Friday, June 18, 2010

E3 State of Mind

As E3 week wraps up, I find myself with conflicting thoughts on its importance. It is obviously a thinly-disguised, week-long commercial created to draw players into the hype vortex. Even so, I (and many others, judging by my Twitter stream) just can't help but absorb every piece of carefully packaged news.

E3 lets us lust after the newest, shiniest toys but it also serves as an important cultural event for gaming. For better or worse, E3 possesses specific traits that both mirror and define the culture of a specific subset of gamers.


Since its inception, E3 has provided us with the soap opera-style drama that all us sophisticated critics decry, but secretly enjoy. One of my favorite examples comes from way back in the distant year of 1995. Sega came to E3 looking to win the fifth-generation console war through an blitzkrieg strategy. Instead of its fall release date, they shocked everyone by revealing that, rather than the expected fall release date, the Saturn would be available in the US immediately. Not to be outdone, Sony turned around and announced that their upcoming PlayStation would retail for a full $100 less than the Saturn.

These types of machinations both feed off and contribute to the unusual culture of secrecy in video game culture. No other form of art or entertainment is as clandestine. Only in the gaming world would someone like David Jaffe explicitly deny working on a new Twisted Metal game only to then reveal at E3 that he was doing exactly that. It would be like Michael Bay disavowing knowledge of a new Transformers movie.

Regardless of their necessity, E3 drama provides a spark of unpredictability that appeals to our sensationalist tendencies. Today's surprises become tomorrow's stories, which in turn help define gaming culture.

Heroes and Villains

Perhaps no other event is as influential in defining our relationship with game companies. The minute a key note ends, generalized, convenient narratives begin to form about companies and their relationship to gamers.

This year, Nintendo did an about-face away from its soccer-mom oriented strategy and delivered a suite of traditional games targeted at a traditional audience. A lineup that included Zelda, Kid Icarus, Donkey Kong, and Samus was accompanied by what appears to be the first and only elegant 3D gaming solution. In a strange twist, gamers that once felt left behind during the Wii's ascendancy can now look at Nintendo as a safe harbor in which to wait out the growing storm of slap-dash motion control and 3D gimmickry being introduced by Sony and Microsoft.

Microsoft, the champion of the "hardcore" gamer, now casts its eye towards Nintendo territory. However, there seems to be an undercurrent of worry among many that expanding the Xbox empire into Wii-land will mean taking on the very characteristics that have fundamentally changed Nintendo's identity. After all, janky motion-control minigames in 1080p are ultimately just as shallow as janky motion-control minigames in 480p.

Off to the side, we have the remains of a vast empire that brought down by its own hubris. By launching an expensive, technically complex, and thinly supported console, Sony and the PlayStation 3 embody many of the factors that led to Sega and the Saturn's downfall. Now, a once-mighty leader is relegated to a defensive strategy of iteration rather than innovation. Improving the Wii Remote and emulating Xbox Live are logical goals, but it may be some time before Sony regains its heroic posture.

Of course, there is always PC gaming. Standing in the corner, shaking its head with a knowing grin, it waits for the consoles to catch up to its technology and Internet-focused approach. Sony's partnership with Valve, PC gaming's messiah, hints at a future where difference between today's heroes may be largely be in name only.

E is for Exclusive

Perhaps the strangest thing about E3 is that it caters to a small, yet extremely vocal population of gamers. Some might call them "core" but I think another apt (perhaps less complementary) title is "stereotypical." While the number of Farmville players likely dwarfs the number of World of Warcraft, Halo, and Call of Duty players combined, Facebook is basically a non-entity at the show. Zynga may have been the bogeyman at GDC 2010, but at E3 it is a ghost.

E3 is an event for geeks dedicated to the concept of gaming as it existed in the 1980s and 1990s: a separate subculture that required specialized knowledge and enthusiasm. Theirs is a world of longstanding game designs, an emphasis on technology, and preference towards dedicated gaming experiences. E3 is a place for people to gather and defend themselves against perceived attacks by the rise of "casual" games and social media.

More innocently, it is a time for these folks to share a common experience. People usually separated by platform or genre come together to discuss the daily bombshells and reminisce on those of years past. Together, we suffer through the vacuous, stilted PR-speak and share an ironic eye roll at the expense of the suits.

On some level, we know that E3 is monstrously silly, but at the same time we must recognize that its silliness is fed by aspects of the culture we help create. Through some combination of our attention and our money, we tacitly endorse E3 as a defining force in the culture surrounding games. It should not be written off as pure fluff, as it is clear that it reflects and influences the way we think of the medium, but at the same time we cannot take it too seriously. Secrets are titillating but ultimately not very meaningful. The heroic "winners" and villainous "losers" are defined by quarterly earnings, not bloggers. Thinking of E3 as a "gaming" event is myopic in today's demographics.

Still there is something fun about the whole bloated, awkward spectacle. Of course I'm sure sitting through the Kennedy incident was only fun in retrospect.

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