This week's column is admittedly lightweight, as I hadn't planned on writing another one before 2011 (in part to give my editor a break), but I've had these images sitting in my iPhone and they're strangely appropo of some of my end-of-the-year reflections. I took these in a Toys R Us about six weeks ago while Christmas shopping with my mother and nephew.
One of my larger questions around video-game journalism is precisely who the hell our audience is. It's not "gamers" because I know too many of them who don't know what Destructoid, Kotaku, or Joystiq are, haven't laid eyes on a video game magazine since Nintendo Power back in the 1980's, and could give a damn about anything in a review past the score. Rather, our audience is a subset of greater gamerdom that sees past pure entertainment and wants to know something about the industry behind it…but what about the "regular people" I've heard about that depend on us to know which games to buy for their children?
I found it hard to believe that any of the children I saw shopping in these pictures, who are representative of the kids I see in Target or Wal-Mart or Best Buy shopping for games, are reading up on the video-game websites on a regular basis to figure out what games they want. It's easier to think that they get their information from traditional media ads, or more likely their other friends who play games. But someone usually chimes in during debates of the purpose of video-game reviews to say that they exist, in part, to help parents deal with the situation when their children drags them over to this display stand:
I imagine that those of us on the informed side of the fence might argue that Dark Void is much less of a "superbuy" than either of the Call of Duty games placed immediately to its left, or that Iron Man 2 and Mass Effect 2 don't belong on the same shelf, but to the parent who hasn't done their homework? They're all just more kids toys to be bought, wrapped, and shoved under the tree. Do any of us really reach that parent?
You see, I'm a little curious as to whether anyone who wants to argue that the video-game media assists parents in decisions like these isn't fooling themselves. We don't write for Ma and Pa. Hell, I'd argue that we don't even write for anyone younger than their late teens.
Just in case you're someone who doesn't do a whole lot of retail video-game shopping, Toys R Us far from represents the average retail environment. The whole chain is kind of an anachronism at this point, and it's no wonder they've been vanishing from the Boston area for years…but I find that its old-school layout in the video-game section is symbolic of an old perspective most of us have left behind.
There were two aisles just like this one absolutely filled with crap. The old school pure-consumer approach to video games dictated that one simply pumped out as many titles as possible, and this, in part, is what led to the big video game crash of 1983. Even though most of the product in this photo was likely produced within the last couple years, the same "video games are just toys" mentality is in operation here. I feel almost prideful that most stores are paring down their peripheral sections to only carrying a few third-party brands at a time. The stores realize that we're getting smarter, and can't keep wasting money on stocking endless supplies of garbage that most of us will ignore.
I do wonder, though, whether there isn't something being lost in our continuing evolution from pure consumer culture to an increasingly-sophisticated audience. Someday, hopefully, my nephew is going to want to play video games like his uncle and I'll get to start shopping concertedly for a gamer other than myself…and I wonder what I'll be able to find for him. When I was a kid, that entire cabinet in the photo above would have been filled with age-appropriate games. Now, any guesses as to how many of the games above we'd be willing to give to either of those two little girls?
There was a mystery and a delight in gaming I felt as a kid which is gone, and I can't lay all of that on approaching my late 30's. Video gaming's ascent into producing work that might actually have something to say rather than merely being a thing to be played is inevitable, and for the most part welcomed, as long as it doesn't come at the cost of taking things too seriously and losing track of the fun that gaming, just plain gaming, always needs to be in my humble opinion.
What these photos made me think of the most as I looked them over before writing this last First Person column of 2010, is something that Leigh Alexander said in the first issue of Kill Screen. It was something about walking into a GameStop and trying to strike up a conversation with the customers about video games, and not recognizing being in a crowd of "us." I'm a gamer to the core, and I don't recognize the video game section of Toys R Us as being meant for me any longer.
That doesn't bother me. What does worry me a little is that I also didn't recognize the wonderment that I saw in the eyes of the children in these photographs as they stared through the glass at the games they wanted. I read too many video-game journalists who just don't give off any sense of loving their games anymore. That seems like a ridiculously high price to pay just to have the job, and I can only hope that it has more to do with individuals than the demands of the position in a general sense.
Food for thought in 2011. Happy New Year, everyone.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. He has written for The Escapist and @Gamer magazine, is currently penning a feature for Gamasutra, and maintains a blog at punchingsnakes.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca. First Person is his weekly column on Bitmob concerned with meta questions around the video-game industry and the journalism that covers it.