While recent innovations in the console world (such as Xbox Live Arcade and the invention of the Nintendo DS) have broadened the phenomenon, nowhere is this gaming apartheid more strikingly institutionalised than in the place it was born – the ironically named PC. And as with men and women, everyone thinks they know which is which, and sometimes everyone’s frighteningly and completely wrong.
The very fact that you’re reading a PC gaming magazine almost certainly means that you would classify yourself as a ‘hardcore’ gamer – after all, who spends four quid just to read about a pastime that they’re only casually interested in, right? You have probably spent quite a lot of money buying or upgrading your PC so that it can play the latest blockbuster games in their very prettiest forms – you may well have spent more on your latest graphics card than some casual player forked out on their entire setup. (Heck, I’m old enough to remember when a fairly basic gaming PC came in at £1,500 just for the main box, not the £299 you can pick up a pretty capable complete system, including a nice flat-panel monitor, for these days.)
You’re serious about your games. You can correctly punctuate every title in the Vampire: The Masquerade series. You wouldn’t dream of playing any kind of racing game with a joypad rather than a steering wheel and pedals. You would actually genuinely consider spending £35 that you worked hard to earn on something that simulated the experience of driving a passenger locomotive from Derby to Nottingham on a Tuesday afternoon in October (and another £150 on a special ‘train yoke’ controller, too). And you wouldn’t even talk to someone who had racked up fewer than 100 hours in World Of Warcraft when you met them at the real-ale convention.
The stereotypical ‘casual’ gamer is equally easy to identify. He – or, Heaven forbid, there’s a very real possibility that it might actually be a she – doesn’t buy games magazines. (They’re confused and frightened by the idea of any game that takes place in three dimensions, and just a glance at half of the screenshots in Total PC Gaming would give them a headache from trying to figure out what on Earth was going on.) Their PC is probably barely up to running Half-Life 2 in 800×600 with anti-aliasing turned off. They’ve never been inside a branch of GAME in their lives, let alone a LAN party. And get this –they’re not even all that interested in orcs. I know! It’s crazy! But hang on. There’s a bit of a problem with these definitions, and it’s this: they are bollocks. The truth, gentle viewer, is that you’re the casual around here. That housewife playing Bejeweled 2 in between the dusting and the hoovering is ten times more ‘hardcore’ than you. She’s the one who’s actually keeping all the traditional values of gaming alive, while you populate the bland mainstream herd. And if you’ve just spluttered your lukewarm coffee back into its dirty mug at that assertion, maybe you ought come along for the ride while we examine the facts of the matter. So-called, self-styled ‘hardcore’ PC gamers, y’see, play broadly three kinds of games. (This in itself, incidentally, already shoots a hole in that definition – surely a truly hardcore gamer would embrace all genres, but when did you last see a cute Mario-style platformer, shallow arcade racer or 2D vertically-scrolling shoot-’em-up on the fullprice PC shelves at Gamestation?) And as we’re about to find out, none of them are even really ‘games’ at all.
THE WORK SIMULATOR The first category of modern PC gaming encompasses a much wider range of things than the s-word conventionally implies. What we’re talking about here is any game in which you primarily pretend to perform some fairly unremarkable real-life activity – driving a vehicle, playing a sport or even doing a job (such as managing a football team or running a business). These are the titles chosen by players who, deep down, despise gaming as a silly and childish pastime unfit for grown men. The only way they can permit themselves to be entertained by something as fundamentally juvenile as moving blobs of coloured light around a screen is to imagine it as a form of work, anchored in grim reality. So even in ostensibly arcadey genres like racing games and football, PC games are staid and serious. There are no Ridge Racer games on the PC, with wildly exaggerated powerdrifts and concept cars that look like Pac-Man, and no Mario Kart titles – driving games have to feature painstaking ‘realistic’ mathematics, in pursuit of the ridiculous fantasy that literal simulation can ever come within a million miles of the feeling of sliding sideways towards an all-too-real brick wall or tree at 95mph with your life flashing in front of you. Similarly, PC football games can expect to be derided as ‘frivolous’ – see FIFA 08 last month – unless there are at least 16 different controls for slightly different kinds of kick. (Never mind that in real life most footballers can’t even count that high – since when was football, in the words of the review, “sophisticated and intelligent”?) And so on. Essentially, the mantra of the simulator fan is “If it’s fun, you’re doing it wrong,” and that’s not a sign of someone who loves games. People with jobs don’t, after all, tend to describe themselves as ‘hardcore plumbers’. And if you’re sleeping with someone but would be embarrassed if your friends saw you with them, what you’ve got there is a casual relationship.
THE ADVENTURE The second category of modern PC gaming comprises the likes of BioShock, Half-Life 2, Tomb Raider: Legend and so on, as well as more obviously narrative-led genres like point-and-clickers. The unifying feature of these games is linearity, with there rarely being any point in playing through the game more than once and with the plot never going backwards. (Think of quicksaves as the technological equivalent of a nice leather bookmark.) In something like BioShock, the hero is really only a device for telling the story through – in fighting off the Big Daddies, all the player is really doing is turning a handle to keep a gramophone playing. That’s why you can’t die – nobody wants to have the last two pages of a chapter read to them a dozen times before moving onto the next one, do they? (The likes of Tomb Raider: Legend are even more transparent about their railroading – despite the illusion of an open environment brimming with possibilities, levels are constructed for a single solution, and if you can see a ledge you can be damn sure you are supposed to shimmy across it.)
Few human impulses are more inherently passive than the desire to be told a story, even if Mummy won’t read you the next part or let you stay up to watch the next episode until you’ve done all your homework. If you’re an adult and still can’t go to sleep at night until you’ve heard about a brave sword-wielding warrior rescuing a beautiful princess from an evil wizard’s castle in a world of dragons and goblins and too many adjectives, you’re – well, frankly I don’t know what you are, but I sure as heck wouldn’t call it a “hardcore toddler”. Of the three main divisions of PC gaming, adventures (as defined here) are the closest things to proper videogames, but they’re still really just what in the old days we called “interactive movies”. It’s just that these days they’re a little more interactive.
THE ALTERNATE REALITY The most obvious non-games played by PC owners, of course, are the MMOs. Here, not only is the word ‘hardcore’ inaccurate, the word ‘gamer’ is borderline as well – World Of Warcraft, EVE, EverQuest, and all the rest really belong to the same family as MySpace, Facebook and Habbo Hotel, not Fallout and Oblivion and (hngh) Planescape: Torment. If something has neither an end nor scoring, it’s not a game – it’s social networking with graphics. There’s no core difference between the activities of spending a couple of hours in World Of Warcraft after work and spending a couple of hours down the pub, except that most pubs don’t charge to let you in and playing WOW is really, really unlikely to ever lead to you getting laid.
(While we’re sort of on the subject, incidentally, I originally wanted to have some illustrations for this feature depicting a mumsy-type lady as a hardcore gamer in order to catch the reader’s eye and draw them in. Unfortunately, when I Googled for “hardcore housewife”, the results were really quite unsuitable. Anyway, back to the feature.)
Again, then, since alternate-reality titles aren’t games in any meaningful sense of the word, it follows that those who use them avidly couldn’t correctly be described as ‘hardcore gamers’. I’d call that pretty comprehensive, frankly. So we’ve established who isn’t a hardcore gamer. But if you’re not one, how can we possibly make a case for the menopausal lady matching up the lines of little coloured gems?
Well, the defining characteristic of all good game design – not just videogames – is the marriage between accessibility and depth. If you can create a game that anyone can pick up, understand and start playing in seconds without having to even glance at an instruction manual, yet which players will still be organically learning the subtleties of, and developing new tactics and strategies for, hours and days and weeks later, then you’re a great designer. And the fact of the matter is, the sort of PC gaming that magazines like the one you’re reading now are concerned with left the first half of that equation lying dead in a cold dark ditch about ten years ago. It’s easy to make a complicated game. When you’re writing for the PC, any idiot can just define a new button for every situation that might arise at any given moment (you’ve got about 100 at your disposal, after all). It’s simple to take the incompetent designer’s options of either forcing would-be players to read the manual for an hour before they can dare to start, or – even worse – through a half-hour-long unskippable tutorial. But taking the easy option isn’t ‘hardcore’, it’s the exact opposite. Not bothering your arse because you can just be lazy and make the poor player do all the tedious learning work – well, what could be more ‘casual’ than that? Mrs Bejeweled (41), on the other hand, is the epitome of uncompromising. Sit her down with a fiddly, overblown game with a million and one controls and an impenetrable demon-filled plot and she’ll shrug and tell you where to shove it.
You’ve got about 20 seconds to get her hooked or the gong will sound and you’ll get yanked off the stage. Not for her the meek, sheep-like compliance of the typical PC gamer – “I can’t play this unless I buy a whole new PC with DX10, a dedicated physics card and half a gig of graphics memory in order to improve the quality of the shadowing by three per cent? Oh, okay then” – she’s got stuff do to and you’re wasting her damn time.
That, dear viewers, is a hardcore gamer. These are the people that are finally driving gaming into the mainstream, by forcing it to be accessible again, even as the shrinking group of embattled nerds who would lay claim to the term desperately try to anchor it in the elitist ghetto. They’re the mums throwing open the curtains as pasty overgrown adolescents cower in the musty shadows of their bedrooms, trying to hide the underwear catalogue. In their unflinching dedication to videogaming’s original ideals they’re the saviours of its soul, and the pioneers ducttaping a torch to its gunbarrel to light the path to the future. I love you, Mrs Bejeweled.