What Games Are: The March Of The Muggles

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The most (aside from Ballmer-chirping I suppose) interesting article I read this week was about how kids can’t use computers. Its author (Marc Scott) says that — contrary to the popular myth — kids today are every bit as incompetent with computers as their parents. They know how to use technology for specific functions (like Facebook or Skype) but don’t really understand what’s going on under the hood. Rather than taking the time to learn and master, they rely on some geek to fix their problems for them. Like most people, they essentially tolerate using computers rather than engaging with them.

At first glance this article may make some of us despair. As (presumably) people who make, write or read about technology, most of us assume a passing familiarity with computers. Some of us can code. Some of us are power users. Some of us have built our own PCs from parts. Some of us have braved the wilds of Linux. Most of us have at the very least learned how to fake it, and nearly all of us at least get excited by new shiny toys. We’ve all suffered the perennial computer-fixing day that constitutes a key time of any trip home, but we have hope that one day our descendants won’t have that particular chore. Not so.

Yet at second glance this article shows why Steve Jobs was basically right. iPads and other tablets are going to outsell PCs within a year and (as I talked about last week) the PC is seriously on the slide. The reason is that tablets are powerful yet simple. The end user can do a lot with them and feels more in control because she uses her fingers to directly manipulate the screen. Yet at the same time the experience is siloed. There are no opportunities for viruses, bad software, browser toolbars or any of the thousand other headaches of computers. She can do her Facebooking and Skyping without feeling as though one misstep will invite some digital punishment.

Few outside the geekternity care about how much power that means sacrificing because it wasn’t a power they ever really had to begin with. Cory Doctorow’s piece about the coming war on general computing was right, but has another angle. It’s being driven by end users who just want to make their tech work without the cognitive overhead. Their gap of understanding has little to do with smarts and everything to do with attention. While we may roll our eyes at the next generation’s skills, we should ask ourselves how many of us really understand the workings of our cars?

We’re all, in other words, muggles about something.

Few are the people with a polymath-level capacity to be interested in everything. Most of us triage the parts of life we don’t care about. In this case that happens to be computers. If you want you can get right into the heart of figuring out how to convert a PC into a kind of console via Big Picture, but many people are neither interested nor paying attention. That’s how it is. That’s how it will always be.

Muggles And Games

As a game designer this doesn’t surprise me in the least. Players have been buying game consoles for 30 years, and all they are are glorified special-purpose computers with intentionally dumb controllers. They remove much of the pain of games in the eyes of Joe Customer, and for his part Joe is often content to pay more for his games as a result. Why faff around with complicated terror-inducing machines. Just pop a disc in a tray and play a game, you know?

For a long time that led to a simple arrangement, a divide between console gamers and computer gamers. Yet, then the world changed and became far more complicated. So-called casual and social gaming appeared and changed the basic templates for the kinds of machines where gaming happened. You had people doing things on Facebook, on their phones and elsewhere, and the universe felt upended by an influx of muggles.

In some respect this is a valid concern. While a movie can be shown at a multiplex or the art house and is much the same, a game for iPad is often a fundamentally different business proposition to one for Steam. Games don’t translate well, even with the advent of tools like Unity, and every platform is in effect its own wee universe. Games are tied to technological and platform constraints in a way that most other media doesn’t have to deal with, so the audience composition of a platform seriously affects what works on that platform.

This presents a set of problems for many game makers. One is access to market. Another is the ability to talk to the market, even some part of it. It’s one thing to be an indie and make a game like A Virus Named Tom (whose creator has made a couple of amusing videos about indie life). It’s quite another, however, to get that message out in platforms whose audience doesn’t pay attention. Those markets tend to respond to top-down content direction, and often take a hand in shaping that content. This lead to a kind of television-esque market where the customer only ever looks at the top 50 chart choices and advertising muscle (or “user acquisition” as we call it these days) is king.

That in turn leads to mainstreaming, average game ideas for average people. For example many years ago when the match-three game dominated Flash gaming space, folks used to wonder how long it would be before it tapped out. Surely, we’d think, it’ll run its course. Not so. Candy Crush Saga? Puzzle and Dragon? Match-three games. They thrive partly because of platform amnesia but mainly because they’re just easier to grasp in a five-second attention span. A game like The Room, on the other hand, needs editorial exposure. The App Store provides that kind of exposure, but the tragedy is how few games can realistically hope to be featured in that way.

Art House Gaming

What I’m saying is that because the technology has become simpler and more immediate, its appeal to muggles has grown. However, in certain platforms that’s affected the kind of game (and probably other media, too) thats likely to succeed. It’s just hard to convey a nuanced idea to an audience that’s not really paying attention. This, then, is why Steam grows even though the PC is declining. Art-house-style games find a more willing reception on Steam because the community is already full of the people who choose to be there. They don’t have a technical barrier problem and are interested in the conversation. They want to know about the weird and the wild, the games like Gone Home and the So Hungry. They feel able to indulge in quirky games and community, support favored developers through services like Greenlight and otherwise be part of a more engaged culture.

That sense of audience self-selection is also why many game makers still prefer the idea of working on consoles like Sony’s, Nintendo’s or Microsoft’s than on phones or tablets. If you get onto a sanctioned platform then getting coverage by the gaming press is easier, as is getting reviewed. Players on those platforms pay attention to media outlets and make informed purchasing decisions. By comparison, iOS, or worse Android, is perceived as one big stinky user-acquisition-free-to-play-Hell.

Yet for all that, the problem for non-muggles is this: Operating on sanctioned platforms may feel safer, but there are not enough art-house customers to sustain an art-house platform all by themselves. Steam does not just sell indie games, it also sells Call of Duty. Sony does not just sell Thomas Was Alone on its systems, it mostly sells Grand Theft Auto. If the PC is on the decline and the console is squeezing itself out of existence, they do so in favor of those more muggle-like devices. Tablets, phones, microconsoles and more become the places where people go, and in time that affects everyone else.

Those muggle platforms, the tablets and whatnot, are slowly becoming the future one sale at a time, and as game makers, we’re going to eventually have to stop treating them as where the lamestreamers live. We have to find a way to talk to a new generation that doesn’t want to learn about computers, because one day soon their choices will affect us all.