Written for Haywire Magazine.
The landscape of games culture looks bleak. It’s not an apocalyptic bleakness, but rather a disconcerting quietness—not necessarily for what it appears to be, but in looking at what it isn’t. Between larger cultural movements and the rise of the player-publisher on Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and Patreon, gaming is a bizarre landscape. It used to be an enthusiast’s space full of wonderment, and it still is, but it’s also peppered with an undercurrent of discord.
The voices of hundreds of thousands now, whether they’re justified or not, have shaped the world of game development at large. Between the mutable ending of Mass Effect 3 and the headstones in Pillars of Eternity, games are quickly becoming crowd-sourced as well as crowd-funded, and many might see this as a step too far, a guiding force for the future that gaming doesn’t need. Even when it doesn’t affect the games, many fear for the day it might. Not just what games will become, but also what games will lose.
I am afraid of the quiet. Of what’s being lost in what isn’t being said.
Gaming culture is many things, a multifaceted hydra of perspectives all examining the same material. Some players examine through play, others through words or stories; some capture moments in footage, and others take their passion to forums to argue the validity of their stances.
All the heads of the cultural hydra have their unique eyes. Each is a lens through which the world can be observed. They have different backgrounds, different histories, different interests, different academic specializations, and different expectations. All of these lenses are unique, products of nature and nurture, an infinite combination of variables that leave each head with some perspective that the other heads might lack. They’re infinitely diverse in their ways, and each of them is far more foolish than I hope I ever sound, yet far more knowledgeable and wise than I could ever hope to be.
They’re something of a mess as well: coiling endlessly over one another, squabbling and lashing out, co-opting other heads into proxy wars over some belief or another. They all stem from the same root body, a love of games as entertainment and gaming as a culture. They are, however, divided in how that love translates. They squabble, nip at each other, debate with one another about ideal futures, but they’re still a part of the total package: an amorphous, multilayered passion informed by a swarming mass of distinct voices.
For my part, as much as I like to consider myself well-read and well-spoken on the subject, I am also just a single part of the larger hydra. My opinions, though sometimes given a wider platform than others, is still just a single voice, one sole lens through which the world of gaming can be observed, cataloged, and interpreted. All around me, countless heads consume the same material. It’s filtered and sieved through a million different mechanisms, and the results are interpreted by quintillions of histories. The hydra absorbs this information and moves on to the next piece. All of it is mind-numbingly complex, far more so than I could ever understand well enough to describe in brief, much less well enough to comprehend in full.
I find the gaming hydra fascinating. All of it is strange, this weird shifting body of general opinion, while groups of heads clump together to better argue against their perceived opponents. I have, however, never felt like I belong to those groups, nor that I should. Not because I feel that I know better than these heads, but rather the opposite: I could never know even a fraction of everything any one of the heads might know. Given this, I can’t help but want to listen to them instead of immediately jumping in to participate. I don’t always agree, and quite often I have perfectly sound reasons for disagreeing, but I’m still too aware that there will always be things I don’t know, or often can’t know. Sometimes it’s for reasons that I could never experience; other times it’s for availability or geographical reasons, but all of them are reasons that mean that no matter what I do in my life, my position, situation, or options limit just how far my head can reach.
For that reason, I can’t help but look at each lens as a part of something too important to write off. They might be foolish or even vitriolic, but they’re still valuable. They’re a part of something bigger and grander, and I love them for it. They’re deeply rich, infinitely interesting, and sometimes awful. I hate those parts of them, but I understand that they come from the same parts of me that cause me to be angry, hurtful, enraged, or saddened. They are, after all, the same thing as I am, just with a different lens that makes what they see so different. We’re both a part of the same hydra.
To me, the hydra is also tragic because of it. It socializes some awful aspects, and the heads sometimes internalize the horrible dread beasts of hatred and rage. The response to those heads, and many other actions besides, has convinced some heads that the others have no value, that their lenses are things to be discarded and ignored. It is in multiple parts contradictory, yet each of these heads undoubtedly has an opinion, a perspective that could inform so much more than just one alone ever could.
When I sit to think about it, I wonder if I don’t overvalue potential. Perhaps, because of that, I give too much benefit of the doubt to the abhorrent aspects. To me, each of the heads represents an opportunity to teach me something I might otherwise never know. The gravity of that fact is immense– a piece of knowledge I could never get any other way is so incredibly significant. Even when I disagree 99% of the time, I still hope for that 1% to show up to teach me more than I knew yesterday. To me, the hydra is a gorgeous cataclysm of thoughts and feelings and emotions and knowledge, as beautiful as it is horrifying.
Without each one of those lenses, my own would be incomplete. A global mesh of lenses with just a small handful of lenses going missing is able to cause a chain reaction, a quiet catastrophe bookended by silence; distantly missing, not leaving a trace. In the same way that games gloss over the existence of other perspectives, so too can the gaming hydra. By silencing any perspective, the brief moment of blissful silence is also haunted by the emptiness that accompanies it.
Sadly, there’s no good solution for it.
I particularly hate the idea of losing a perspective, but I also hate the things the hydra will do in the name of the greater good. No resolution is a happy one, but there is solace in finding the good even bad lenses do. Some perspectives come as a result of seeing awful things, and sometimes these lenses are the impetus for change. They’re catalysts for growth, and they’re pieces of the puzzle that make the hydra a better beast. Sometimes, a bad lens can help a good lens grow, to understand that maybe a flawed argument has at least a sensible grounding, or they can teach simply by having their particular perspective.
The gaming hydra is fascinating, interesting, wonderful, and full of intrigue. I can’t help but hate what it can be, but I recognize that without it, I couldn’t possibly be who I am. I just wish others could at least respect it too, even if it doesn’t always afford them the same courtesy. I’m afraid of what it can be, but also what games might lose without it.
We’ve lost enough already.
Featured image acquired and cropped from DeviantArt user arvalis.