An "Irrational" Divide
Posted on Friday, February 21 @ 12:38:37 Eastern by ryanbates
Gaming, specifically home console gaming as we know it, has entered a new, somewhat strange era. Video gaming roughly started around the creation of Pong in 1972 and its home counterpart in 1975; after the crash in the market, it was thanks to two Italian plumbers in 1985 that brought video gaming back to life. If we pick up around that point, then video gaming as we, the gamers, know it has been around for nearly thirty years. Thirty years holds significance, as there are now two clear generations of gamers; in fact, many parents today are the first generation of home gamer, in their late 20s and 30s, some even older still.
As the generation gap opens and expands, naturally different viewpoints will espouse on the same topic. Ask teenagers and their parents the same question, and one of them will undoubtedly see this hypothesis in action. House, trance, EDM, and trip-hop pound in the head of Millennial, while their parents wistfully long from everything from The B-52s to Ace of Base, and their grandparents remember cheering up "Sleepy Jean" with The Monkees. The Generation Gap is nothing new, but it’s new in the world of gaming
When the announcement of Irrational Games’ shuttering came about yesterday, many gamers were stunned, and as well they should have been. I don’t think anyone saw that coming, without even the slightest of hint from Ken Levine, the studio, or Take-Two Interactive. I’m sure he debated the decision for some time, but to the rest of us, it appeared as if he woke up on February 18, 2014 and said, “Time for a change!”
In his open letter published on the Irrational Games Blog, Levine stated that “in time we will announce a new endeavor with a new goal: To make narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable.” Sadly, that meant laying off all but about fifteen of the staff involved in Irrational Games. But while the announcement was surprising, I was even more surprised by some of the responses to the announcement, and surprised to find that they seemed to fall along lines not defined by color, gender, or sexuality, but by generation.
It seems almost bizarre to talk about “older gamers,” but responses to the end of the studio that made monumental smash hits such as System Shock 2, Freedom Force, and the highly-acclaimed BioShock and BioShock Infinite (BioShock 2, it should be noted, was developed by sister studio 2K Marin) not only bemoaned sorrow for the staffers now looking for new work, but for the state of gaming today.
“Studios struggle to keep up,” cried out the post-28-year-old crowds on social media. “They have to pay to create this bloated, graphically-dazzling mega-hit, and they can’t keep up financially!” They waxed poetic about games that could spin a gripping, compelling storyline, such as the story of Booker and Elizabeth in Irrational’s latest blockbuster, BioShock Infinite, which delivered artwork that rivaled any computer-animated world Pixar could whip up on its spare time. Not only does that demean the worth of the story, they caterwauled, but it cost studios more than just a pretty penny. Breeding comparisons to the idea of “moneyball,” the big studios can beat the drums loudly for "Super Call of Battlefield 38," but studios who turn out smaller gems like Gone Home, Thomas Was Alone, or even the acclaimed-but-barely-noticed Puppeteer suffer for not living up to graphical expectations.
In essence, claim first-generation gamers, video games have gone too Hollywood.
Younger gamers, essentially 27 and under, felt for the staffers being laid off, but held optimism that they would find work and bounce back. “They created Rapture! They created Columbia!” they sang out. “They’re talented sons of guns, and someone will notice it and pick them up.” But their response to the other side’s claim was characteristic: Pipe down, old people, games will carry on. The younger generation have grown up with graphical advancements. Whereas older gamers saw StarFox’s polygon-borne universe and thought it couldn’t get any better than this, younger gamers considered that their entry point, and considered the N64 system basic in light of the Gamecube and Wii, PlayStations 2, 3 and 4, and Microsoft’s gaming consoles.
Younger gamers don't understand why games would be anything other than 3D-rendered. They don't understand 8- and 16-bit systems because they've never had less than 64. Flat images? Sure, grandpa. From the moment they started gaming, graphics have been at the forefront of every new piece of machinery. And younger gamers, traditionally, have more disposable income to blow on video games, as opposed to older gamers, who are okay with waiting, or buying used, or passing on games for boring grown-up stuff like bills and car payments and uncool stuff like a sectional couch.
The new generation of gamers, therefore, also believe gaming has gone Hollywood, but they're quite all right with that.
The generation gap is a new occurrence in gaming's short history, but the idea of “going Hollywood” has been around since Hollywood has been Hollywood-ing, and here's a news flash: they're doing just fine, thank you. Every year, a new batch of summer blockbusters comes around, heavy on explosions and thin on plot, and every year, indie films with artsy-fartsy people standing around moving books slightly to the left come out and a handful of people see them and they win fifty thousand awards.
It's the way things just are. Is this the way things should be? We could debate that all day, but then we wouldn't get to see the films we want to, because while everyone cannot be pleased all of the time, everyone can be pleased some of the time, and some people can be pleased all of the time.
Maybe it's time to start looking at gaming the same way. There are too many gamers (the last ESA report estimated that 49% of Americans play video games of some sort) to try to please everyone all of the time. Sometimes, titles like BioShock or the like come out, and blow everyone out of the water for a brief period of time; sometimes it will be a “frenemy”-type relationship between the latest run-and-gun and the deep, thinking-required indie hit. Maybe it's also time to recognize that many developers of today's games, Levine included, long for that older class of game, that required more strategy, more intuition, and less itchy-trigger fingers.
There are always younger developers ready to make the next Rapture. Irrational Games may be gone, but their legacy has cemented a place in the annals. Down the line, when the third generation picks up consoles, Big Daddies may just be Big Punchlines to them too.
One last thing to note: The gaming generation gap is not uncrossable just yet. Immediately after the announcement, one of Twitter's trending tags: #IrrationalJobs, designed to flag those affected by the layoffs, and help find new positions in the gaming industry.
Great minds, no matter what their age, think alike.