This one's been in the hopper for long time, about as long as Dtoid oldster Anthony Burch's essay on hype in gaming culture that was posted back in June. Burch basically outlines why hype is responsible for a lot of the notoriously negative emotions that swirl around gaming culture. For the most, part I agree. And a lot of agreement was found in the comments section that lit up to the tune of 402 comments as of this writing. But a lot of dissent was also found, figuring Burch's position for one that scolds any excitement about forthcoming games or that hype is a manageable thing people just need to keep in check. In all, I think a good message was cast but a lot of it landed sideways for people who felt the article was too dismissive or off-target of the claims Burch was making about hype. I'd like to do a few things here to clarify why I generally agreed with Burch's statements and why "hype" is not simply proximate to a lot of the poor behavior surrounding gaming fandom, but the germ of thing. As the youngest, most corporately entwined of the entertainment mediums, hype might be gaming's most distinguishing element when drawing a picture of its enthusiasts, its publication history, and its critique.
First, we need to settle on a definition of "hype", at least for the purposes of this blog post. Hype isn't anticipation, it isn't the act of paying attention to a game before release, and it isn't optimism. Hype is characterized by great enthusiasm and hope that a game will be everything it promises to be and perhaps even more than that in the absence of proof. Hype is characterized by fandom of a non-existent product coupled with a passionate defense for the idea of the product. When put this way I think it should be obvious that hype is a negative aspect of gaming fandom, but I wouldn't expect it to be so obvious that hype is at the core of so much hate within the gaming community.
Hype has its roots in marketing which, especially in the games industry, is attempting to secure as many pre-sales as possible. The AAA model is geared toward a heavily front-loaded performance of a product of about a week or a month after release. With a strong (but waning) dependence on physical retail, games sales compete for shelf space as well as the attention of consumers with future releases. The business of pre-orders do a lot to incentivize a particular marketing strategy, much like how movie trailers often contain all the best parts of a movie. But whereas movies can add to or recoup early box office performance with licensing to rental stalls and distribution platforms like Netflix or TV channels, a game has only its launch period to gain most of its consumers before the game is discounted and drops out of the review cycle. Even expansion DLC content can only offer so much attention back on the game because by then, opinions are already cast. You'll re-up your original buyers, but onboarding new players is usually much harder the longer it gets from release day – people simply forget your game exists.
This is all to say that the industry wants to generate as much interest as soon as possible, and hype is the king of quick excitement. But the software model for hype is younger than the hardware model, which is where we get ancient feuds often nostalgically called "console wars". This got its start in the rivalry between Nintendo and Sega and much of this rhetoric was based around the fact that most of the consumers were children, with advertising aimed at school yard level bragging points and the desire for kids to avoid seeming uncool by association with the wrong thing. It made sense given gaming's ecosystem at the time, but a lot of that sowed the seeds for a rivalry between formats that we simply don't see in other mediums.
Sure iPhone and Android phone users might take shots at each other, as well as Windows and Apple OS users, but these aren't entertainment mediums, they're operating systems. Game consoles are more like the difference between VHS and Betamax, but if one company controlled the production of all VHS or Betamax units. Eventually the home movie industry settled on a standard with multiple makers and cassette producers all operating under a universal standard. But gaming is just different enough that splitting the market with incompatible software wasn’t considered a terrible idea. Regardless of exactly how gaming got to this point, the result is an environment that is rife for comparison and not all of it is good natured.
The automotive industry is in a similar position and has its share of enthusiasts who are loyal to a particular manufacturer. But car ownership isn’t marked by as much drama despite cars being considerably greater expenses and in many cases very necessary. I think a lot of this is because cars are culturally legitimized, and gaming consoles aren’t. Despite the increasing age of the average player and the increasing ubiquity of gaming, the needle hasn’t moved proportionally to a level of cultural acceptance. Ground is still being gained on that matter, but a stigma is still present enough that a particularly troublesome emotion, one that I am not immune to, is never far when gaming is brought up in a wider cultural context: defensiveness.
So what does this all have to do with hype – well, as I mentioned above, hype is characterized by an impassioned and baseless defense. The bad part is that this emotion is what’s being leveraged when a game sells its promises. The kind of people likely to pre-order sixty dollar games are the same people most vulnerable to that kind of promise, and it didn’t help that a young games press, until fairly recently, held as common practice to always skew preview coverage in an optimistic light.
It’s important to know that hype is not an informed choice (a decision formed from within) but the intended effect of advertising; it’s a kind of manipulation. And it’s one often found in high-tech industries because they often sit at the forefront of advertising. It’s easy to plug in the latest ad agency’s new scheme to your marketing when the product keeps morphing fundamentally every few years or less. By comparison, other “slow tech” entertainment industries, like TV, movies and music, haven’t iterated their strategies nearly as much or as successfully. Those industries has struggled in many ways to keep up with new content delivery methods, but gaming has introduced a menagerie of ways to pre-buy, pre-load, subscribe, season pass, early access, be backward and forward compatible, offer vertical slices, and do so across no fewer than eight highly publicized industry events (I’ve lost count).
I could go on about how games, as a participatory experience, make personal identification more likely or how the nebulous definition of gaming genres and even “videogame” itself means a lack of an agreed upon classical standard for almost anything in gaming (“RPG” is perhaps the least informative genre label of all time), but I’ve gone on long enough. And keep in mind, I’m not taking a high handed stance here, I’m speaking about myself as much as anyone else I’ve seen or communicated with. I succumb to advertising for things I really want, I’m not made of stone, but everyone needs to be more wary of the hype that follows.