September 3rd, 2010

History Repeating: or Why Gamers Despise Social Games

In a recent blog post, Jesper Juul reflected on how the media echo of a debate between Ian Bogost and Aki Järvinen was symptomatic for the generally negative reception of social games among ‘traditional’ gamers and game designers:

"Here is the point: Gamer prejudices against social games are verbatim copies of general prejudices against video games. Within video game culture, we have spent decades trying to make video games respectable, but now we are simply taking the prejudices against us, and regurgitating them at a new form of video game, looking down on social games the way that culture at large has been looking down on video games. We have made social games into the video games of video games.”

I think Juul makes a valid point here. But as some commentators of his post have pointed out, rather then merely falling for defensive reflexes, we should try and understand why we see this regurgitating of prejudices. And for that, I believe, we need to contextualise Juul’s observation within a larger historical frame.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I had a vivid first-hand experience of the “gamer prejudices” against social games Juul describes. Speaking at a seminar of fledgling game designers in Berlin, once I so much as mentioned the word FarmVille, I was stunned by an immediate, intense aversive gut reaction (and ensuing half-hour debate) of my audience. I almost had to laugh out loud when a student said: “One day, it might go so far as to us having to design social games <grimaces with disgust> instead of real games!”

What amused me was not the obviously heart-felt sentiment. No, it was the fact that I had heard that exact phrase before, when, back in another life, I had to deal with print journalists. Quote: “One day, it might go so far as to us having to write for online instead of real journalism!”

And it’s not just (online) journalism. In my ethnographic research on the German roleplaying subculture, I observed the same reaction when online roleplaying games made their appearance and quickly surpassed pen-and-paper games in mass appeal in the beginning of the 2000s. Roleplayers scowled at early MMORPGs like EverQuest with pretty much the same arguments video gamers now bring forward against social games: They would lack the depth and complexity, creativity and freedom, expressive and emotional nuance of roleplay ‘proper’, and seduce and exploit the young who haven’t developed any judgement or taste yet.

Sense a pattern yet?

To a media historian, all of this comes hardly as a surprise. Speaking with Marshall McLuhan, people socialised within the world of one medium are prone to conceive and evaluate new media in terms of the old one. Hence they often see the new medium as somehow lacking compared to the old, when indeed the new one is transcending the old towards a form that is still in the making, that is not at their cognitive disposal – and ultimately, that will have to be evaluated on its own terms. Certainly, the earliest movies were inferior to the sophistication of then-contemporary theater. But that says nothing about the sophistication possible in movies; nor would anyone today judge the quality of a movie by asking how good a theater play it is, because movies can and do do things differently than theater plays.

And this is not only true for new media, but also for new forms within a given medium – just think of the tremendous evolution of TV genres over the last fifty years, and how new formats were regularly framed as final signs for the Decline of the West. Granted, there’s MTV’s Date My Mom. But also HBO’s The Wire.

My point is that just because the professional and fan communities of one (formerly new) medium like video games grew up with ‘their’ medium being stigmatised and prejudiced by mainstream culture doesn’t make them immune against this pattern of media history. They can help it as little as television watchers and movigoers could when they were confronted with video games, or book and newspaper readers when they first encountered comics.

In his post, Juul compares the prejudices displayed by gamers towards social games to notorious US anti-games activist Jack Thompson, but he might as well have compared them to Frederic Wertham’s classic Seduction of the Innocent. Comic fans reacted in very much the same fashion when they were faced with the influx of printed manga and the different audience it drove to ‘their’ comic shop turf - at least in Germany.

As with other media before, the interesting thing about social games is not how well they will be able to ‘measure up’ with traditional video games. But how, looking back in a few years from now, they will have become a background against which our understanding of traditional games and indeed, the very concept of “video game” might have changed.

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Social Game Studies is a multi-authored blog that collects thoughts and findings from academic research on social games – games that play on social networks Learn More.