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Talking to Women about Videogames: Going mainstream

4:00 PM on 10.25.2011 // Jonathan Holmes

[Talking to Women about Videogames is a series where Jonathan Holmes talks to different people who are women about the biggest videogame news of the week for some reason.]

Steve Jobs spent countless hours working to advance the tech industry, but the thing that I've heard the most about him since he passed was how instrumental he was in bringing sophisticated technology to consumers outside of the enthusiast market.

Before the Apple II, personal computers were seen as something that only borderline-mathematical savants could enjoy. After the Apple II, home computers (and the games that people play on them) began to be seen as something everyone could use. From there, Jobs worked at Pixar to help bring CGI animation from the indie film festival world to the level of blockbuster film. Finally, he returned to Apple, where he was instrumental in transforming MP3 players (iPod), smart phones (iPhone), and tablet computers (iPad) from high-priced oddities to household gadgets. He was probably technology's most effective and evocative ambassador. 

Some (like Jobs' biographer Walter Isaacson) think that Jobs' ability to sell tech to the everyman puts him in the same league as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, while others hate Apple and Apple consumers, calling them "hipsters" and "sellouts." My question is why do we care either way? Why does it matter to us if the mainstream accepts or rejects technology and/or gaming? That's what I aimed to find out in this week's TtWaV.

Probably the most common reason why people want tech and gaming to gain acceptance is the desire to be accepted. Most people want to be normal, to be one of the gang/herd/team, to avoid stigmatization and ostracization, and to gain a breezy, criticism-free, friction-less life. When gaming rubs up against the mainstream media and culture, there tends to be a lot of friction, which leaves fans of videogames feeling burned. That friction often comes in the form of shaming fans of videogames by calling them immature or "stunted."

That's part of why it's so easy to sell the Xbox 360 to teenagers as something more "grown up" than the Wii console. Teenagers hate being thought of as kids anyway, so the last thing they want is "kid-friendly" game console. Move up a few years and the pattern continues. I know quite a few people in their mid-20s who bought a PS3 because it was more "adult" than their "teen-bait" Xbox 360. I know even more people traded in their PS3s for Wiis once they hit their 30s. They've decided to "move on from bachelorhood, spending hours gaming alone in their basements," and to start families where they still game but only a couple of times a week and only as a brood. 

Come to think of it, a few of those people have kids who are just turning 10 and 11, and naturally, those kids are now begging to "upgrade" their Wii to Xbox 360 or a PS3 this Christmas. With that, the cycle starts again. Though all their choices are different, all these people are running from the same thing: the idea that there is something "age inappropriate" about the games they're playing.

Generally speaking, you don't see that kind of age-connected stigma to Apple products, or any stigma at all for that matter. Apple products (and the games people play on them) are more or less considered to be universally appealing and "appropriate" regardless of your age, gender, or cultural background. The crafting of that brand was no small feat, but once you have that brand reputation, it's very easy to start a "blockbuster" chain reaction. When everyone thinks that everyone is supposed to like something, then everybody suddenly wants one. That's why so many ads brag that their film is the "#1 movie in America." Once people hear that something is #1, they feel that it must be the best. Otherwise, why would everyone go and see it, right? The more people believe that the movie is #1, the more people will see it, which will lead to more people's thinking it's worth seeing, and so forth. That's just as true for phones and computers and videogame consoles as it is for movies.

That's why companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft fight so hard for mainstream acceptance. They want that built-in mind share because that's where the money is. If they can convince people that they can become better human beings by associating with their products, then they can pretty much write their own checks.

It's especially interesting to me when this plan backfires, when people strongly do not want tech and videogames to go mass market. There are people who hate how Apple, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony have all had their moments where they were beloved by the mainstream. Isn't that weird? Why do they care? My guess is that they have fallen into the trap of counter-conformity and have come to believe that the stigma carried by their respective interests is actually a badge of honor. It makes sense that if you're mocked by the majority for your interests on a regular basis, then you'll eventually come to hate the majority. If you've come to hate the majority, then of course you're going to want hate what the majority loves and further embrace the things that caused you to be shunned in the first place. Is that how hipsters are born? I'm not sure, but I can tell you what I've observed. 

With videogame hipsters, there seems to be a solid progression. At first, budding hipsters looks to separate themselves from the mainstream by shunning games with mass market appeal like Mario and Angry Birds. From there, they often develop a hatred of Halo, Call of Duty, and Resident Evil, and they instead choose to embrace only small indie titles or obscure classics. From there, I've seen gaming hipsters go full circle into loving Mario again or reject all conventional games for text adventures or games that are made on a strictly non-profit basis. One thing I have never seen is a gaming hipster who wasn't missing out on some great games due to his obsession with keeping up his image.

As for me, I'll admit that I have an agenda of my own. I hate it whenever anyone says that something worthwhile is only appropriate for people of a certain age, gender, or other demographic. It's not because of how I think their opinion may reflect on me but rather how their opinion limits them from appreciating something that deserves respect. When you say something is a chick flick, a kiddie game, or butt-rock, it implies that the thing in question is not truly worthwhile. 

That's why I am quick to point out to people who say that videogames are just for "boys" or "nerds" that they too enjoy videogames. I'll remind them that, at the very least, they must have enjoyed a game of PC Solitaire and then work from there. Again, I'm not here to establish that it's OK to be a "gamer." In fact, there is nothing I'd like more than to show both "gamers" and "non-gamers" that those brands shouldn't exist. Your level of interest in videogames should rightfully have nothing to do with how you define yourself. Once it does, you'll inevitably fall into the trap of either being a blockbuster chaser or a first-class hipster. What matters is tossing out your preconceived notions and biases and honestly looking at the world around you. To do otherwise is to shortchange yourself out of really... living.

I don't mean to sound judgmental or to have overly high expectations. I know that videogame culture as a whole is currently dominated by products made to sell death, darkness, and war (with some occasional bouts of nostalgia and dancing). Based on that that, I understand why so many people assume that games aren't for them, which in turn leads to game publishers and developers to not even bother trying to make games for people who don't already like what gaming has to offer.. It's an ugly pattern that keeps gaming and society as a whole from reaching its full potential.

That's why I'm happy that Steve Jobs worked so hard to show the world that technology (and the videogame industry that's associated with it) is potentially for everybody. It's not because he helped me to feel like less of a nerd. It's because it's just... true. Technology is for everyone! Everything is potential for everyone, as long as we are willing to keep an open mind and to not limit our options. Apple may have used some trendy tricks and slick marketing to show the world that truth, but if that's what it takes for our current model of human evolution to get with the program, then so be it. 

OK, enough out of me. What do you think? Does it matter to you what the mainstream thinks of technology and videogames? When was the last time you said, "You dun be a gamer now gurl"? Please tell me it was today. If not, it's not too late. Turn to the person closest to you, let the words out, and make that change.

Past Episodes:

Talking to Women about Videogames: 3DS 2nd nub panic

Talking to Women about Videogames: Gears 3 isn't perfect?

Talking to Women about Videogames: Sexy vs. sexist?

Talking to Women about Videogames: What makes you want?

TtWaV teaser: Sony's online sucks now?

Talking to Women about Videogames: I'm not a real gamer?

Talking to Women about Videogames: Fear for the future

Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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