E3 2012: “Just Place an X on the Life Line in the Appropriate Place”

Angry Birds is on my iPhone.  It’s a neat little game.  Somehow, it’s been downloaded over a billion times across multiple platforms.  It’s neat, and it’s little.  Angry Birds is a more simplified Worms.  That’s what it is.  It’s Worms.  That PC game (even available for DOS!) from 1995 is now what your grandmother enjoys.  What your father enjoys.  That you enjoy, sometimes, on a long bus ride.  Angry Birds isn’t as remarkable as it is accessible.  There’s nothing wrong with it, nothing to stomp feet over.  I am still amazed when I see t-shirts of it being sold in your local Kohl’s.  Its success is extraordinary.  Unearned, maybe, but not bad.

2012’s E3 was, if I’m pretending to be a games writer, “a mixed bag.”  Press conferences consisted of ultraviolence and the occasional product marketed to those who don’t know better.  Ubisoft quickly transposed Just Dance 4, part of the series best known for fooling audiences into believing the dance game has more fidelity than a CD player and empty water bottle, with Assassin’s Creed III, a traditional game about stabbing Brits in the face.  Microsoft touted Bing and Internet Explorer as “features” (for those who buy a computer to use just once a month), but ended on mass explosions.  Sony was perhaps the most egregious of them all, stopping a show of impromptu elephant-man brain surgery to showcase the Wonderbook, a fascinating peripheral with the Harry Potter license.  If I were six years old, I’d be fascinated.  But what six-year old is watching this press conference when the next game shown is one with a homeless man getting his face blown off (with no regards to his screams of “Don’t!”)?  Who is this for?

Gaming has come to separate these into groups, the “Casual” and the “Hardcore.”  Many games, including the Gears of War series, incorporates these terms into the game itself.  “Easy” becomes “casual”, “hard” becomes “hardcore.”  You aren’t easy, sweetie, you’re just casual.  You aren’t just playing on hard, you’re HARDCORE!  These terms are marketer-driven.  They give us something to hold on to.  We choose a side, because some higher-up demanded it.  What defines this difference?  Are you hardcore because you’ve played Super Mario Bros. before?  Or would that be considered “just casual” now?  Angry Birds is Worms.  I imagine Worms would be called hardcore, but why is Angry Birds casual?  Because it’s more successful?  Is that how we differentiate it?  But Call of Duty is also extremely successful, and it’s hardcore.  What about Rayman?  While it appears whimsical and pleasing to the incoming demographics, the platforming gameplay stacks up with the best.  I’d imagine that’s hardcore, but more people than thirteen-year old boys like it so it’s casual, but it’s still a deeper experience than most iPhone games so it’s hardcore.  Right?  You can imagine just how much of a confusing mess this is.  This separation.

I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that “casual” and “hardcore” are buzzwords created specifically to avoid the greater talking points of “good” and “bad.”  Critiquing anything, no matter where it lay on the scale, is backed by a chorus saying “This isn’t for you.”  If you don’t like faces being blown into smithereens with no emphasis on character or personality, go play Angry Birds!  And if, somehow, you don’t consider Angry Birds the greatest game you’ve ever seen, why not teabag some homophobic euphemisms?  This shouldn’t be an either/or debate.  E3’s press conferences swung hard right or left and never went down the middle.  Do I think The Last of Us will be a bad game, despite its potential ultraviolence?  No, I can’t wait!  Do I think the Wonderbook is a poor product because it targets children?  No, I bet it’s really cool, and if I ever walk into a Target without insecurity I’d maybe pick one up.  But Internet Explorer and Just Dance?  Yeah, no, those are bad.  It’s because they’re bad that they’re “not for me,” not because you keep targeting those that don’t know better.

Before E3 began I had started clicking around on Tumblr, trying to get a feel for the general consensus.  As always, there was no lack of enthusiasm.  I noticed something different, though.  I’d stumble across blogs of sixteen-year old girls all excited over the press conferences, partaking in the same partisan nonsense most traditional young boys get over by the time they leave high school.  They knew about E3, they joked about it, they loved it.  They’d even call themselves “hardcore.”  I question that.  I don’t question their fascination with games, I just question what constitutes “hardcore.”  They had the looks of the commonly-accepted pretty girls of later puberty, so a Sony or Microsoft executive would obviously drag them into a “casual” camp.  But they claim to be “hardcore.”  Do they mean they’ve played Call of Duty before, a franchise that sells millions and isn’t particularly exclusive?  Or does “hardcore” mean they play the Japanese-only versions of Romance of the Three Kingdoms till their fingers fall off?  There’s no way to know, because the terms are so broad and interchangeable.  You say you’re a hardcore gamer, I don’t know anything about you.  Do you eat, do you breathe?  What do you consider The Sims?  Is it better or worse than Ikari Warriors?  Which did you get more upset about during E3, the ultraviolence or the ultracute?

During the show I received a number of texts and Facebook messages saying things like “GOD this is the WORST show EVER” or “Did you seeeeeeeee this bullshit?!”, and I can’t help but wonder what went through their minds.  Which hard swing are they mad about?  Left, right, or both?  I hope both, because I tire of this separation between “casual” and “hardcore,” like they represent separate ideologies.  There isn’t such a thing as a “casual” game, your mom just doesn’t have anything to compare FarmVille against.  What’s “hardcore” about wordlessly murdering hundreds of people?  Is Braid more “hardcore” because you solve puzzles that tie into a deeply mature storyline, or is it more “casual” because you aren’t killing people?  I guess my biggest takeaway from E3 is that I’m sick of the separation.  There are great games at E3.  Even the games that marketers decided fall into one camp or the other can be great!  Many look that way.  But the press conferences focused on the hard swings.  You’re black or you’re white.  Take your side.  Post it in the “About Me” section on your blog.  Whittle down your beliefs till they fit on a bumper sticker.  All that separates the “hardcore” from the “casual” is the recognition of that difference.

What I’m trying to say is that E3 2012 was fun but frustrating, and that Angry Birds is a good game.  It’s not the best game.  It wouldn’t do you harm to never play it.  But the people who do love it, or at least start playing it during awkward social functions, don’t do so because they fit into a pie chart.  It’s not a “casual” game, it’s just…kinda good.

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