Earlier this month I wrote a longish essay for Unwinnable Weekly on the videogame industry, about where it’s headed and why it’s stuck.
But that sounds like an oxymoron, right? How can the games industry be headed somewhere if it’s stuck?
That’s sort of the point.
The games industry likes to say it is bigger than Hollywood – which is true if you for some odd reason ignore video sales and rentals. More to the point, it’s a moot brag unless you’ve got a solid answer for this question: Why is most of your talent pool basically remaking the same movie over and over again, and why is that something you’re proud of? Why do we consider holding still with better graphics to be progress?
Clearly, there are finer points and deeper nuances to make here about the fine, talented folks making games who are the exception. Videogaming, as an industry, is such an amorphous concept itself, given it’s unlikely Ken Levine might deign to rub his masterfully coifed elbows with the gleeful kids uploading their wares to itch.io, or my friend who made a game about his cat that only, like, five of us will ever see.
I used to joke that the “problem” with videogames is they’re like “Weird Al” Yankovic: Every few years, a new crop of 12-year-olds will cycle in, become devout fans, only to grow weary of the schtick – entertaining and skillful as it might be – and then peace out and move on.
But that’s not exactly true. The notion that videogames are just for kids might have been much more the case when we were kids, but we are adults now. Many of us still want to play games, to enjoy them, to see them grow as we have. We want to grow old together. Together.
You wouldn’t expect someone to outgrow reading or watching movies, would you?
The way forward is unclear. I do think the more the game industry tries to reach across the aisle in all directions with compassion and curiosity, with transparency, the more unstuck we will get. Over on don’t die, I am talking exclusively to people who are lapsed players – folks who have burnt out and will not buy another for the foreseeable future – and people who make games.
There’s a disconnect there, too, and I mentioned it in my last piece for Unwinnable: “Actually, I don’t know what kids these days think about videogames.”
This sort of gnawed at me all May, because it is a knowable thing.
So, I reached across the aisle and asked Twitter and my email, “Hey, do you have a kid who loves to play videogames?”
A longtime colleague volunteered her 13 1/2 -year-old son, Jack M., to talk with me. Their family lives out in South Salem, New York. “It’s a sleepy, small town in Westchester County – northern suburbs of NYC. It’s almost rural here.”
Jack’s in seventh grade and attends the local public middle school.
His mom continued, in our initial emails: “He’s currently obsessed with Europa Universalis 4 and Skyrim. There are a few games he wants to play – like Grand Theft Auto – that we won’t allow him to just yet… in addition to spending hours playing playing, he spends a lot of time watching YouTube videos of other people playing and reads blogs and posts about different strategies. Pretty typical.”
She continues: “He talks about his skills in Skyrim – how it’s fun to be bad. I think he plays as a thief. He’s super smart, nice Boy Scout-type of a kid. So, I’m not worried. We have a deal – if he keeps up his grades and stays on the cross country and track teams, we won’t nag him too much about the time he spends in front of a screen.”
I gave Jack a call on a school night to find out, well, what kids these days think about videogames.
By no means does he stand in for what kids on the whole think of videogames – but it’s a peek into a skyscraper on my tippy-toes.
It’s a start.
What got you interested in playing videogames in the first place?
Like, at first, it was just kinda like – I remember, I got the Wii, and we had gotten a couple games and it was just for fun. I didn’t really take it seriously or do any of it seriously. It was just a little fun thing I did.
Whose idea was it to get the Wii?
I mean, like, all my friends had it at the time and I, like, wasn’t extremely interested in it. My parents got it for our family one Christmas and I was, like, instantly obsessed with it.
So they just brought videogames into your life suddenly? Did you not have interest in it before the Wii?
I mean, like, beforehand I played some really childish games, like, on the LeapFrog, which is like, this, little-kid system.
Yeah, it’s an educational system, right?
How did the Wii seem different?
It was much more entertaining, like, it didn’t – I don’t really know how to put this, but it kept me much more entertained and the first game that I really remember getting into was the Super Mario Galaxy game. I love the whole concept of bosses and you have to beat them and all that stuff. The power-ups.
How have your habits changed since you started playing?
Well, I’ve started playing a lot more than I used to. I’ve stopped playing so much on the console with games like Mario, those kinds of single-player games. I changed into more complex games like, more strategic games, and also RPG games, like, fantasy games.
Why did those seem more interesting?
I don’t know. It was a completely different world, and you could completely get lost in all the stuff and it wasn’t anything like the real world, so, anything was possible.
Moreso than Mario Galaxy?
How do you mean? Because Mario Galaxy is pretty outlandish, but what sort of stuff are you talking about?
I mean, I kind of like the fantasy genre a little bit more than sci-fi kind of games.
I don’t know. I just kind of like the old-timey feel in them. I’m also really into history in that kind of stuff.
Do you feel like you’re learning something while you’re playing these games if they’re about history or is it just more that it doesn’t seem like the world that’s around you?
Like, it doesn’t seem like the world that surrounds me. Like, especially with a game called Skyrim. Like, that game is, like, a lot of fantasy and just think it’s interesting. And it’s not, like, as impossible as the Mario Galaxy is. Like, that could never exist and that doesn’t make sense to exist. The Skyrim – it seems much more, I wouldn’t say it’s realistic, but, I don’t know, much more kind of real to me.
So you’re 13, right?
How long have you been gaming?
I started really starting to play with the whole Wii and everything when I was seven.
So you’ve played, basically, half your life almost.
So how do you feel games have changed since you first started playing them?
I feel like they’ve become much more multiplayer and I feel like DLC is becoming a much more big thing, like, a lot more big games are including them.
Do you spend a lot of time online around videogames, reading people’s opinions about them?
Well, like, yeah. I watch a couple people on YouTube and stuff and I don’t really read that much about it, though. Like, I can [watch videos] while doing other stuff and, like, it doesn’t really take that much time to do it.
Who do you like to watch?
The real main person that I stick to, like, I’ll jump around to a bunch of different videos if I need to look up a game to see if it’s good enough for me to want to buy it, but I mostly watch this guy called Boogie2988. He does streaming, but I don’t usually watch his streams. I’ve seen a couple of them.
I kind of like his whole story and everything, and he’s a good, honest person. He was really overweight and he still is, but he’s trying to lose the weight, but that’s not really important. I feel like the game interviews that he does are really honest, trying to do the good and the bad.
How do you mean?
Like, I don’t feel like any game is completely perfect. He doesn’t feel like that either, or that any game is completely flawed. There’s ups and downs.
Is that how you can tell that he’s honest? That he tries to explore all sides of it?
Yeah. And also, a lot of my opinions agree with his.
You mentioned you don’t really watch his streams. Do you watch streams?
I watched – I was really into it a couple of months ago when this new game was coming out and only a couple people had it. It was called Cities: Skylines, which is this city-builder game. It seemed really interesting to me, so I watched this other streamer called Arumba, and I watch a couple of his streams. But I haven’t been really into it. Like, it’s not as fun as playing a game is because it’s not interactive.
Do you have friends who also play videogames?
Yeah, I have a pretty big friend group and they’re like all into gaming.
Do you have friends online who are also into gaming, or just in school?
Pretty much just school. I don’t really know anyone that well online.
Does your friend group – do they watch streams?
I know a couple of my friends are really into streams. Sometimes when I go over to their house and we have a sleepover or something, they’ll be watching streams for hours and hours.
Instead of just playing games together?
How do you feel about that?
Sometimes I think that I’d rather be playing, but I think people are interested by the commentary of the videos as well. Like, having somebody’s voice tell you about it, I guess it just feels like more real.
What sorts of conversations does their commentary spark with you and your friends?
Like, we don’t really watch the same videos very often. I know some of my friends watch very different videos than different games.
So there’s not really chance for overlap or discussion? Unless you’re playing the same games, there’s not much to talk about?
We talk about, especially – another example with Skyrim again, like, we share our character’s information and stuff and tell each other’s about our character’s backstories and all their skills and stuff.
Tell me about your character in Skyrim.
Right now I am a Breton and I’m trying to do conjuration, which is one of the schools of magic into illusion and trying to be stealthy while doing it.
What level are you?
I think I’m mid-30s.
What do you like to do in Skyrim? What are you spending time on in that world?
Sometimes you’re leveling up, sometimes you’re questing, sometimes you’re looking for new items or just trying to play around, doing random stuff with mods.
How do you feel about the world itself? What sort of stuff do you like? What sort of stuff do you not like?
I get really interested in the lore for videogames, especially the whole Elder Scrolls series. I got really into the whole lore for it. At first, the lore didn’t make sense to me and I didn’t really understand it, and then I heard people talking about the lore and, like, in the game and all kinds of stuff like that. It didn’t really make a lot of sense, so, I looked about stuff about it and I just tried to figure out more so the game would make more sense I guess.
What are experiences you’ve had in games that you wish you could have, but haven’t had yet?
Probably more adult games like GTAV, none of my friends are allowed to get it, nor I. But it seems really fun and I wish I could get it.
What about it seems fun?
It’s just an open-world game, and you can have fun, like, doing sandbox things and going around doing what you want.
But that sounds a lot like Skyrim, though, right?
So what’s the difference for you and your friends?
The most attractive part of the game for me is the online multiplayer because you can play with a bunch of different people online. With Skyrim, they had the Elder Scrolls Online but I didn’t really hear that great of reviews about it.
This seems, like, much more appealing.
Your mom won’t see this, but do you go and look up videos for games you’re not allowed to play?
Yeah. I watch two series about GTAV currently because I want it so badly.
So when you watch that much of a game you won’t be able to play until – when. When do you think your parents will let you play it or buy it?
Probably when I get into high school, which probably is a year or two from now.
Do you have a feeling at all of watching so much of it, will that diminish your enjoyment of getting to play it finally?
Well, I feel like it builds up a lot of hype but the same thing with Cities: Skylines. Like, I expected it to be so great and so interesting. When I first played it, I played a couple of hours and it got more boring more quickly.
What do you mean?
Like, I don’t know. It felt like since I already watch so many streams like I already knew the game inside out and I couldn’t really explore it.
Do you not have that concern with GTAV?
I don’t know because it seems like in some of those games, like, there’s endless possibilities for what you can do. But at some point it’s going to get repetitive and boring.
The only open-world game that I beat was Assassin’s Creed II, and for me GTAV feels like a similar thing. Obviously it looks dramatically different. I’ll find I’ll really like GTAV, but it’ll just get what you’re talking about, where it gets a little bit repetitive because I have played something similar to it before already. Have you ever run into anything like that with any of the games you’ve played, where you feel like you’ve seen it before?
There was this one game I think was called Total War: Rome II, and I felt that was kind of like Civ V, and I got kinda bored with that. Pretty quickly.
The whole idea and strategy of it feels really similar.
Do you feel there are a lot of different types of games, or do you feel like now that you’ve gamed half of your life now, you’ve seen most of everything that’s probably able to be out there at this point?
I feel like there are, like, three categories of games: the open-worlded kind, the straightforward objective kind and the sandbox kind.
Should there be more?
I mean, I feel like there are lots of different types of games in each one of those categories, but, like, I guess those are – I couldn’t really imagine another type of game.
Does that feel like more than enough?
Maybe. I’m pretty satisfied with how it is.
Are there other games coming out that you aren’t allowed to play that you know a lot about?
I don’t know a lot about all the mechanics of GTAV, I just watch people play it. I guess that’s only the really big game that I wanted to play, and I still really do, but parents won’t let me play it for a while.
What’s a game you’re playing right now?
I’m really into strategy games. I kind of went through different phases with different complex cities of games. I had the most simple game, which was Civ V, and I started with that. I played Rome: Total War II, and then I started playing this new game Europa Universalis IV, and that’s really addicting. You play as different countries and you get to choose your own path through history, I guess.
What do your friends play?
I only have one other friend who plays EUIV. A couple of my friends bought it, but it’s not really interesting for them. They don’t really get into it. They just kind of assumed it was bad.
I don’t know. I guess they just didn’t really find it fun because there’s a lot of history and maps and all kinds of stuff involved with it. It involves a lot of patience.
I noticed you didn’t mention any shooters. Do they not interest you or your friends?
At one point, I started playing Titanfall, and I played a fair bit of that, but I started getting a little bored with it. It just kind of seemed like it was becoming the same thing and once I had maxed out levels, it kinda just got a little boring.
How long did it take for Titanfall to get boring?
I’d played it maybe for two and a half months and then started getting a little boring.
And that’s a $60 game, right?
Do you feel like you got your money’s worth?
Well, I feel like the game was much more hyped up and it looked like it was going to be much better than it was.
You’ve said that a couple times now, like you feel that games are being hyped up. Where is this hype coming from for games?
Another example is I had never got Watch Dogs, but a friend of mine did. They hyped up Watch Dogs for having great graphics and it’s gonna be a lot of fun, but it kinda just felt like not as good as they said it was gonna be. I played it at my friend’s house before.
What’d you guys think after you talked about it?
I mean, my friend was pretty impressed with it, but I was much more into the trailers and all that stuff. The hype beforehand.
Do you feel like that happens a lot, where games are sort of portrayed one way when they’re being promoted and then they end up being something else when they’re out?
Well, I don’t have a lot of personal experience, but my friends definitely say the same thing.
Why do you think games are not measuring up to what they’re being portrayed as?
Because, I especially think it’s pre-ordering. If a company makes it seem like a really promising game, then you’re gonna pre-order it, and usually pre-orders have a special feature in them and people will be like, “This game is probably gonna be great, so why don’t I just pre-order it?”
Do you pre-order games?
I’ve only pre-ordered one game. And that was one day before it was released. It was Cities: Skylines so I could get some DLC with it.
So typically, then, pre-ordering games doesn’t appeal to you?
Nah, not usually. I like to see reviews before I get the game, usually.
For reviews, where do you go?
I don’t really have any place in particular. I’ll just try to find two, maybe three videos. Usually I try to find – like, if there is any bad stuff, like, what is it? I try to find the bad stuff so I know I’m not getting a bad game.
What’s the most disappointed by a game you’ve ever been?
I’ve never really been that disappointed in a game, except for maybe the Pokémon Black and White games. I really was not very happy with them. All my friends really liked them, but I never really liked them that much.
Did you like other Pokémon games?
Yeah, I had a bunch of fun with all the other ones.
So what happened?
I don’t know. All of the new Pokémon, I really didn’t like them, and the whole new region wasn’t really enjoyable for me and, like, the story and the game also just felt like it was too hard for me at that time when I played it.
How do you feel about older games? Like, what’s the oldest game you’ve ever played?
That is probably Pokémon FireRed or Emerald. I forget which one came first.
How do older games feel different to you from more newer ones?
I feel like they’re more difficult, but it’s much more rewarding to finish it.
You mentioned Mario Galaxy. Are you and your friends ever curious about the first Mario that came out, like, three decades ago?
Well, one of my friends is really obsessed with the older retro games and he has an NES and he has all the old games and a GameCube, too.
Why does he have all that?
I mean, I don’t really understand it because you can get most of those games if you pre-purchased the 3DS, which I did. And now I have most of them and I know he does too, but I’m not really sure – maybe it’s more interesting or authentic on there.
Yeah. But those games just don’t interest you?
Nah, not really.
How come? I’m not at all and old fuddy-duddy insisting you should be. I’m just curious.
I don’t know. I’m into much more complex games now, where it’s not just get from point “A” to point “B” and “do this thing”. I kind of like having my own decisions.
What’s the best game you’ve ever played?
My favorite game of all time was probably Super Mario Galaxy, probably because it was my first game ever. And I played it through it possibly two or three times. I remember having so much fun with it every time.
What’d you think of the sequel?
I thought it was good but I think the original was better.
[Laughs.] Do you think that was just nostalgia?
I don’t know. Maybe it was nostalgia. I don’t really know. I haven’t played it in a little while.
Do you play stuff online? What’s your take on the way people talk to each other in games?
While playing games sometimes my friends do seem to change. Especially when we would play Team Fortress 2 everyone always wanted to seem superior to each other. I feel like some people in TF2 do just blurt stuff on to the server for no reason. I suppose because they think that what they do or say doesn’t matter, and I do the same sometimes; I act like it doesn’t matter what I say.
How are games made?
I think that, like, people come up with the idea and they think about how it’s going to go before they start making the game, and sometimes they’ll have to make adjustments and changes.
Do you hear about teams on games, like, how many people are involved or how much money it costs to make videogames?
No, I don’t really look into that.
Just doesn’t interest you?
Nah, not really.
What’s a game that you’re really looking forward to right now? Is there something you’re excited about hopefully coming out of E3?
Well, I really hope that they make the Elder Scrolls VI and they announce that at E3.
Is there any part of videogames right now that makes you feel left out?
Like, sometimes I feel really jealous of a really higher-level player. I really wish I could do that. It seems so easy, but it’s really not.
How do you think videogames affect you as a person?
My life kinda now revolves around about playing time, which isn’t really the best thing. I always try to get my homework done as fast as possible so I have the most time to play. I feel like I’m really limited by schoolwork and all kinds of stuff.
Did your parents used to play videogames?
My parents used to play Dungeons & Dragons and my dad had an old Xbox and my Mom got my Dad an old Game Boy, but, like, when my parents were children they never really played that much.
Why do you think that happens? That people are super into games and then maybe stop or they just play way less?
I went through a period of my life where that happened. I joined a new group of kids at school and I stopped playing as much videogames because I wanted to be more sporty, I guess. I tried to fit in with them.
I guess it’s really how your life changes. It might not seem like videogames are that unimportant to you. Like, for me, they seemed like they’re really, really important. But, like, it’s really videogames revolve around you, not you around them.
What does the word “gamer” mean to you?
It means somebody who plays videogames but, like, I wouldn’t consider much sports videogames. Like, somebody who primarily just games and that’s their main source of entertainment.
Would you consider yourself a gamer?
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Volume 2, an interview with another friend’s daughter, will appear in a future issue of Unwinnable Weekly.