character/personality/motivation of the avatar they are playing before the visual.

I’m sorry, but I will never look like Lara Croft and, frankly, I don’t want to. Princess Peach is cute, but my being a girl doesn’t mean I want to play as her. I still like playing more with Luigi.Well Luigi is kind of girly…maybe those blasted scientists are right! I am always looking for myself in a videogame.

But then again, it may be that the comic book industry is hurting so much that Scott McCloud’s “Seminal work on comics” is just trying to help out our graphic artists from going the way of the extinct dinosaur with a few character buliding tips. Otherwise, I won’t be playing against circle man miniboss any time soon…unless you cut a triangle in his mouth and call him Pac-Man.

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Danielle: Hmm, I’m not too sure. Surely the best way to go is the opposite? Call me cynical here, but I’ve never really “related” to a specific character, or wanted to for that matter. I like playing someone who isn’t me. Whereas the article in question seems to focus more on race in videogames, I have not really seen a problem, unless of course, that’s simply because I haven’t played enough games in my lifetime to be instantly irked by such an issue—or when I recently got back into gaming, I chose to play online games that allowed me to CREATE new characters, over which I had more power and could make said character look how I wished, to a certain extent. Of course, as the article also states, some games do buy into the cultural stereotypes (the whole “gangstas and guns” thing is boring. Next!) but let’s face it, there are stereotypes in every medium of entertainment

I mean, come on—how would we take it if games suddenly started becoming politically correct?

4. It’s incorrect to say that you “beat” a videogame.

Gina: One day I started talking to my boyfriend about “flipping” my first videogame, and he looked at me like I was talking about quantum physics and subatomic particle densities. (Which means, in this case, that he was completely enamoured and even more in love with me than the first time we met, but that’s beside the point.)

He didn’t understand what I meant. The phrase was an idiom that me and my gaming friends had used for years, and I really had never given it a second thought.

Completing a game has always been a landmark for any gamer. Everyone remembers the first game they completed…and how rough it was and how many hours they put in and where they were at the time and who was with them to celebrate their achievement; it was a victory. With such conflict and drama, it is a war against that little console and so hence the terms of victory can be nothing short of “beating” the enemy. Mr. Ward, creative director of Criterion, clearly has spent too much time in board rooms discussing software quality and licensing papers to really understand how important it is for a gamer to feel that he or she “beat” a game.

I can completely understand why someone wants to say they “beat” the game. It is an apt metaphor. But, once again, we come back to preference. I don’t beat a game, I flip it since I feel I’ve turned over its whole idea in my mind. Would Mr. Ward tell me that was as silly as saying, “Geez, did you flip your CD in the machine? If you did, now you won’t be able to play it! Hahaha.”

Yes, literally interpreting things will really make you popular with the gaming peoples Mr. Ward. The fundamentalist Christians will love you at their next review of Genesis.

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Danielle: Ooh, a question of correct speech. Well basically, it all depends on the context in which you use it. I much prefer to use words such as “finished,” “completed,” though there’s nothing wrong with “beat.” “The bloody [CENSORED] beat me!” is quite a common one in my house. Just make sure you use it properly!

Hmm, I think a gamer thesaurus is in order. What say you?

5. Women who play videogames are substantially more sexually promiscuous than other women.

Gina: LOL. Well, being a female gamer who is slowly but surely reaching her sexual peak, I wish I was getting half the action these two hundred ladies say they are getting. Although I would imagine they are probably getting more sexual opportunity since they are hanging around nerdy men who play videogames. This is no small thing to say. It has been proven male nerds in IT, probably avid gamers as well, receive far more sex in a year than most other men. Don’t believe me…clicky linky: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2001/04/18/nerds_are_rampant_sex_machines/

So female gamers inevitably will hang around with male gamers, and, well, something has to give somewhere. How else do you burn off all that frustration from not being able to pass Gears of War on its hardest mode? (No pun intended.)

So are female gamers easy game…au contraire. They are just enjoying the nerdy drive of their male counterparts who feel deprived from years of watching too many episodes of She-Ra and Thundercats. They could only imagine Liono got him some Chetarah. But now, its real. This, of course, isn’t to say I’m not incredibly horny right now, but, honestly, sometimes I would just rather game.

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Danielle: Of course we are. And it’s not because we’re easy.

It’s because we’re irresistible.

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