Whether you like it or not, tabletop gaming is going mainstream. Surely, that’s a good thing, right? I have my reservations about gaming having a presence in mainstream society. Geekdom is going through a liberation (kind of) period where it’s now OK to be geeky, and it’s more widely accepted. That’s OK. I have no qualms with that. In fact, I am very happy about it. Perceptions can be damaging, especially if a person is a little more sensitive, so in a way this is giving people freedom to express themselves freely which is nothing else but awesome.
So what’s wrong with gaming being in the mainstream? Well, I’d like for you all to take a journey with me to one of my earliest memories. I imagine I was about three or four, it’s hard to say. Kids love candy, so did I. I really liked hard candy – it was the best. I think it was Christmas or another family gathering, but we had all our cousins, aunts and uncles over, and guess what they brought me? A necklace! Dissapointing, right? No. It was made out of hard candy! In wrappers of course, but strung together, and my favorite kind as well. I was so chuffed, I decided I was going to give everyone one piece of my candy necklace, so I started handing it out, piece by piece. And when it came to the last two pieces, it was just my uncle, my aunt and me left. If I were to give everyone one piece, I would have none left for myself. Which, believe it or not, I did. And I remember someone saying that this was a lesson for me to learn. What a shit lesson I tell you.
I am going with this somewhere trust me, but let’s leave it at that just for now. Let us fast-forward to the present, all the way to this article posted in The Guardian a few days ago called Why board games are making a comeback. This innocuous little article quickly made the rounds in my social-media spheres, from Facebook to Twitter, every gamer was posting and reposting this, including me. Gaming is finally OK now, says The Guardian. Gamers rejoice. Furthermore, local hobby shops capitalize on this new trend and increase their attendance and profit. It’s a win/win for everyone.
Ok, why am I being insincere? I obviously have an underlying point. Well, because I don’t think things are so simple. A few days ago I was surfing on the X-Wing forum on Board Game Geek and one comment struck a chord with me. X-Wing is even stocked at Target (to my fellow UK readers, the red-colored American superstore of everything, ever). Which reminded me of the fact that our own Waterstones took the lion’s share of X-Wing stock from Esdevium (the UK gaming wholesalers). Obviously stock to actual gaming shops was limited whilst Waterstones was making profit from Christmas sales and the newly trending gaming culture.
Some of you say that that’s ok. It’s only natural in our economic environment. After all, if gaming companies are doing well lately, why should they not expand into new markets? In the economic world, there’s nothing quite as bad as stagnation. If you are not growing – you are doing something wrong. So is it surprising that FFG and WotC are catering to big brand stores and online retailers? No. In a way, they don’t have a choice.
We do. We have a choice when we buy things. We can choose what we buy and where we buy those things from and big companies constantly monitor this. Statistics are a driving force behind targeted sales, but more importantly, they are very important for R&D.
But let’s back up a bit and talk a little about why we are a part of our gaming culture. What drives us to sit down with other people and roll dice, lay cards and do our worst Chewbacca impressions? Game designers always point out that the most important aspect of gaming is to have fun. That’s undeniable. I would very much like to argue though that games are a form of art. I am not going to, because whilst some would undoubtedly agree, others would probably raise some eyebrows, and that’s not a debate I want to get into here. So let’s just say that games are a form of human craftsmanship. Some guy has an idea, he makes that idea come to life and we, as consumers, embrace it. And I’d bet the hair on my head that quite a large number of us gamers sit down and play these games because we like to appreciate them. We like to observe the creations of women and men and admire them, analyze them, talk about them. We like to share them. This is the same experience that we indulge in when we’re listening to The Beatles, watch Scorsese or read Fitzgerald. We get to share this experience together with some people around a table.
I think the videogame market is the best example of a niche hobby that blew up into the mainstream and became a mockery of itself. Fifteen years ago, would I have imagined every English High Street littered with corporate video game chains selling you whatever console game you’d ever want to play? Nah, I wouldn’t have. Mostly cause I was living in a post-soviet country and buying pirated cartridges for my chipped Sega Mega Drive II from a dodgy man in the local indoor market, as non-pirated ones cost only about a quarter of my parent’s combined monthly salary. Also I had no idea what the English High Street was. But I had a pretty good imagination and that sort of thing just didn’t seem real to me. My point is, video games are everywhere now. And to those of you who played the original Fallout games, Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate, Dungeon Keeper, to those who spent countless hours trying to solve Full Throttle or Grim Fandango, those of you that marveled in the complexity of the original X-Com games and those who bread zerg after zerg in Stracraft I say to you: you and me know that games are not the same anymore.
I really don’t want to sound like an old man, because there are loads of good new games out there. The genre innovates and evolves and from time to time delivers a gem. The difference is that now it is oversaturated with overhyped and overstylized games, and there are people who’ll keep telling you how amazing these games are, whilst all the time you’re wishing that he or she: a) knew better, b) shut the fuck up. And these games only exist because big corporations saw one fact and one fact only. There is money to be made from video games. So companies like BioWare and Blizzard have been bought out and made into money-making machines. They don’t get to craft what they want anymore. The statistics part dictates what people want, so they deliver. It’s the difference between buying a shoe from a shoemaker, or one made by a kid in a factory somewhere in Asia.
The sad fact is that these big companies are now starting to see profit from tabletop gaming. And when this hobby will become more mainstream, it will unavoidably sell more. Companies will be bought out by corporations and content will be created based on statistics and what they think we want. That to me is terrifying.
A few friends of mine pointed out to me yesterday, that whilst they can understand that there are some negatives, they’re finally able to explain to their cousin, who’s only interest is football, that gaming is not as complicated and that they should play some games themselves. And to that I say, let’s not start kicking a dead donkey here. If people want to play games, they’ll play them. Perceptions are important, and whilst some are shackled by them, most people know what they want, and if they want it – they take it. To hell with perception, if we worry enough what other people think of us, we’ll just become shallow chess-jocks who kick the emotional shit out of sportsnerds at school with obscure referential witty puns.
Gaming will become mainstream – that’s unavoidable. But we can still keep it our hobby. A real hobby with real craft behind it. Oh fuck it, with real ART behind it. Don’t buy X-Wing from Target. Don’t buy Carcassone from Amazon. Don’t play Magic: the Gathering at Waterstones. Let these developers and big businesses know that we only want real games and we want to buy them from our local shops. NOT from Forbidden Planet. If you’re buying games from them, you are making our hobby shit.
Oh, and what the hell was that candy story about? Well, spreading the good stuff out makes it too thin. Share tabletop games with the world, and the world might just take it away.