Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Shifting Demographic: Trivia and Triviality

"Give yourself to me!
Let me be your overdose!"

Snack - Overdose

The original run of Fans! dates back to 2000 and like many webcomics of the time has become an interesting relic of a much younger Internet's twilight hours. More so, in dealing with geekdom before it went pop it displays some interesting contrast between the youth subculture of the '90s and the utter absence of a subculture within the woefully homogenized and oversocialized Generation Facebook. Take the main gimmick of its very first storyline, for instance. Does it still hold true? Are today's fans still enraptured by trivia? Maybe only in the demand that everything be trivialized. For the purposes of this post, what does it mean to be a computer game fan these days?

Log into The Lord of the Rings Online and try to strike up a conversation on the topic of, oh, say the crossing of the Helcaraxe, or ask if anyone can recite a couple of lines of A Elbereth Gilthoniel from memory. Hell, try and see how many players think Tauriel was an actual Tolkien character.
EVE-Online expected players to be able to grasp the basic concept of transversal velocity and be able to read market trends. City of Heroes revolved around creative costume design and writing backstories for one's characters. In any scifi game you used to trip at every pace over someone helpfully explaining the inverse square law or redshifting or that lasers don't really look that way! Morrowind expected players to know terms like yurts, laity or canton - and if you didn't, then look it up. Much later on, Skyrim contained almost no specific terminology aside from jarls and thanes.

In more practical terms character classes, though a terrible idea in computer games to begin with, nevertheless helped players create a personal identity within various virtual worlds. Removing classes should have yielded game systems in which personal choice is everything, in which the player chooses a small combination of skills from a wide array of possibilities and sticks with them for a reasonable period of time. Instead the rabble misinterpreted removing developer-enforced identities with removing player identity altogether, and the newer skill systems like The Secret World's have the players switching from healer to DPS at a moment's notice. No foresight or planning required, just grinding. Then again, this simply fed into the older problem of letting players create endless numbers of alts. When's the last time anyone in a multiplayer RPG actually cared about their character? Or are we all content to condemn ourselves to be faceless, disposable, interchangeable redshirts?

Note, what's changed over the past fifteen years was not the amount of player time investment in games. Skyrim was if anything even larger than Morrowind / Oblivion and players are spending more time than ever mindlessly grinding, farming and milling endless numbers of identical monsters for achievement unlocks. Obedience / obsessiveness is our sole remaining virtue. We lost everything else. What do you expect from a gamer culture whose favorite insults, increasingly, are "neckbeard", "tryhard" or "lulz u mad bro." Investing thought into your activity, knowing too much, caring too much, being overly-creative, having some standard of quality for the product or those with whom you associate, these amount to the deadly sins of the new internet and of video games by extension. Nothing is worse than being better.

While computer games were still a nerdy pursuit, information was the name of the game. From overdosing on all the juicy, juicy data on screen, we've gone to gorging ourselves on sameness, endlessly consuming the same instantly recognizable routine. Hit troll with axe. Look at all the unit stats in some old TBS like M.A.X., read through all the background info fleshing out a fantasy world in Planescape: Torment or compare SimEarth's pages upon pages of slider bars to Spore's puerile three-button simplicity of gameplay. What you're seeing is the difference between trivia and triviality, overdose and gluttony, the cooptation of a major segment of nerdy pursuit by the greater anti-intellectualism of society at large.

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