Apologia for the Gaming Community

The strategic moment for any outsider who wants validity for their passion is to make them—the insiders, the stake-holders, the gate keepers—come to you, not the opposite way around. The task of gaining acceptance is essentially what makes the apologia a challenging form of rhetorical performance. An apologia is a formal defense or explanation of one’s own beliefs that also seeks to encourage others to believe. As anything but impartial, apologists begin with a known disadvantage: They have something to lose (1). The apologist is making a claim for an important identity which can earn them or the community they represent both attention and market value. So, with a known ulterior motive exposing their intentions, they must demonstrate overwhelming value to the audience. Among the gaming community, there are numerous contemporary and historic, personal and highly public examples of this form of argument.

Games are a legitimate hobby is a common claim of video game players who, in personal circles, must counteract the sneers of non-gamers who judge games as an anti-social “waste of time.” See the countless stories about evil parents or intolerant girlfriends on any gaming forum.

Games are a form of art is a difficult idea to sell when aesthetic objects are not supposed to have a “winner” or a popular following. The late Roger Ebert’s post on the topic Video Games Can Never Be Art, while uncompromising, is entertaining and worth the read.

Games are a sport is a challenging concept when simulation and virtual exploration lack the raw physicality and athleticism of today’s professional sports. Recent discussion following the Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel feature on e-sports and competitive gaming further elucidates the nuances of this debate.

Casual games are real games too is a defensive response against the industry and market divide between low skill, short interval games and the greater time commitment and initial costs of “hardcore” console and PC games. An interesting sample of this is the Casual Games Association whose slogan is “The Future Is Mainstream.”

Each of these examples are claims for legitimacy in the video game community and in broader popular culture. Which supplicants have gained the most ground for their position? And, more importantly, how did they do it? In the niche community of game writing, some have done a better job of strategically placing themselves or their ideas in a position to be recognized and legitimated by the right audience. Essentially, there is an ideal form to the apologia.

The easiest and therefore most common response to any argument is the binary opposition. Even infant children know this response; it is your “yes” against my “no.” The binary argument is also the easiest way to lose any debate. Period. Why you ask? Because the person initiating the argument has selected the obvious and most disadvantageous point to your side and a diametric response does two things. First, it implicitly recognizes the validity of their statement as a standard to decide the debate, and two, your response is usually supported by fewer facts or commonly accepted knowledge. The binary opposition is a trap upon which many apologists and game writers fall, yet it is not necessary.

The binary response does not demonstrate value for an intentionally alienating standard. A successful argument requires a change to the ground and a creative way to produce a sense of value. Take the case of games as a sport. The argument against their consideration is that video games can never be as physical or tactically skillful as football, baseball, etc. Many people have struggled to respond to this argument head on, arguing for the fine motor skills of the player and time spent in training; Academic discussion even attempts to break down the distinction between the avatar and player’s embodiment in the game space. Many of these approaches implicitly accept that brute physical force is the gold standard separating a sport from a game, and in that moment their diametric response diminishes their chance for success. The reason e-sports are currently discussed on HBO’s Real Sports is because League of Legends organizers have demonstrated value in areas beyond physicality: Competitive gaming tournaments have proven that game spectatorship is extremely popular, profitable, and that the games themselves require a great deal of strategic skill. E-sports are now as much of a spectacle as any other professional sporting event, and this is how they are more easily compared and accepted into popular sporting culture. This is a beneficial example of how value creation in defense of video games works.

Not to be dismissive, the binary approach is occasionally effective, but it can be tenuous and time consuming. Jane McGonigal took on the idea that “games are a waste of time” in her book Reality Is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. The scientific scope of this book is, however, beyond the pale of possibility for most writers. Reality Is Broken took years of sociological research and social psychology to complete, and it spans 416 pages. The shorter nature of most game’s pieces requires that writers work with what information is readily available, and that means using other mechanisms already present in the common consciousness to argue for one’s position.

“Casual” games is not a moniker bestowed by those who play mainstream games; it is a label made by serious or console gamers to distinguish their turf from something which is on the outside. Ironically, the process of achieving recognition of the importance or validity of casual games to the broader gaming community runs parallel to the debate about the role of gaming as sport. Casual gaming, in the same way as e-sports, will never win the recognition of hardcore gamers by the Sisyphean task of arguing their standards of how serious the casual gamer is, or how time consuming or even challenging casual games are. Instead, casual game apologists will win out by demonstrating those things that the mobile or casual game genre excel at. And, these attributes should ideally align with values of the broader gaming community. Arguing that Tetris requires the same skills as the first-person-shooter Battlefield 4 misses the mark because of how literal of a comparison it is.

Casual games have a certain degree of skill, time investment, and interest required, but it is of a different kind than “core” games. However, the attributes of sociality, persistent play, creative novelty, and gamic polish are moments where the hardcore versus casual game distinction deteriorates. As such, these characteristics should be magnified in discussions attempting to eliminate the gamer distinction from popular discourse and the video game community. I would even be so bold as to mention the successful cohesion between narrative, game mechanics, and aesthetic appeal which King perfected in their Candy Crush Saga as holding demonstrative value to the field. This level of polish, especially at the moment of release, is increasingly a fiction for new core game releases. Observations of the enjoyment and entertainment taken from successful casual games can inform our consideration and development of the core group. Perhaps someday such a distinction between the core and the casual will disappear completely. The key to successfully defending a position in the gaming community is to play with the standards of evaluation and develop visible worth.

(1) Ware, B.L. and Linkugel, W.A. (1973). They spoke in defense of themselves: On the generic criticism of apologia. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 59, 273-283.

About clanius

Candice Lanius is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication & Media at RPI and a Student Resident for the Research Data Alliance (RDA/US). Her research interests are in big social data analytics. This includes methodologies for meta-data, big data, and networked communication; a rhetoric of statistics and objectivism; and the politics of analytic technologies.
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