Monday, April 20, 2009

The Videogame Generation Gap

Had she affections and warm youthful blood,
She would be as swift in motion as a ball;
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me:
But old folks, many feign as they were dead;
Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead.

(Act II, Scene 7, Romeo & Juliet)

My tastes have changed since I was younger (I prefer mojitos more than Kool-Aid on a hot day for example), but I like to think my videogame preferences have generally been consistent. Sure I like a broader taste of games now, but I also have better access to games, and thus a broader selection of interesting titles to choose from. Yet for some reason, it seems the older I get the more I feel it necessary to attribute my personal tastes, or complaints, to the generation gap. Donning a "kids these days" mentality to brush off increasingly popular, or unpopular, videogame trends as anomalies is unhealthy for game development and criticism.

I write this not because a particular piece of journalism or podcast sinned in some way, but because I've noticed the frequent appearance of phrases like "maybe I'm just getting old but" or "I am to old for." I too am guilty of relying on this platitude when I'd rather not elaborate my opinion. But these sayings fall into a trap. They deny any significance to what actually explains differing beliefs and values between gamers.

There is undeniably a popular notion in American culture that the generation gap exists and that it is natural. Parents will never understand their children, the old will never be able to handle youth culture, etc. Though children will always find their voice independent of their parents, the generation gap, if it exists, is not nearly as influential as we might think. There are, in fact, plenty of healthy parent-child relationships far into adulthood. The generation gap exemplified by youths' rebellious spirit is exacerbated by marketing tactics exploiting our cultural fetish with youth and a false need to define ourselves by what we buy.
The videogame generation gap may not stem from the same source, but its symptoms are similar. There is a sense that as gamers mature, their tastes mature, they become less patient, and they find it more difficult to internalize new videogame challenges. If the future is as predicted, I may enter my old age replaying Bioshock over and over again because I can't handle those "damnfangled" VR machines.

While I will certainly become senile myself, there is little evidence to suggest adults can't handle new technology. The number of Wii players over fifty and of older adults who have grown comfortable in the Internet savvy world, is a testament to our technical adaptability. There are already sites designed for "old" gamers. Rather than shrug off those who do have a hard time picking up new games as too old, we should reexamine how game educate new players, which is by no means a new concern.

The same can be said for maturing tastes and waning patience of aging gamers. There are plenty of gamers well into adulthood who will excitedly purchase the next Peggle or Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad. Likewise, my desire for games that allow me to save whenever I like is not the result of my growing laziness, but of a shrinking amount of leisure time.
This need not be attributed to a generation gap, despite an obvious correlation. The same goes for difficulty. I do not have time to crash against a wall of failure again and again, but if I lost my job I would suddenly have the time to waste on trivial pursuits. However, I could also just be the type of gamer who enjoys exploration over skill tests and severe punishment, irrespective of age.

I am not one to point to the past as an ideal, but I can understand the concern self-proclaimed "old school gamers" have for the future of videogames. Perhaps some of the fervor to innovate endlessly, to find the next niche game carved out by young developers, has to do with a paranoia we have of growing old and stale, of becoming lost to the videogame generation gap. In doing so, we may miss important lessons from games we played years ago.

That is not to say old and troubling paradigms don't exist in the videogame industry. Even Will Wright, approaching his fifties, understands the importance of new industry trends. But such focus should retain a critical eye towards the history of games we've already established. This includes fields outside of the videogame industry. There is a lot to learn from theater, literature, web 2.0 interface design, and even modern dance. Incorporating the a broad array of cross-generational experiences, is the best way to ensure I'll be playing games well into eighties.


  1. I was just writing about this sort of thing. There seems to be more going on here than just a "generation gap". The stereotypes perpetuated by the current idea of what a "gamer" is sort of continues to cut off more and more types gamers until there is one game for each type of gamer out there (those being FPS, Platform, Puzzle, RPG, Action / Adventure). This is an overgeneralization but it's a horrible path to go down and it really seems to be happening.

    Our foundation as a country and our understated belief that success = chosen by god = awesome has really begun to take hold in the game industry despite it being an international thing. I have long wanted to see more emphasis on atmosphere development rather than system development.

    I suppose we don't have much say in the matter but it's right to be concerned.

  2. @Jorge - good points all around ... I've been thinking/writing about generational and maturity issues recently.

    "This need not be attributed to a generation gap, despite an obvious correlation... I do not have time to crash against a wall of failure again and again, but if I lost my job I would suddenly have the time to waste on trivial pursuits."

    I do think that correlation matters, despite its obviousness. The idea that work, and money, are equated with time is a north american adult way of experiencing the world. The idea that play (the child's world) must give way to work (the adult's world) is heavily integrated in our consumerist society, and although I find it hard to admit, I'm deeply affected by it. For instance -- my summers in junior high and high school consisted of sitting around playing Mega Man 2 (NES) and adventure games on my PC. Now, although my summer is technically "free", I could not imagine doing something like that. Even the thought of grinding through hours of MM2 chills the blood.

    So yes - of course our values/beliefs are different than them youngin's - but it is indeed because of a generation gap. The gap exists because we don't live in the same worlds -- kids don't think of 'leisure time vs. income vs. work'. Most of them think, 'what do I want to do next?' - and then they do it.

    I only bring up this point because technologization has led to a world that's constantly in flux and demands that we keep up with it. Estrangement from others, from other generations, comes part and parcel with the process, I think.

    @Before Game Design:
    Interesting conclusion re: genre specificity. I had the opposite sense - I've been noticing that genres are becoming increasingly homogenized in favour of "universal" standards for design.
    There's a really interesting conversation going on at HDRLying on a similar topic:

    I do see what you mean that games are increasingly becoming specific to certain gamer personalities - but I see that as a good thing in some ways. Perhaps in the future we might have games that are specifically written for one person - like writing a letter to a friend. In fact, that sounds like one hell of an interesting idea to prototype...

    Either way, I completely agree that 'atmosphere' needs much more depth than 'systems' in games today. There are some wonderful examples of yore (Heart of Darkness, Out of this World, Ultima VIII, etc etc) that did a great job of establishing thick atmospheres.

  3. @ BGD

    To be honest, I don't know where I stand on the homogenization vs. genre specificity you and Chris mention. I can aspects of both with the same result: stagnation. Then again, we also have Henry Hatsworth.

    @ Chris

    The "Time=Money" problem is incredibly problematic, and I'm glad you brought it up. And, though I think we see early indoctrination of these beliefs in youth marketing (Fake cell phones and brief cases for kids? So much for unbounded exploration.), it is concentrated in the culture of adulthood.

    My gripe is not the fact we live in certain worlds, but explaining these differences with "the generation gap" is harmful because it suggests this world is natural. Recognizing a difference of perceptions of time management and describing it as such has repercussions on the videogame industry and culture at large. Should videogames be encouraging "play" in adulthood again? If so, is World of Warcraft unethical as some have suggested? I don't think we need to become estranged from others, particularly younger generations. Their play habits and preferences are equally relevant to the way we think of games.

  4. I fear games might develop a generation gap. Until recently, if you followed Videogames you had knowledge of most "milestones" of Videogame history (Space Invaders, Mario, Tetris, SimCity, Doom, Myst, etc...). You were there, you witnessed them. You understood their importance. There was a common ground, no matter how old you were.

    But now I sometimes find myself speaking to younger players, who haven't played those games. Or if they played it - they don't see what makes them so special because the weren't there when those games came out. It's the sequels they played first.

    I haven't witnessed problems resulting from that but I can imagine some of them in the future...

  5. But now I sometimes find myself speaking to younger players, who haven't played those games. Or if they played it - they don't see what makes them so special because the weren't there when those games came out. It's the sequels they played first.There is so very much I wish I could say on this subject. It's such an interesting thing, the differences between generations.

    The subject of this post was happening when we were younger. I'm 30 now, my first game was on the intellivision. My parents tell me how fun their pong machine was and some of my older cousins tell me how awesome arcades were; my grandparents talk about carnivals and fairs and how awesome they were. I'm sure their parents talked about scrabble, and other board games coming around. The concept of play and the changes of play are long and fascinating.

    I think the issue here is just that we haven't ever moved on past those mile stones. Mario brothers was cool, but's still around only more complex and with flying sometimes. It's the ingredients of play that change.

    This happens in literature as well. Sure, Lord of the Rings was THE fantasy series but now there's some that have just done it so much better or in such a different way that you can't read the LOTR and feel like you've had a good time.

    If you call it a generation gap, I suppose the term is correct. It's variation in technology causing different views of different time periods in gaming.

    The big difference between the people that were around when games started and now is, we're all still playing games and will probably continue to do so.

  6. What was your purpose in including the picture of Alfie the 13 year old dad and that girl he procreated with?

  7. @ Branch-me-do

    I'm surprised anyone recognized the kid. I included it because if that's not a different childhood experience than what I grew up in, I don't know what is.

  8. I think this discussion demonstrates the necessity history as a subject applied to gaming. I'm talking both about narrative histories as well as analytical monographs.

    Without people chronicling the development of the medium, unbridgeable gaps could very well form.

    Furthermore, the advent of patches and DLC makes the historical record cloudy when it comes to analyzing a single title. How should we study WoW as an entity? Or how about the Fallout DLC that changes the ending?

  9. Yes, being a 13 year old who's just had a baby by a 15 year old and playing Saints Row 2 (with your controllers switched off) is rather unique.

    It just seemed a rather bizarre choice of picture given you just seemed to want pictures of different age groups playing games.

  10. Though there is definitely that cynicism that pops up with new video games that I as an old veteran gamer from the 80's might not pick up and play, there has to be something of a difference between how older and younger gamers approach the community gaming experience.
    Just about every night me, my brother and sister in law all hop onto skype and LOL, it is a bonding experience and it has been this way since way before he met his wife. We have been doing this in some form or another since the late 90's with ventrillo and starcraft. teamspeak and wow or anarchy online. many many games. For some reason everyone that is around our age seems to click together, we know why we are here and it is unspoken. For the most part younger gamers that we include in our cadre seem to get it and we all get along just fine. But there are times when I subconciously feel that they have slightly different reasons and ways of approaching this act than I do. Different expectations that you can't put your finger on. Sometimes I feel that I have just recieved a cold response from them and they don't even know it, like some unnamed internet etiquette has been broken. It's no one's fault and it just IS. Sometimes I feel that they are a bit too quick to let you truly be in their list of gaming buddies, I don't know.
    We just friended on skype 3 hours ago, I'm level 21 and you are 30. You invite me into a LOL ARAM game, a mod which i have had no exposure to. I get stuck with a champion that I have had no experience with and totally have the wrong mastery page for. You are playing with somebody who honestly doesn't care about you. And you sincerely feel that I'm going to give it my all and be a totally dependable team mate for you to carry the team to victory? Or you might even have the nerve to tell me that I openly suck with a champion or be really quick to call me a n00b and expect me to not take it personally? Something tells me that a person that you get buddy buddy with and joke around with, and send youtube links to is not somebody that would do that to you and yet it happens. I'm not saying that every 17 year old player is like that, most of them are cool as shit. but sometimes I wonder if we are on the same page.