As video games hurtle toward ubiquity, perhaps the spirit of games is changing, and not necessarily for the best. Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander examines this concept in this introspective editorial.
Everyone in New York City has a uniform. They move in factions: The sun's first light daily glitters off skyscraping municipal corridors, a signal to launch a terrifying army of suits hurtling in breakneck lines through the packed subways to surge like black ants up into the streets, marching to work.
You find yourself on the train with a man in a Yankees cap and a Giants jersey both loudly proclaiming what side he is on. You grip a handrail as some subway car screams and rattles through a precarious tunnel, trying not to jostle a peck of mechanics in the collared shirts of their somewhere-shop.
You find yourself seated across from a boy proudly decked in a fur hat with cat ears, toting a backpack bedazzled with the regalia of anime buttons and sullenly he raises his eyes to you like what?
These days I work from apartments, cross-legged, my hands pale, hard-knuckled spiders making feverish obeisances to a keyboard. But in 2007 I was a Member of the Workforce, pitching some of my earliest video game features during solitary evenings in a vague urge to escape the noise.
As a nanny by day, I joined the fleet of strollers hustling desperately down precarious stairs amid the humid sweat of others' personal space; the leisurely afternoon would be ripped open by a sudden thunderclap of recently-freed schoolkids, the night by a chorus of party voices, jangling bangles and desperate wails.
I clung to a singular idea, one blithely propagated by the websites I read, That Everyone Is Now A Gamer, that there was no longer a uniform, that my DS had a WiFi signal because it was a beacon that would unite us all. I had just broken up after a years-long relationship; I pitched articles about dating sims and spent my days surreptitiously checking my DS to see if there was anyone else nearby me in PictoChat. There never was.
Despite Nintendo's clean white and groomed Wii and DS marketing, the only DSes I ever saw on the subway were metallic scuffed pink and dirty little-boy blue, in the hands of children. Women my own age, dressed in the natty Manhattan productivity uniform, gave me side-eye when I sat playing mine, sweatshirt spotted with the detritus of the children I was paid to take care of but not old enough to've had myself.
I was a nanny for only a season before I started working in games in earnest. It's not really been so long since then, and yet it's been forever. These days I can talk about games and play games with any number of people. It's part of the job. I once stood in a sea of strangers and heard not one tinny coin-sound; now I tick text snippets into the universe and thousands of gamers reply.
And when I step into the subway, no one looks up at me; I enter a corridor of people with their heads in their laps, fixed on luminous screens. They're slingshotting cartoon birds into tiny towers, they are managing villages, they're frenetically running digital restaurants. There is a child in a stroller holding an iPhone, kept calm by it.
At the airport I can't charge my phone because a woman has co-opted the entire charging station, arranged a sprawling metropolis of adapters for her children and their iPads and their iPad games.
The dispiriting majority of my New York friends in their twenties struggle to find work. The younger ones among them have entered the workforce eagerly clutching English and arts degrees in hand as they line up for indefinite unpaid internships or work in coffee shops. I rarely ride the subway at rush hour anymore, but the newspaper headlines suggest that the number of uniformed soldiers marching off to be sorted into their tall task towers has thinned. Across America we turn our sullen eye to the evening news, waiting to hear about almighty Jobs.
Yet in what we universally understand is a poor economy, Apple's iPad has managed to lead the market in the creation of an expensive "second screen" that most people, when asked early on, would have said they saw no use for. There are a million articles across all kinds of publications about how we are getting lost in our phones and losing intimacy with one another, about the rise of texting-while-driving fatalities, about the subtle neurosis that being accessible to constant notifications slowly induces in our culture. Ian Bogost recently designed a game that likened the iPhone to a rosary, a thing we constantly palm and thumb for ritual, for security.
Now we've been prescribed a methadone device, a tablet to use when we want to be more engaged than a phone allows, but less engaged than a computer or television requires. Interim distraction. I visit unemployed and under-employed friends and they look up only briefly from their luminous virtual farms, virtual cities, virtual businesses to greet me. The games ask for handfuls of change, here and there. The cost of that morning coffee you'd buy if you were commuting, working.
Today I played Temple Run, which currently tops the free apps; an adventurer hurtles frenetically through abandoned civilization, racking up coins.
This vein of gaming is price-prohibitive devices where people in a climate of anxiety predominantly "play" by simulating repetitive labor or idle physics. This is the odd, provocative face of the mass market -- not the culture of play we dreamed of just a few years ago where you're a controller and people come over to dance or exercise with you. Belatedly Nintendo launches a console with a tablet accompanying.
This is not to ring a doom bell or to levy a blanket referendum or something against mobile gaming, which is of course just one throbbing arm in game design's complex organism. It's just an interesting thing to think about, especially given that all of these mundane and addicting fantasies we use to avoid looking at each other in public emerged under the banner of "social" games -- to lead us to a bleak living room vision where a family sits in silence in front of the TV, everyone playing silently with their own screen. To decompress, to zone out, to masticate unspoken anxieties.
It's especially interesting given the rising popularity of simulated board and card games on iPad; a particularly obsessive board-gamer friend of mine has so far cataloged one hundred and twenty-three iPad apps that are digital adaptations of actual physical games, and fully expects that number to double by the end of 2013. I wonder if that trend represents some kind of forgotten ache for tactile things, as if the pervasive touch screen engenders, clumsily, some vestigial longing for actual touch.
Who knows whether this soft introduction to those kinds of game mechanics might eventually lead people to try more real, physical games together; that's always been the dream, hasn't it? Game developers pushing microtransactions-driven social games, viral Facebook labor engines, have always liked to point out they've finally made a game their mother wants to play, as a sort of justification for that sinister virulence.
So here we are: Games are for everyone, now. Well done. Now what?