The Gaming Club

I Have Seen the Future, and It Is Full of Noobs Like Me
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Dec. 15 2011 5:33 PM

The Gaming Club

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I have seen the future, and it is full of noobs like me.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim may be the greatest accomplishment of 2011

© 2011 Bethesda Softwork.

Is it that time already? I feel like I’ve leveled up just by watching you all in action. I’m still not a gamer (although that won’t stop me from attending MMMGIRL 2012; Chris, I’m glad to hear you’ve already registered), but after this week’s exchanges, I’m thinking I might be about to get a lot more serious about playing games. Perhaps what I am is an aspiring gamer.

Speaking of which, am I correct in saying that the term “gamer” hasn’t really been in existence very long? Back in the day (the ’80s and early ’90s), I don’t think people who played video games were thought of as a separate population. Sure, there were people who played more than others, but none of us played that much more than others as to warrant an entire new category. We were just kids who played games. Scrolling from left to right along the time axis, from the Atari 2600 to Coleco to Intellivision to NES to Super NES and Sega Genesis to—a-ha!—there it is, in the mid-’90s. The event that marked a new era came in December 1994: the release of the Sony PlayStation console. I hope I’m not getting my history wrong (if I am, perhaps you can all correct me in your various outlets after Gaming Club 2011 has disbanded), but I remember the release of the first PlayStation as pivotal in a lot of ways. Before that, in the prelapsarian epoch, video games (at least console games) were mostly kids’ things and were sort of disposable. Sure, they were great fun and hugely successful, but not so engrossing and time-consuming that anyone needed, say, a special chair just for playing them. A lot of them even looked a little junky: gray, molded plastic cartridges that you could pop out and blow the dust out of. (Everyone I knew did that even though no one had any idea if it even worked.) But then comes the PlayStation, this sleek, obsidian-looking thing, like an alien technology that fell out of the sky or the future or both, a $400 supercomputer playing $50 discs. I remember that as the time when a lot of people started getting crazy about games, and really good at them, too. And I realized they’d become this other kind of person, a gamer, and that I wasn’t one.

The point I am trying to make is, I think, about more than nomenclature. It’s about the creation of the idea of a self-identifying “gamer” and the rapid growth of that category. But even as the hardcore gamer population grows, I think we might be entering another era, where another demographic is growing even faster—the category of casual or slightly more-than-casual gamers like me. As Michael points out, there are untold millions of people who play Angry Birds. And if you add other iOS games as well as social games like Farmville, the numbers get really huge. We are all gamers now. Who knows, maybe in a few years, we’ll all be going to work through Kinect and our kids will go to school through it, too. People will feel as qualified to chat about the latest game release as they are to discuss this week’s movie or book or album or TV show, and even people who aren’t avid enthusiasts will still feel as comfortable talking about Ubisoft as they are about Paramount or NBC.

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All of which is to say, I have seen the future, gentlemen, and it is full of noobs like me.

Is that enough of a qualifier on everything I’m about to say? I fear it may not be, so I’ll add a couple more. I want to reiterate again that my choices here are constrained by the limited number and range of titles I played. This is, by necessity, a subjective and uninformed list, and I’m very aware of that. Expert gamers: Feel free to roll your eyes and sigh heavily while reading this.

Favorite game: Portal 2. For all the reasons I mentioned before. Tom, you said you actually didn’t like the puzzles as much as the non-gameplay portions, and I agree with you that the writing in the scripted interstitial material may have been the best part of the game, even better than the actual gameplay. Still, I found the puzzles tremendously rewarding. As I worked through the problem in each chamber, it was both maddening and comforting to know that everything I needed was in the room. I just needed to know how to use it. Again, I’m going to have to use an analogy to writing. When staring at a blank sheet of paper, you already know the words you could potentially use, it’s just a matter of putting the best words in the best order. Finding that correct combination of a few spare elements in Portal 2 was always a thrill for me, one that’s somewhat similar to the thrill of wrestling with language and finding the one sentence that makes my point—a solution of both elegance and economy.

Most disappointing game: Modern Warfare 3. It’s a little silly of me to put this on here, because being disappointed implies that I had some level of expectation that it would be good, when I really didn’t. I expected it to be pretty much exactly what it turned out to be: an incredibly decked-out first person shooter that, somehow, is both stunningly impressive and fairly underwhelming. I’m assuming all of those millions of people who got the game bought it for the multiplayer, because I find it hard to believe that this is the largest-grossing game of all time based on its story or campaign mode or writing. I admit that it's cool to shoot a rocket from a drone. So is shooting people from a helicopter. And so is shooting people from a boat. At some point, though, it occurred to me that this game is, basically, Duck Hunt. I felt bad enough killing all those innocent 8-bit ducks. Now, even as a very casual gamer, I'm guessing the number of video-game "people" I've killed must be in the hundreds of thousands. (Could it possibly be in the millions?) Something about that feels weird.

Most important game: Skyrim. Despite my comments about the partial illusion of openness in these open worlds, I still think this is an impressive achievement. I don’t know how you would even review a game like this, given that it’s so big and there is so much to do. Reviewing Skyrim seems a bit like reviewing an entire city. (“Municipality Magazine gives Los Angeles an 8.5 out of 10!” or something like that.) So many people are spending so much time in this game, exploring the nooks and crannies and the other kinds of stories you can create for yourself. Judging by the press, this is a game that has struck a nerve; you know a video game is making a large cultural and economic splash when someone writes an article about how the game might bring down the U.S. economy.

Well, that’s all for me. Thanks again, fellows, for the ideas, questions, knowledge, and recommendations. And if you ever see me in a multiplayer, please try to go easy on me.

Charles Yu is the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and the short story collection Third Class Superhero, for which he received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Playboy, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids.