Posted by: seanmalstrom | February 11, 2009

Email: The Sick Obsession of Culture in the Game Industry

I’ve been enjoying your articles for some time.  I’ve actually been
amazed at the true purpose of Nintendo’s strategy.  Not to mention
they are hilarious.  ^_^

But do you mind if I ask you something?  I’ve read about how crooked
game journalists are in some of your articles.  Are they always full
of ignorance and stupidity?  Many of the games they rate high are
rarely even good or live up to expectations, or just plain suck.  I
rely more on word of mouth than professional reviews, personally, but
still, I can name several titles that didn’t live up to the hype,
mainly GTA4, MGS4 and Bioshock, but I’m not going to drag a list down
for you.

I was subscribed to Game Informer for two years and recently stopped
since the reviewers are so hard headed.  Case in point, they gave The
Club a 8.75 while No More Heroes got a 6.  I knew both reviews were
spouting nonsense, since I lost interest in the Club after a few hours
while No More Heroes was fully enjoyed.

It also seems to be mostly anti Nintendo most of the time The Editor
in Chief says they call out their mistakes out of respect, but this
magazine was infamous for gaining serious hate when they gave Paper
Mario 2 for the Gamecube  a 6.  Journalism is nothing but hype to sell
games like you said, and all they have are a laundry list of excuses.

I already heard about what happened to Electronic Gaming Monthly.
Will game journalism even exist if this keeps up?  Probably not, but
I’m betting that Game Informer will go down next if they keep this up.


Short Answer:

The game industry, especially the core market, has been un-tethered to customers.
There is zero curiosity in the customer and the customers’ lifestyles concerning gaming. There is a consistency that those in the Core Gaming believe that the quality of gaming revolves around their emotional lodestar. It never occurs to them that the customers might have different emotions. Customers are never investigated, never asked, just treated as ‘stupid’ if they don’t feel the same way about a game.

Whatever else Nintendo is, it is a customer orientated company. It seeks to have its games please its customers, not pursue non-customer goals (like “art”). Much of the disdain against Nintendo is disdain against the masses. It is the thinking that the masses are always ‘unrefined’, ‘uncultured’, and just plain dumb.

Before the Wii came out, a game developer had made a very interesting re-make of a popular game. He said he was thinking about bringing it out on Xbox Live Arcade. I put in the comment that he should look into putting it on the online download service for the Revolution since the Revolution would become extremely popular (I was saying this openly back then, hahah). Now, you would expect the ‘Revolution’ to be seen as just another platform for the most part. But this developer, who was friendly and cordial, suddenly became extremely hostile as if a switch had been flipped. He started yelling bizarre insults at the ‘Revolution’. If you’ve ever seen how a man becomes unhinged when his girlfriend leaves him, this was similar response. I’ve never understood it. Though, I can hear such mania in the subtle hostility core developers have in calculated jokes about the Wii. IGN’s unscheduled interview with Epic Games’ president calling the Wii a ‘virus’, and both laughing uproarious fashion, is a good example of this.

I can only conclude that they have become infatuated by the vaporous notion of ‘game culture’ and seek to advance ‘game culture’ and say to Hell with customers (who, to them, are ‘unrefined’ masses anyway).

Long Answer:

Once upon a time, I used to think the ‘product’ of the game magazine was the magazine itself and the customer was the reader. When I saw a perfect score for a bad game, I would go, “This magazine is bad.” In reality, the product was the reader and the customer was the game company. The company somehow influences the magazine to place a perfect score so readers will go out and immediately buy the game. It goes to show how stupid many game companies think you are.

With that type of business model, of course the game journalist isn’t going to be responding to what the readers want (if the readers are the products and not the customers). With that said, it is clear game journalists appear to have a type of ‘chip’ on their shoulder, a type of counter-culture attitude. When I read these game journalists, and see what they do, I feel like I am stuck in an eternal 16-bit generation where Sega Genesis ads keep looping over and over.

Have you seen those shows like Entertainment Tonight or other shows where you have someone ‘interview’ movie stars or directors and had clips of incoming movies and TV shows? It is the most vapid type of ‘journalism’ in existence. The interviews are entirely creampuff, the ‘reporters’ wear these expensive but luxurious outfits, and the entire atmosphere is as if everyone on the show believes they are enveloped by HIGH CULTURE and are sophisticated just by being there. And then, everyone starts drinking wine.

Game journalists are similar but in a very different way. It seems like the rules they follow are to be advocates of ‘Gaming Culture’.

As someone who writes to communicate ideas, ’culture’ is one of my ‘bad words’. I do not like the word and think its use strangles precise thought as any various political words tend to do. Red flags spring up when any word cannot have a substitute (since in English, there are at least four or five words for one). What is the origin of this word of ‘culture’?

We first hear of ‘culture’ from Immanuel Kant who was commenting about Rousseau when he said it. While the words ‘nation’, ‘civilization’, and ‘society’ are interchangeable, ‘culture’ is not. ‘Culture’ appears to have been something to mock the bourgeois. “You know why he does not go to the opera? It is because he is a member of the bourgeois! And the bourgeois love commerce, not culture!” Culture meant everything that is uplifting and edifying which is not commerce. Culture is the link that makes a rich social life possible with the operas, symphonies, customs, festivals, rituals, gods, and all those that bind individuals into a group with roots of a community in itself. ‘Culture’ is seen as the union between art and life.

The definition of ‘culture’ answered many questions of human nature to me. Why do flocks of people sit, motionlessly, listening to symphonies they do not care to listen to? Why do some people patrol the art houses to climax with the drinking of red wine? Why do people go to the Opera? They all believe they are elevating themselves in ‘culture’.

The ancients did not think this way. To them, the soul of the city was the regime, deliberation about the just and the common good, choices about war and peace, and the making of laws. Today, we study Greek culture, not Athenian politics. Thucydides’ version of Pericles’ Funeral Oration is taken as the archetypical expression of that culture of the Athenian love of beauty and wisdom. But this interpretation, far from enriching us, confirms the filter that the word ‘culture’ creates. Pericles doesn’t praise what we think of Greek Culture, meaning the gods and poetry, but the political regime. Another common example is the casting of ancient Athens as gay day at Disneyland based on a few documents from medicine and some plays. Yet, Athenian law says the death penalty was used for such behavior. In other words, people who read Plato’s Phaedrus do not venture forward enough to read Plato’s Laws.

’Culture’ is a very new idea, or rather, it is not new but a modern label. In the past, most of the differences between people were through religions. Certainly, there were different customs and arts generated by these religions. Islam and Christian cities looked very different and had different routines. Even then, they didn’t even see different ‘religions’ so much as their belief was the truth and others were heresies. Thus, the slightest difference sparked constant wars. What I am saying here is that the word ‘culture’ is not used today as ‘beliefs’ were back then, as seen as truth in itself. ‘Culture’ is always used as a term for lifestyle or customs.

Culture seems to mean everything ‘wonderful’ except two things: commerce and politics (law). Of course, these are the two necessary things to know. Commerce is the knowledge of business. Law is the fruit of politics. Both commerce and law are two sides of the same coin. It is often common to see partners in business that one be the commerce guy and the other be the law guy, such as the pair of Nintendo of America’s Arakawa and Howard Lincoln. Universities have profited handsomely off of selling degrees of ‘culture’ to unwitting students, to make them thousands in debt, before they realize that their art degree won’t do much in the world governed by commerce and law.

The modern life is heavily immersed in commerce. Most people are employees. Lives revolve around work and the commute. There is nothing soul inspiring about this. There is nothing that one would say is ‘art’ about such an existence. No one has erected statues or shrines to the financial statement or to cashflow despite that both are needed to make such ‘art’. It is because of this void, I suspect, that people turn to ‘culture’. The employee, in non-work hours, will become a book reader and fashion himself or herself as reading ‘literature’ instead of the pulp books manufactured from various marketers and publishers. The music listeners and movie watchers believe they are tasting ‘fine arts’, yet, they are quite unwilling to admit they are caught in the same marketing and packaging of commerce they profess to have ‘risen above’.

So, today, everything is culture! If Shakespeare was alive today, he would have Polonius express all the cultures before starting the dumb play. There is the ‘drug culture’. There is the ‘book culture’. There is the ‘vegetarian culture’. There is the ‘meat eating culture’. There is the ‘ipod culture’. There is the ‘hacking culture’. There is the ‘Internet culture’. There is the ‘high school culture’.

And, of course, there is the ‘gaming culture’.

What of the gamer in all this? Children have no need to create ‘game culture’ because they do not work. They just play because it is fun, quite the opposite of school. But as the gamer grows up and gets caught in the workforce, the invention of game culture is a necessary invention. Without it, the gamer would not experience ‘art’ with his games but ‘commerce’ and a waste of time since the gamer isn’t generating money. In this way, the gamer becomes identical to the music listener, movie watcher, and book reader as they imagine vast ‘high cultures’ around their fun.

There is a sick desire in the game industry, including avid gamers and game journalists, for gaming to become ‘artistic’ like movies and music. This sick desire of imitation of the movie industry is truly the desire for culture. The commerce world is seen as flat, stale, soul-less. Reporting games as games would default towards commerce which is the last place where game journalists want to go.

The desire for game culture is the animation of the hardcore, these including game journalists, hardcore gamers, and core game developers. Games like Metal Gear Solid are created to be ‘art’. All the game reviews are not product reviews but reviewer turning into an art critic and saying, “Metal Gear Solid is a wonderful game because of its amazing camera angles.” The hardcore gamer goes, “Woosh! Woosh! Look out! Day one baby! And see how I place my Metal Gear Solid game with my collection? Behold, Internet, my gaming shrine!”

Gaming has de-evolved into gamesmanship. The game developer tries to be ‘more artistic’ and literally makes games in order to impress his colleagues. The hardcore gamers attempt to be the most ‘witty’ and most knowledgeable person on the message forum. This is so he can be enthroned on ‘game culture’. The game journalist tries to be the wittiest person, and is more interested in conversing with other journalists, about the ‘game culture’. You will notice that all the ‘videos’ and podcasts are all dedicated to this purpose.

The hatred for Nintendo, this being the SNES, N64, and Gamecube, is the counterculture gaming hating the originator. Notice that all of Nintendo’s competitors, and I do mean ALL, advertised and marketed themselves as a counterculture: Sega, Sony, and Microsoft. The damnation of Nintendo being ‘kiddy’ and not being ‘adult’ was the damnation of the self-seen ‘high culture’ condemning what they saw as Nintendo’s games being ‘non-culture’. What is seen as ‘elitism’ is really a disassociation. The ‘cultured gamers’ must publicly disassociate from Nintendo to show that they play games for ‘art’ and ‘culture’. Then, they secretly load up the latest Zelda game.

Nintendo fans responded by generating a ‘Nintendo Culture’. The Mario and Zelda games were no longer the fun, whimsical pursuits from the NES and SNES era but described as ‘genius games’ which ‘recreated how games were made’.  In other words, these Mario and Zelda games had much more purpose than mere commerce! The ‘Nintendo Culture’ has become an alchemy that has turned old Nintendo merchandise, from belt buckles, controllers, and shirts, into prized ‘Nintendo Culture’ that people pay dearly for.

But the DS, and largely the Wii, has changed everything. Nintendo is simultaneously ‘destroying the game industry’ and ‘betraying its fans’. ‘Destroying the game industry’ means ‘destroying the game culture’. Incoming Wii Sports fans have no care about ‘game culture’ and this frosts those that have invested emotion into ‘game culture’ (game developers, hardcore gamers, and game journalists). When they damn Brain Age and Wii Sports for being ‘non-games’, they are really saying these games contribute nothing to the ‘game culture’ and intentionally retard it. Nintendo ‘betraying its fans’ really means the DS and Wii ‘destroying’ the ‘Nintendo culture’. Not long after the DS Lite came out, even the Nintendo brand has disappeared from their products.

The desire for ‘culture’ is really nothing more than flight away from commerce. Commerce is said to be soul-less, to not be about human nature, to not be transcendent. This is where people are wrong. The salesman and marketer know more about human nature than the poet. The nature of brand is the badge of a company’s soul. Making soul-less products cheapens the brand, not unlike how a man’s soul-less actions can cheapen his soul.

The Law, as well, is boring, dull, and uncultured unless one looks at it as a lawyer does. Then, the law is exciting, is animated, and the magical stuff of history. The lawyer will chat happily about precedent cases and speak about them in a most romantic air. In the same way, commerce is an explosion of excitement, imagination, and opportunity to the entrepreneur, investor, and business owner. The employee, of course, will only see boredom and desire ‘culture’. (Interestingly, this ‘culture’ the employee desires is marketed and packaged items. The more the product is marketed as ‘culture’, the more expensive it is. This is by no mistake. The employee, leveraged at work, is now fleeced in entertainment.)

The context that is necessary to see the world through the lens of disruption or blue ocean is identical to the entrepreneur and investor. It is like someone saying they hate sailing, but when given a tool of sailors such as the compass or star charts, suddenly, sailing becomes interesting. And that is all that disruption and blue ocean are: tools for the captains of industry to steer their companies to New Worlds and avoid the rocks where shapely sweet sounding sirens sing.

Let the Game Journalists Speak For Themselves

For an exercise, just take a random look at any article or book written by game journalists or even game developers. Almost always, it is about ‘game culture’. It is not about the extremely unique commercial elements that make the game industry so richly profitable but so very tricky. It is not about the nest of patent laws and other deep legal tentacles the game industry is intermeshed. There is no curiosity about the customers of gaming, of how gaming is intertwined with regular people’s lives. In almost every case, we will see the bulk of content be devoted to ‘game culture’. Everyone seems to enjoy inventing new ‘histories’ of the game industry. “Behold, the history of user-generated content.” That could be someone’s new magazine article or chapter in a book. The constant top ten lists also appear to be more ‘game culture’ worship.

Everything Nintendo is doing with the Wii shows that it is not paying any homage to ‘game culture’ but, rather, trying to make new customers and generate new interest. So the common attacks on Nintendo always come down to two things:

”Nintendo is destroying gaming!” That Nintendo is destroying the ‘game culture’.

”Nintendo only wants to make money! [Inserts a Scrooge Mcduck picture and thinks it is clever]” That Nintendo’s only desire is ‘commercial’, to ‘make money’. I’m amazed people don’t think Sony and Microsoft have ‘commercial’ desires. There are people out there who really believe the Xbox 360 or PS3 was put out there, at great cost to Microsoft and Sony, just to ‘progress’ the ‘game culture’.

Another reason for the desire for ‘game culture’ is that it converts all that youth wasted on games into something ‘glorious’. It is like running into an avid movie watcher who doesn’t see himself as watching way too many movies but as reveling into ‘movie culture’ which makes him more sophisticated and worldly… while he spends evenings in dark rooms.

In other entertainment industries, we can see the same phenomenon at work. The movies you probably really love are the movies that ‘critics’ really hate. You might have liked 300, but the critics hated it since it is ‘simplistic’ and has ‘video game graphics’. You might have liked Star Wars, but the critics thought it ruined movies. And the movies the critics love are the ones you will likely hate. “This movie is so sophisticated! Look at how it speaks about this critical issue.” When no one watches these movies, since people prefer having fun with their movies, the critics bitterly argue, “Movie watchers are just so stupid!”

In the book industry, the ‘New York Times Best Seller List’ is intended only for books that critics like. So if a book outsells the ‘important’ books, such as an exercise book in the 1980s, a new list is created just to get that exercise book off of the New York Times Best Seller List. When ‘Harry Potter’ came out, it outsold the critically acclaimed books. So a new list was invented, the Children’s Best Seller List, and ‘Harry Potter’ books got moved off the New York Times Best Seller List. The book industry has collapsed long ago and is an example of an entertainment industry being held captive by the ‘book culture’. Keep that in mind next time you go to a book store, for they won’t be around much longer, and see people sitting there sipping coffee.

So take any look at any random game article, and you will see that the subject matter is about ‘game culture’. When left to their own inclinations, game journalists will write about ‘game culture’ than anything else. Game developers, if left to their own inclinations (didn’t have to worry about sales), would make a game dedicated to progressing ‘game culture’. The ‘hype’ for new games, when not orchestrated by a marketing machine, is really desire for ‘progress’ to ‘game culture’. Many do not buy games or make games, they make ‘game culture’. Hardcore think their gaming is beautiful wine and see ‘casual gaming’ as a type of unrefined beer.

Is ‘Game Culture’ Doomed?

What is the point of having ‘game culture’ when there are less and less customers? This sick obsession over ‘game culture’ is likely the number one reason the game industry has become ‘product orientated’ instead of ‘customer orientated’.

The purpose of games, just like all entertainment, is to please the customers. This is why games with high sales are the best since it shows these games are pleasing the most people.

It is not that ‘game culture’ has a future, it is that ‘game culture’ never truly existed. We’re better off looking at games in how they affect customers as whimsical and fun experiences.



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