In Support Of Blasting Through Content

This isn’t actually something I normally support, unhealthy but I got to thinking about my current Wildstar experience, and some of the bon mots that typically surround the MMO genre, and in doing the math, I think I understand why I’m enjoying the game up to this point.

The one statement that has always made my cringe is “the game doesn’t start until the level cap”. The explanation, of course, is that the real challenging content is in the end game: raiding, mostly, but by virtue of great ideas, hilariously encompasses repetitive dailies and mindlessly grinding for gear. Wiseassery aside, the game itself has all lead up to the point where you’ve gotten enough practice in to really put your skills to the test, which is the desire of every MMO player, right? Right? Sure, why not.

Except that journey is really fucking long. Like, really long if you’re soloing or have no power-leveling group which buys into the idea that the decades of levels, zones, content, dialog, gear, NPCs, enemies, dungeons, and anything else I might have missed are nothing but time-wasters holding them back from what they really should be doing. If this idea of starting the game at the cap were true…why don’t we start the game at a the cap? Why hire designers and artists and developers to create 50-100 levels worth of throw-away content that passes by like scenery outside our bullet-train window on our way to our destination? Why not just make level 1 super powerful, and the game nothing but one big Raid-Go-Round?

I only every got to about level 68 in World of Warcraft before I couldn’t stomach any more. And that was about two or three years ago. There was a lot to do, with several expansions, that I had about three quarters as much ahead of me as I had already put behind me, and as someone who doesn’t raid, I couldn’t endure the slog any longer. Some people say that WoW is too easy to level, and I’m sure it is if you’re on your second account because you’ve filled your first with the as many alts as the game let you create.

Wildstar was created by many ex-WoW minions who have claimed that they wanted to “fix what was wrong with WoW“, and they have, in a manner of speaking, in regards to their level curve.

Normally, I’m extremely sensitive to this curve. I have made it to the cap in only two games — one because I had people to play with, which kept my interest and momentum, and the other because of an automatic supplement to active XP gets. Normally I burn out between levels 15 and 30, which when you consider that a lot of games have caps between 60 and 100 equates to the young adult demographic if we’re talking age.

So far with Wildstar, I haven’t even had that inkling. I’ve consciously thought to myself, “do I want to keep going with this”, and the answer has always been a mental backhand. Normally when I find that question being asked, it’s not so much a question as an ultimatum, and I know the end is near. This time, the leveling in Wildstar is happening so smoothly that my need to see progression is assuaged without my even knowing it. In most games my trigger fires when I can’t progress, quest wise, but Wildstar hasn’t been shy about piling on the work. I’ve even got back-up work like tradeskills and work orders, housing planning, and Path missions. And although I’m not usually an alt-lover I haven’t ever gotten very far on the Exile side, so I have that entire half of the game to tackle.

Now, it could be that I’m still in the “honeymoon zone”, and I may find that the higher the level, the more of a slog it becomes, but I don’t know that it’ll bother me. I’ve not been measuring my progress by level so much as I have been by sub-zone and zone, with the Most Metal Level Up Noise Ever being the icing on the cake. And of course there’s Path stuff, and finding the hidden crap that’s out there…knowing it’s out there, but not knowing where…

Wildstar is the first game that I think has purposefully put it’s money where it’s mouth is in regard to the game starting at the cap, because they’ve done a good job at making the journey worthwhile, and not something you simply blast through. I know old habits die hard for some (as there were level 50s very shortly after the game launched), but the game really seems to want people to hurry up and get to the cap already…but not at the expense of the hard work that the devs and artists and musicians put into the journey.

Where’s The Fun?

Jonathan “Ardua” Doyle has a post up this morning on MMOGames in which he laments the loss of “fun” in the games we play. I agree with him, viagra 40mg and started to tell him so, here but the comment got too long (as usual). In the writing, try I managed to articulate some things that I had been having trouble putting into text previously, and wanted to fit that discussion into an ongoing framework here at the site.

The thing is, of course, is that “fun” is entirely subjective. There is no getting away from that fact. There is no viable argument to the contrary. Jonathan and I, and you, and your guild mates and friends, will all come up with different definitions of what makes a game fun. That’s key: I’m not going to argue with strangers about how X is more fun than Y. It’s as pointless as…arguing on the Internet!

What I do think we may agree on, then, is that MMOs have been chasing an ideal that we’ll arbitrarily call “World of Warcraft-level Subscriber Numbers”, for a lack of a better, more specific term. MMO design has become less of an art, and more of a science, a modular kit in which designers convene and check boxes during initial meetings: The game must have crafting (check), dungeons (check), raids (check), guilds (check). Only once that list has been compiled do the designers engage the cretive process to figure out how to tweak that formula so it’s not so obvious that they just assembled this game from the pieces of someone else’s battle-tested design.

Part of the reason is financial, as MMOs a big budget projects, and companies footing the bills want assurances on the viability on a return for their investment. The MMO market is pretty saturated, and there’s no stomach for risk. The designers MUST provide security for investment, so they look to what has been successful in other games and adopt those mechanics. But they also look to the consumers. With big budget MMOs, designing to an existing audience’s past preferences hopefully increases the chance that a game will succeed (hopefully).

Before you go getting a big head about your individual importance in the design of MMOs, step back and look at your community. The design of these games reflects the ebb and flow of the community at large, what they (think they) want, what they have rejected, and even a little of what the designer thinks the community will accept.

So it’s finances that tie the hands of designers, but it’s also the consumer’s behaviors that make these games what they are. Let’s face it: the WoW Clone wouldn’t be an optional ideal if people didn’t keep demanding WoW Clones.

So what about the fun?

If we accept that MMO design is more math than inspiration, then we need to shift the talk about the influence of the community. In my opinion, humans like to be assured that their decisions and interests are valid. As individuals we think we like what we like, but in the age of over-sharing and instant feedback, we can get that other people’s thumbs up or thumbs down to validate our decisions. A the end of the day, we just want to be part of some community, and we want to be appreciated for who we are, what we think, and what we bring to the table.

Geeks value knowledge. It’s our currency, our XP, and our Faction rating. According to “stereotypes”, geeks lack physical prowess, attractiveness, and business acumen, but if there’s one market that geeks have cornered it’s knowledge. We trade it among ourselves to prove to one another that we belong in this community, and we expect one another to provide similar bona fides for that purpose. We’re suspcious of poseurs and “fake geeks” who haven’t “paid their dues” but who lay claim to the mantle of “being a geek” simply because it’s become trendy (and profitable) in today’s wider culture.

But geeks are also just like every other human, and want people both inside and outside the culture to appreciate what they bring to the table. This is why we stream our game play, blog, tweet, write guides and add-ons, and do an insane amount of self-promotion for a sub-culture that’s been stereotyped as “socially awkward”. We’re constantly trying to achieve and justify to others our place in the geek sub-culture by sharing our knowledge (whether people want it or not) in exchange for the high-fives, re-Tweets, and subscribers.

Games are what we know. We want people to know that we know. And so it really helps when what we know doesn’t change, because that would mean re-learning everything we thought we knew, setting us back as a community by devaluing our knowledge-currency. So we demand that these companies not deviate from the formula that we’re familiar with, thereby allowing us to maintain our place in the greater geek hierarchy that we’ve proven we deserve.

Still not hearing anything about the fun…

That’s the pre-amble. Here’s the payload.

MMO game design has been boiled down to a LEGO set that designers provide, for financial reasons, and that gamers demand because it’s familiar. We don’t get new ideas because no one wants to pay for them, and because as a community we’re unsure that we’ll be able to trade in them. Ergo, we get games that are painfully similar to one’s we’ve already consumed, and yet we as a community continue to strip them bare for our own self-interests.

I have to reiterate that fun is subjective. There are boatloads of people who find WoW Clones fun, who find games like EVE Online fun, and of course there’s less game-specific wildcards like friends that can make even the most boring, cookie-cutter clone stupidly enjoyable.

Still, the demands of the plebes and the financial disincentives for the developers are going to produce games which are known quantities. Games with XP, levels, the Holy Trinity (or a smokescreen that looks like it’s Trinity-less, but which gamers will insist on bending back to the Trinity), dungeons, raids, achievements, and the reliance upon loot as the most desirable goal in the game are going to make up the majority of options on the market. Guides are written, streams are fired up, blog posts dissect, and community stars ascend as players figure out who to trust and who’s blowing smoke. Everyone is expected to commit to the community-discerned, community-sanctioned “right way” to play so not to cause a wipe or waste other people’s time. And we do, because we all want to be well thought of, and don’t want to be “That Noob” that ruined the experience for everyone through a demonstration of ignorance.

What we lose out on is exploration and discovery, the opportunity to have dynamic worlds and unique systems, and a personal learning experience through doing, failing, retrying, and basking in our own ultimate success.

Again, fun is subjective, and to be subjective we require an environment where we’re able to find the fun. Most modern MMOs expect us to find the fun in what we’re given, because other people — possibly us — have found fun in a very similar experience in the past. There’s little to no leeway any more as the pressures of conforming to community expectations designed by the community itself matter more than the Zen of the experience of playing the game.

Overall, I think we’re poorer for it. We’ve demanded “different” in the past, but like anything we rarely know what we want, but we absolutely know what we don’t want once we see it. Not every experiment will succeed, but then again, not every MMO has to appeal to everyone. I’m very much OK with the idea of a massive splintering of the genre which allows smaller titles to appeal to different segments, so that everyone can find a game that they really enjoy, rather than have to rely on expensive AAA titles which must succeed in being palatable to a wide a range of paying players. With a more diverse genre, I think we can all find a game which is fun for us on the individual level.

As a foot-note, I’d also like to appeal to folks who believe that guides and walk-throughs are an inseparable part of the MMO landscape. They’re really not. Yes, our time is valuable, and yes, success is much preferable to failure, but I’ve always looked at the reliance on guides as “playing someone else’s game”.  They tell you what to do and what not to do, like an outline or a Paint By Number project, which leaves you only as the mechanical operator of a soul-less experience. Part of the conceit of these “products of fantasy” is giving ourselves over to the experience as much as we’re able. In my opinion, relying on guides is breaking the fourth wall and robs us of a fully realized experience. Yes, that means a high chance of failure, but I know that for myself, the feeling of accomplishment I get from eventual success after failure is far and away more satisfying than simply going through the motions for the carrot on the stick.

When Video Attacks

I just received a customer satisfaction survey via email for the company that sold me the second iPhone replacement screen that I bought from them. The survey was very short and straightforward, about it consisting of clicking stars for “how satisfied I was” and “would recommend to others”, page but at the end, they offered me the opportunity to leave some feedback in two forms. The first was a text box, and the second was a video testimonial. Their Flash widget would access my webcam (if I allowed it) and I could record myself hopefully showing the fine item I purchased, and gushing about how I loved the company that sold it to me.

Video is getting to be extremely annoying to me. I spend a lot of time on the Internet (it’s part of my job), and so a lot of that time is spent searching the Internet. Increasingly, I’m finding search results that lead to YouTube or other video service hosts. Technically, these results are 100% valid, but I’m finding that there are videos being recommended for the stupidest and most minor results imaginable. More often than not, my search could be answered in a single paragraph, so why should I have to sit through some amateur videographer stumbling through an explanation when a few words would have sufficed, and have been quicker and easier to index for the future?

Among my online circles, many people will use services like Twitch or Hitbox to stream video game play (AKA “Let’s Play”), but just as many in the same circles pop up like gophers to ask “why watch someone else play a game when you could play it yourself?” That’s a very valid question, and it’s one that is going to need a solid answer soon because game streaming is taking off at an exponential rate. A lot of games have it built in now, and both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have Twitch streaming included at the OS level.

Video has it’s place, but there’s a pretty large hump that a producer needs to get over before is should be considered as the first response in any situation. If all someone is going to do is stream exactly what they’re doing, the way they’re doing it, with no additional value added, then they might as well not do it at all. But far, far beyond that, people who can produce a slick video or stream, who can keep it interesting, and who can bring something more to the table than a paragraph or blog post could bring are going to be worth watching. In the case of watching gaming streams, I thought about it as the difference between watching the Super Bowl (exciting!), watching Little League baseball (notice how many parents are talking among themselves?), and getting your friends together to actually play a game of basketball (at my age, WAY more trouble than it’s worth). Good production values equals good view-ability, but only if you’re looking to put on a show. Doing it just because it’s a thing isn’t going to net any benefits, otherwise.

Building Our Personal Cost-Benefit Analysis

We do cost-benefit analysis in every day life, salve from comparative shopping to deciding if it’s worth the risk to try bungee jumping. When we evaluate the cost of something compared to the benefit we’ll receive, treatment we make the decision based on what’s important to us as individuls. There’s no “universal standard of worth”. Even currency — which we often think of as being pretty immutable — is subject to fluctuations in value.

The cost-benefit analysis of gaming is at the core of an ongoing debate over how games are made and marketed, site and how they’re designed to make money for the developers, and take money from the consumers.

A Brief History of Monitization

I’ve been through all modern phases of video game monitization. Here’s a quick timeline as I remember it (which may or may not be entirely accurate):

  1. Games are self contained and sold for a “box cost”. This was during the early days of the Atari 2600, NES, Sega Genesis, and even PC games.
  2. When the Internet arrives, we get BBS and online provider games through services like AOL and CompuServe, but which require a per-minute fee to play (on top of the money we spent to access the service provider).
  3. As PC gaming continues to rise in prominence, modern MMOs arrives. Now, we pay for the connection, then a box price, and a monthly fee. On paper, this seems suicidal, but thanks to the popularity of World of Warcraft, people warm to it, and the genre explodes over the next 15 years.
  4. Smartphones and tablets arrive, bringing a whole new and untapped frontier of gaming that needs rules to be written. Publishers experiment with different price points to see what the market would bear. With such an open field, devs that traditionally published for console or PC flock to mobile to stake their claim before the money dries up.
  5. Existing subscription games and new online games start to offer non-subscription options. Games add cash shops which allow players to spend in small increments for various services, convienience, and content. Having it’s pedigree in the East, where the model forced players to spend in order to advance and compete, this free to play model gets a bad rap in achivement-oriented Western culture, and is quickly associated with “pay to win”. Meanwhile, mobile gaming has followed suit, offering games for free with cash shops that offer “shortcuts” for players.

We pick up the thread at this point.

A Tale Of Two Cities (Or Rather, Gamers)

There’s two distinct camps in this scene. The first is the “traditional” gamer. The second is the “nouveau gamer”. Sometimes the lines blur, but more often than not, the traditional gamer busies himself with both camps, while the nouveau gamer might not even know the other camp exists.

Traditional gamers are used to at least items 3-5 above. Older gamers can stretch back beyond item 1. Regardless, at some point during the formative period of the traditional gamer’s gaming identity, he found a monitization scheme that worked for him, and he stuck by it. I think that for most gamers, this is item #3 or #1.

MMOs are unique in that — in theory — they never end. The world continues to run when we’re not logged in, and we can (ideally) look forward to expansions that make the game bigger. We also get patches and updates, game play balances, and if we’re lucky, some free content here and there.

They’re also unique in that for the past 15 years, MMOs came with an ongoing subscription, a practice that became the norm. Because of the wild success of WoW, anyone who wanted to make an MMO had to support it by charging that monthly fee, and the company that could reproduce WoW’s special sauce could potentially rake in millions of dollars per month. We as consumers learned to accept this, because we felt that the benefits of the cost were worthwhile. MMOs with subscriptions were “buffets” of content: we had access to everything the game had to offer, with no artificial restrictions or additional payments.

Gamers must have felt that this was a good deal, because the subscription MMO market exploded after WoW. The explosion was both a desire of publishers to have a cash cow, and consumer’s acceptance of paying a monthly fee.

Non-traditional gamers don’t view things in that light. They came into the picture around item #4, and ONLY for item #4. They don’t have the baggage that traditional gamers do. They don’t play a wide spectrum of games, don’t play often, and aren’t used to spending tons of money up front for a game. They don’t see anything wrong with paying $5 for the convenience of playing at certain choke-points, which is how Candy Crush Saga earns millions of dollars.

The Cost-Benefit Ratio

If there’s any universal constant, then it’s that people like to get the most bang for their buck. That includes getting everything for nothing, but in lieu of that, it means getting as much as possible for as little as possible. We all have thresholds of how much we’re willing to pay based on what we expect to get from it. Like so many things, however, we don’t necessarily know what we want or where that threshold is, but once we experience it, we recognize it, and once we recognize it, we rarely see any reason to keep looking for anything better.

On the other hand, no one likes to feel like they’re being fleeced, or that they’re being treated like a commodity to be nickled and dimed. It’s harder to see value in an overall product when the transactions are spread over time and for different aspects of the bigger picture. This is both a blessing (for publishers) and a curse (for consumers) because the statistics favor the payee over the payer.

For the traditional gamer, and depending on the individual’s genre of choice, the cost-benefit ratio of payment to payout is going to hit a ceiling at some point, and from there it will not budge. Some gamers won’t go beyond pay once, play forever. Others feel that $15 buffet model is tilted in their favor. Still others feel that getting something for nothing is better than getting anything for a fee, and the final group has no issues paying a la carte.

But each level there often seems to be many gamers who are violently reactive to the level above it. Box-cost only fans can’t fathom why anyone would pay a subscription. Subscribers can’t abide by the cash shop model. Many free to play fans won’t go near the cash shop. Only the full-service free to play user has no one to rail against in this space…except games targeted outside of their own demographic.

Many traditional gamers — no matter what monitization tier they occupy in their own space — find the practices being employed in the mobile space to be abhorrent. Brian Green (who worked on Meridian 59, and who therefor knows about this kind of thing) posted a link to an interview with former Free Realms developer Laralyn McWilliams on the current “best practices” in free-to-play game design. Part of the gist of it is that the way the market is now, there’s no room for trial and error, so when a game likeCandy Crush Saga makes millions of dollars by allowing players to spend their way out of a jam, other companies will adopt it, and it becomes the new de facto “best practice”.

Po-tay-toes and Po-tah-toes

Traditional gamers can’t see the benefit to the cost that these “best practices” are espousing because for the most part, they’re used to having their game at their fingertips. Games are meant to be played, and the more game you play without restriction, the better. Just as buffet fans might consider the F2P model to be exploitative, the idea that a company would purposefully design their product to frustrate a player to the point where their progress is held hostage unless they pay money to progress is an affront to what gaming is all about.

One of the best examples is EA’s recent mobile version of Dungeon Keeper. The original PC game allowed you to create and defend a dungeon. This new version follows the same idea, but as you’re building your dungeon, you’re forced to wait HOURS for a single task to complete. Impatient players can spend real money to hurry this along, ensuring a continuous game play experience, but therein lies the problem from the traditional gamer point of view (especially those who honestly remember the original Dungeon Keeper). Why did EA make this bastardized version of such a well regarded IP instead of making another entry in the traditional vein? The cost of paying to skip the four hour build time isn’t worth the benefit. Normally this might be up for debate, depending on the point of view of the person involved, but we have prescident in how the Dungeon Keeper franchise should be played, and it’s NOT having to pay to skip a four hour queue.

Still, some folks are OK with this. They’ve got no baggage the way traditional gamers do. Mobile games are so transient that many strictly mobile gamers think it’s a plus that the games are free. With so many no-cost games, it’s perfectly OK to pay a little here, a little there, now and then. Maybe the “why” is lost on them, but I’m of the mind that it’s not; it just doesn’t matter as much to them as the idea does to traditional gamers. Their threshold for cost to benefit isn’t just higher than that of the traditional gamer, it’s in a totally different league.

In Closing

Everything that we do has a cost-benefit analysis attached to it, and the hierarchy of fees associated with gaming marks different thresholds for different people. But gamers are very covetous of their hobby, including it’s trademarks and use of said trademarks. Many traditional gamers would barely acknowledge most mobile products as “games”, but in the face of business practices that are designed to exploit a person’s willingness to spend their way out of a jam, these gamers will seek to distance themselves and their own aspect of the industry from association with mobile gaming where these are considered to be the “best practices”.

These views are codified based on the cost-benefit ratio that each individual has accepted as his or her personal ceiling. The benefit is how much game they get for the cost, with some preferring to pay for the buffet, and some who are willing to play for free and to spend on content a la carte.

What worries many traditional gamers, however, is the incessant harping that mobile and tablet gaming is the future of the hobby. We’ve heard about how the gaming industry has seen declining revenue over the past few years, with at least part of the blame resting on the notion that more people are gaming on mobile and tablets, and less on console and PCs. For those who count gaming as their primary hobby, being told that their “future” is this platform which values visibility, metrics, and sales over “by gamers, for gamers” is a frightening and infuriating prospect. Traditional gamers have already started hating on mobile gaming when “their” developers ran to capitalize on the empty playground of mobile platforms and put their future PC and console plans into question, but seeing how companies have adopted “best practices” that amount of holding a game hostage is sending many gamers into fits of rage.

Community

Being an MMO fan, nurse playing with others seems like it should be a no-brainer. Popular wisdom dictates that people play MMOs because they want to play withpeople, help right? Personally, I don’t subscribe to this: I play MMOs because they’re expansive, always available (except during patching windows), and updated frequently. I do like that there are other people in the world, though, because it makes the world more alive than it would be if it were just NPCs standing around, being helpless until you happen along to run their menial tasks for them. Thing is, I don’t like to play with random people.

I’ll jump ahead and say simply that I blame the game design mentality that puts loot and it’s inherent selfishness ahead of anything that requires people to actually work together for reasons beyond sheer brute force. I have no issues playing with people I know because I’m confident that we’re all nice people. If we want to take content slow, we’re all OK with that. If we don’t have the best gear, we’re also OK with that. We like the experience of the game, and aren’t in it for the loot or prestige.

One driving force that I’ve come to appreciate is honest-to-goodness community. This transcends in-game grouping, and isn’t even centered on MMOs. Finding a decent group of human beings who’s opinions you trust and who value the same things as you do when it comes to games is a much better motivator for me than any mechanical feature that a game offers. Sure, this is nothing new: tight-knit guilds or groups of friends have always been the tethers that keep people playing a particular game, or when severed, cause people to drift away.

The thing is, I’ve found I don’t even need that strong of an attraction: just a bunch of nice people being passionate about what they’re doing, so long as they’re all doing something in the same game. That’s important because a lot of people I interact with are gamers. Not all of us are playing the same games. It’s great to be able to talk about “gaming” with them, but if I’m not playing a game that someone else is, and vice versa, we can’t commiserate on anything specific. We can’t keep each other interested in the game itself like we can when we’re playing the same game, having similar experiences, discovering new things about the game, and even sometimes getting together in-game as well.

I realize now that after years of solo trekking across the MMO landscape, the reason why I’ve never been able to commit to a single game has been because of my lack of involvement in a really passionate community. I’ll take my share of the blame — I don’t find it easy to just drop myself into someone else’s life and feel comfortable — but I also wish there were more communities out there who organized along the same sentiments of “games as enjoyment” and not “games as ego-boosters”.

Sourcebooks For Lore

On occasion, sildenafil I’ll pick up an RPG sourcebook for no reason other than to have it. Back in high school, pharm I had a lot of RPG books for games I never got to play, viagra approved like Mechwarrior or Paranoia, or Cyberpunk or Aliens. Although I had wanted to play them, my primary interest was in reading up on the settings and the mechanics that designers had added to the franchises that I loved.

I really hope they come out with a Defiance RPG. I think there’s a lot of potential background information in there that would be really interesting to have. I picked up the Battlestar Galactica sourcebook for the same reason, although I’ve tried to envision exactly how one could set a game in the confines of the Galactica and it’s fleet without it resulting in a lot of petty scenarios; I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might have played it. I think Defiance could offer a whole wealth of opportunities, however, since we’ve only heard about Defiance and San Francisco (and Las Vegas Prison). There’s still a whole lot of potential settings out there for players to create within the lore of the IP.

Solidarity

Note: This is a repost of a particularly meaningful post here on LC that was part of the Last Great Purge.

Being a gamer is a choice. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a hobby. It’s a passion. It’s a source of inspiration. It’s also a source of anger.

We live, page love, viagra 100mg eat, sleep, breath and dream of gaming. Our virtual adventures present us with problems to solve that we fall asleep thinking about, and wake up knowing how to solve.

It’s thanks to the Internet that we’ve found one another, which is something we tend to forget. There are those who are too young to remember the days when talking about video games in public was verboten, lest you be shunned, or even beat up. Believe it or not, there was a time when it was hard to find other gamers. Video games were sold in toy stores, which were the domains of little children, not teenagers or even young adults. If you had a modem, you might find other gamers on a BBS, or if you had a local users group, you might be able to find kindred souls in a church basement or unused library room.

The internet has allowed us to come together at the same time as gaming is maturing. Having expended it’s store of geeks and nerds, the industry turns to the mainstream, pulling the stereotypes of those that decades ago wouldn’t admit to playing video games: the moms, the jocks, the females. Being a gamer now is acceptable, and verily borders on commonplace when shopping meccas like Wal-Mart and Target get their own “exclusive” versions of pre-release titles. Anyone with an Internet connection can jump into the fray, playing online with strangers, talking about their favorite games, and coming together as a community.

But what has brought us together also can push us apart. Differing opinions were never much of a stumbling block in the early days of gaming because there wasn’t enough stock to diversify opinions, and any opinions to be had were rarely heard in large numbers. The Net has opened the doors for people to toss their hat into the ring to express their opinions, and to confront and engage those of differing minds. This freedom can, when executed in a controlled, civil manner, make us all better though exposure to points of view, if we’re willing to accept them on their own terms. When discourse turns to debate, and debate into partisan sniping, we lose what gains the Internet has given us: connections, friends, and solidarity.

If you’re old enough, think back to the times when heated exchanges over video games was impossible because there was no one to have them with. Remember when it was far less socially acceptable to talk about video games because they were considered toys that tethered children indoors and to the television. Remember how much of a relief it was when you did find another gamer that you could talk to about the things that you wanted to talk about, but otherwise couldn’t with the people around you. If you’re not old enough, then try it: unplug for a month. No blogs, no social networking, no news feeds, no digital downloads, no online gaming, no trips to GameStop. Engage your non-gaming friends, family and co-workers in discussions about gaming, and record their reactions, and then pretend that you can’t get out of that loop.

We’re lucky that things have turned out the way that they have, and in a way and at a pace that we never could have imagined back when we enjoyed our gaming in isolation. We can’t take it for granted, though. This hyper-connectivity isn’t a conduit for anger, sarcasm or combat, and shouldn’t be used to isolate ourselves and others behind arbitrary walls of unwavering opinion. We’re all together now, sharing our experiences both good and bad. It’s the kind of togetherness that we wished we had when video gaming was first taking off, and that is something that we should not forget.

Just a footnote: We tend to get into some heated discussions on the net, which is perfectly fine because it signals our passion for the topic, but because it’s all walls of text, it’s often times difficult to really make the exact point that you want to make the way you want to make it and not have it read in a totally different way by people on the other side. It’s unavoidable. The key, then, is to remember that we’re all talking about things that we love, and while we all want to share our enthusiasm, the net is in imperfect vehicle for conducting our excitement and passion. We’ are all very lucky to be able to be able to have these discussions these days, and with the kinds of people we always wanted to have them with.