The Absolute State of Video Games

As one of my resolutions for this year is to reduce the amount I play/buy and my overall involvement with gaming as a hobby, I have naturally been reflecting on the reasons why I came to make this decision. There are many and this is an attempt to put them down in writing.

It is probably better to begin this post with a clarification in anticipation of how some might react to some of what I have written here. I am not in any way trying to make a blanket statement about video games, video game collecting or gaming communities as a whole. I am just writing my observations based on my knowledge and experience of gaming. As with anything in the world, you will find things wrong and I am detailing these here. In short: don’t take any of this as a personal attack.

There are people I respect that consider video games to be a complete waste of time. There are also plenty of people I respect who both play and make them. There are more still who are indifferent at best. Without coming down too hard on any of these perspectives, I think everyone can agree that there are unhealthy aspects to the medium. When I was young, the idea that I was wasting time playing them never entered into my mind except through my father. Being an adult and with a family dependent on my support, I have began to think somewhat differently; especially over the last few years. This is not just about playing them or collecting them but for the industry as a whole.

One way I have justified the one to two hours I spend playing video games most nights (and increasingly rarely during the day), is that I don’t watch television pretty much at all. I also don’t watch a lot of films or have a lot of other interests that involve sitting down in a generally unproductive way. I also keep a reasonably healthy diet and exercise. I read far more books than the average person and I try to write something at least once a week if not more. And apart from video games, I don’t have a lot of other bad habits apart from being occasionally absent minded and unmotivated when something doesn’t interest me. I have a job and I’ve rarely been between one.

Video games have also engaged me in a way that no other medium has. Unlike the hours of television people will watch nightly, video games are at least somewhat active, require dexterity, concentration and often an ability to solve problems and exercise the mind. My desire to play them has motivated my learning in other areas too. I have spent hours learning how to use and solve problems with computers to play them. I have learned how to build and repair my own computers. I know how to do a variety of things with a computer that most people don’t because of video games. I have learned to clean, restore and repair peripherals and even make modifications to software and hardware. I have joined communities and been motivated to write about games which has improved my writing in general. These are all positives that have come directly from my interest in them and the skills I have developed have other applications.

Even with these positives, I have been getting bothered by this hobby of mine and it is worth considering why. Below I have set out some problems with the industry/medium/whatever and how it has affected me and what I have been doing about it. Some are far more relevant than others but I’ve also included things that I’ve merely observed.

One aspect is obviously the anti-social behaviour gaming can exacerbate  in people. They may be only something I do for recreation at the end of the day but this is still time I am not spending talking with or interacting with other people. Sure, everyone needs their alone time but it would be wrong of me to pretend that my wanting to play them has not taken precedence when I could have been interacting with other human beings. I’ve never been an “angry gamer” who screams at my television and I’ve certainly never broken a controller in a rage. My wife will actually get irritated if I so much as groan after missing a platform or failing a mission. There are extremes beyond this with people getting so absorbed in a game that it seriously affects their life. The stories of children being neglected or dying while their parents play video games are certainly statistically rare but they exist. The stories of people becoming shut-ins who barely take any care of themselves are not quite as rare but also just as real. So you can certainly debate the frequency of these issues but these issues do exist. The only question is whether or not in the absence of games, people like this would behave the same way with another medium. Even without the extremes, the fact remains that when you play a video game, you are generally going to be totally absorbed with what is happening on the screen.

Another is related to the industry as a whole and to the dedicated crowd in particular. This is the obsession over new releases and sequels. The cyclical release, review and  (much later), reminisce which games seems to go through. A recent example would be Red Dead Redemption 2 which was released last year. I spent an enormous amount of time playing it and it was well over a month before I got to the end of the games story missions. Even though I played it every other night and for what I thought was a long time, there were people that got it at the same time as me that were done with it in barely a week and already looking at the next game. I used to see the same thing on GameFAQs with new releases where people are complaining about the game being too “short” when it has barely been out a week. I started to wonder whether the people doing this with every yearly cycle of sequels and games actually enjoyed anything they played at all.

On the opposite end you have people who buy every other major release but barely if ever stick to a game to the end. People like this do help the developers and publishers of course, but it seems like such a waste to pile up things you will likely never use. This is especially so when it can mean thousands of dollars spent in a year.

To expand on the latter, games are now so common and easy to obtain due both to digital distribution and the sheer quantity in existence that everyone is spoiled for choice. Most people remember as children being limited to just a couple of games a year and having to swap, barter, borrow or rent for anything else. This meant that you really appreciated what you got and it also meant disappointment if you (or your grandma), made a bad choice. Now these problems don’t really even exist for children due to how cheaply some older games can be obtained and how many free-to-play offerings there are. Strangely but not surprisingly now that people are spoiled for choice, there seems to be a trend towards playing only one thing. Stranger still: watching other people play. Games like Minecraft and more recently – Fortnite, are sometimes all children play. Often they don’t even play that much but choose to watch someone else play on Twitch or YouTube. As with the people who consume new releases like an old car does petroleum, one wonders if there is any genuine enjoyment had or if it is merely an addiction that becomes less pleasurable the more powerful it becomes.

Moving on from modern gaming, the game collecting or retro gaming community has grown considerably. One could make arguments about what started what and what ultimately influences its growth. Nostalgia is certainly a major reason as is the Internet, the rise of YouTube and other websites dedicated to older video games. The Internet in general seems to be the major factor as it connected many people with a niche interest. It also gave people access to information that they could previously only find in magazines or by word-of-mouth. People were able to find information about games they used to play but also ones they had never heard of. Sites like eBay also once made it easy to find and buy them too.

As someone who was into this from early last decade before YouTube and video content became common, this was a good time. Being able to find games you remembered and even better – ones you had never heard of was exciting. As was being able to buy older consoles quite cheaply and often in excellent condition. I became particularly interested in this side of gaming and it is only relatively recently that I moved away from it. In fact, my exit from this was a major influence on me writing this in the first place.

The problems with this soon became apparent and some cross-over with issues with modern games. One was hording, something which I am somewhat guilty of. What starts as a fun way to find and play video games soon becomes a habit of buying every other game you hear about. Most would start out with nostalgia and want to buy or dust-off the games they played when they were young. This probably started by seeing a video about a certain game or reading an article about it but it doesn’t end there. Soon you’re looking up games you see mentioned in lists or that you hear are “rare”. Then you find out about another console you weren’t aware of and start collecting for that. Then there is loose merchandise, finding games sealed and so on. Pretty soon you’re collecting more than your playing. And for many, they couldn’t possibly hope to play half of what they end up with.

Retro collecting became very popular roughly ten years ago. What signaled its success was the way prices began rising steadily to the often ridiculous prices we see now. Video games that could previously be had for $20 would end up doubling or tripling in price. This was due primarily to demand and seldom rarity. I also suspect it was artificial but this is harder to prove. As an example of how things changed just consider some US Super Nintendo games I owned which I’d acquired relatively cheaply a decade ago. When I sold them (I believe in 2016), altogether they went for hundreds of dollars. They made back more than I paid for them even with shipping and fees.

One smaller aspect that began to put me off retro gaming was the focus of some in the community with the audio/visual aspect. I was playing mostly through an RF signal into the PlayStation 2 days and I didn’t have a television using component or HDMI cables until 2010. Given this it is strange to see people focus so much on getting a great picture on old consoles when the vast majority played with RF or composite cables. This is a small thing but it has also seen prices of CRT televisions and proprietary cables go up significantly in price recently.

Another smaller aspect that I found annoying was where the price-rises/gouging etc. had led to people getting their boxed copies graded or re-sealed. People also seemed to be using them more for decoration than use. The few times I acquired older games that were still sealed – I opened them. Games were made to be played after all.

At the height of my hobby collecting I had probably six or seven large boxes of stuff. I was known by the local post office owner as “parcel boy” and family and friends sought me out if they needed to find something obscure. Out of necessity, most of my collection was kept away most of the time and this was even when I was a bachelor. And after a while, this just became annoying. You only need to briefly search the subject on YouTube to see many people that have collections dwarfing my own.

All of this together put me off collecting and this is why I have steadily sold most of my gaming collection. It is now to the point where I could fit all my games and consoles remaining into a small packing box should I need to get rid of them. I earned literally thousands of dollars selling these things and with some rough calculations, I think I broke even overall with what I spent in the past. What after all is the point of keeping stuff I barely use and that will stop working overtime? I thought it would be better to get out while I could still get some money and in this I was successful.

I suspect that in the near future the market is going to fall apart for a lot of games. I wouldn’t be surprised to see stuff that was getting sold for hundreds of dollars again going for cents at garage sales. When this happens, I’ll be relieved to know that I mostly broke even while having a good time doing it.

At the same time as retro gaming has become popular, digital distribution of games has grown considerably. The fact that retail stores now sell games cases with nothing but a digital code is good proof of the change. This is another reason why retro collecting became more of a burden. The fact is that I can still play the vast majority of these games with a good computer and there are plenty of options available. Unless you are pedantic about playing it on the original hardware, then you can get a perfectly adequate experience elsewhere.

Digital distribution has also been a major reason why games are so widely and cheaply available. I have observed that excluding companies like Nintendo, it is almost always better to wait with new retail releases as they tend to drop to less than half the price within the year. If they don’t meet publisher expectations, they can sometimes be dropped to this price before the end of the Christmas season. As with what was mentioned before, this leaves gamers spoiled for choice.

Stepping back and looking at the modern video game industry as a whole, they are some major problems beyond the personal and social aspects. One relates to the previous paragraph and is to do with the expense of major game releases. Games have become bloated as the end credits roll of any major release will quickly show you. This means that games need to sell very well just to break even. This is not something that can be sustained. Publishers have focused on regular sequels every few years if not yearly. This has led many to suspect that there will be another major crash like that which the US experienced in the early 1980s.

In contrast, there has been a healthy growth in lower-budget titles thanks to digital distribution, smart phones and development tools and game engines becoming more widely available. The only real problem with this is there is an over-saturation and there are plenty of poorly designed shovel-ware titles filling digital stores.

People like to imagine economic crashes as something sudden and cataclysmic. The reality is that what is called the AAA industry is shrinking into a smaller group of powerful publishers like EA, Ubisoft, Square-Enix and Activision. A lot of major ones have gone out of business since the new millennium including THQ, Acclaim and Midway. Others like Sega almost did go out of business and Capcom was similarly shaky just a few years ago. The four major companies I mentioned above have acquired or merged with other failing companies in the same time frame. With all the people employed and the expectations that share holders have, it seems that all the major publishers are just a few financial flops away from becoming insolvent.

In any case, I expect gaming will continue to go digital and that more major publishers will collapse with EA being the most likely to go first. This may cascade and see more going down but it is hard to say. Consoles too seem to becoming increasingly less-important and the names associated will probably be turned into services completely in the next decade. Sony and Microsoft are certainly already moving this way with Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Now services.

The final aspect of the industry I want to touch on is the way gaming media has changed. I want to be brief because it isn’t as important as we can sometimes think. Back in the nineties in particular, magazines were really the only way to get information about new games apart from word-of-mouth. The Internet almost immediately made that redundant but gaming websites still had a major place on the web before there was more consolidation around social media. Now, companies can simply make announcements directly to consumers without the media. Nintendo in particular has been putting out their aptly named ‘Nintendo Direct’ streams for years now. The media has little to do in response but to regurgitate what was announced and make some commentary. Since everybody can do the same thing, using exactly the same medium – it is surprising their is still gaming media at all. The rise of YouTube has also seen video content take views away from big name websites. The websites 1up, GameSpy, Joystiq and more have gone in the last decade and these three alone were very big names. As with the big publishers, more are sure to follow.

The additional problem with the gaming media is they just aren’t doing their job anymore. This is also a problem with major publishers but there has been a significant infiltration of left-wing identity politics into gaming. This began in the early part of the current decade when articles about representation of women in games began appearing. This infiltration became quite open with the #GamerGate movement in 2014. Since that time, it has only got worse but thankfully, the media isn’t really relevant at all anymore. They do still seem to have influence on what companies put out though but this is also because the same types have gotten jobs in writing/communication with developers and publishers as well. It also seems to be just a practiced convention more than something truly necessary to promote new games.

Naturally the above has made looking at gaming news less fun and meant I have skipped over a number of notable releases but it is ultimately positive. This is simply because the combination of corporate bloat and the toxic influence of people more concerned with their politics than their employers success means when one goes: they all go. Gaming media has always had a symbiotic relationship with publishers which affects not just their objectivity but their very existence. Most won’t be able to sustain themselves without the publishers and they certainly don’t have much goodwill from consumers to rely on crowd funding.

While I will continue to enjoy video games, I can see there are some worrying trends and unhealthy aspects to gaming. A lot is going to change over the next few years. I will continue to reduce my involvement in the community side and games in general. Not because I don’t like them but because there are more important things to consider.

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