The New Immersion

Written By mista sense on Saturday, September 11, 2010 | 1:47 PM


As social networking has surged, I've found myself blogging less. When I began SVGL, I used to post sometimes multiple times per day, if my time permitted; I was full of ideas and I loved having the opportunity to regularly connect and engage with the community that was building itself here.

So I've observed the slowdown in my blogging habits with some concern. Has it meant I have fewer ideas now? Am I just too busy with my pro work to keep up my dear little blog anymore? Am I less interested in video game conversation than I used to be, now that the majority of my waking hours are spent in that space? Am I burning out, or something?

Then I realized I still produce just as much community content as I did before; it's simply taking a different shape. Many of you have transitioned with me from SVGL to the venues I use with far more regularity: Twitter and Formspring. I imagine that if one accumulated the sum total of text related to the video game community that I place on Twitter and Formspring on a regular basis, the result would be pretty parallel to the amount of content that I used to produce blogging. I'm still sharing my ideas with the community; it's just taken on a different shape.

I remember when N'Gai Croal, one of the most venerated writers doing the work that I hoped to join, began to post less on his Level Up blog. Alongside that, he was becoming a real power Twitter user. I didn't see the point of Twitter at the time; "why would anyone be interested in what I am doing all day, and what do I care what all these strangers had for breakfast," I wondered. When I heard trendy folk saying that Twitter was anything close to "journalism", I was scornful. It seemed preposterous.

I teased N'Gai a lot about his early-adopter Twitter evangelism. But he is well-reputed among us all for his prescience and his big-picture thinking, and I now realize that at the time, he had immediately realized something that took me a lot longer to grasp: Twitter is a brilliant communication platform, and it does, in fact, serve the same function for many that a lot of blogs do.

The first time I attended events like GDC or E3, people came up to me and said, "oh, I read your blog." The most recent time I attended these events, people came up to me and said, "oh, I read your Twitter." I found it bizarre, but it makes sense.

Twitter and Formspring are quick-hit, instant-access experiences. 140 characters are more effective than 1400, sometimes. Rather than cull my RSS feeds and read sprawling forum threads to discover what the community is interested in and speak to it, you use these social networking venues to bring your interests to me directly (that plenty of Formspring questions are about my sex life and shoe size or whatever is an unfortunate side-effect).

And I realized recently that these new media are having a similar transformative effect on the video game industry. We're being trained in this socially-networked era of bite-size communications, and all media are evolving alongside it. I used to read music blogs to discover new songs, but now I simply follow those bloggers on Twitter and when they post a new track, I just pick and choose what links to click from their feeds. My favorite book right now is a reflection of these new fashions of interaction.

When it comes to video games, sales of traditional 60-hour packaged software video games are declining, but sales of smaller, easy-access digitally-distributed titles are on the rise. Even someone who was a "light" gamer before has new options: instead of downloading and installing some kind of PC executable, they're playing iPhone apps while they wait for the subway.

Much conversation takes place in the social gaming space about how they will cannibalize the console industry, as if the two platforms were mutually exclusive. This message is often reduced to its barest bones, and translated as "Facebook games are the new 'video game', and console video games will cease to exist."

Certainly that message is worth scoffing at; gamers still want depth. But the way they want it delivered is definitely evolving; social media is gaining steam, and we, the primary 'gamer generation', are growing older. Maybe the adolescents of the coming era are begging not for a gaming console, but for a Steam account. We want our content available in an accessible, jump-in-jump-out way. We want it always on, always there, living intangible and persistent on invisible digital strings.

But these rising trends are having massive impacts on the economic models of the businesses they're enabling. To use the music example again, I can listen to 20 new songs a day if I want to, just by following artists and music bloggers on Twitter. Do I spend money, though? Not too often. I buy records often when I'm in love with a band, but I listen to free digital music much more. Most of the music I own, I found or someone gave it to me. How are bands supposed to make any money?

That the game industry is so high-risk has been my greatest lament regarding traditional games; when success is so hard and so much cash is required to even give it a shot, no one wants to lose millions because they tried something new and interesting that didn't work. If people are buying fewer console titles -- and they are -- then the game industry becomes even more hit-driven than it used to be.

We've always looked to indies to use their freedom and agility to create real innovation, but independents have long had challenges of their own -- low risk doesn't mean no risk, and lower cost doesn't mean "affordable." If indies can't reach their audiences, they're still disabled. And broke, probably. The upside of this online shift in the way we consume is that the indie scene becomes even more relevant. When the real good content is discovered by crowdsourcing on social networks and obtained by a one-click download, the playing field of AAA guns and indie developers looks a lot more even.

That doesn't mean I feel convinced we're not losing something in the transition. My least-favorite phrase in developer interviews used to be "bite-sized chunks." Not only is that aesthetically unappealing, but to me it spoke of a design philosophy that eschewed depth in favor of accessibility. I'm still not so sure it doesn't.

I hope I never stop blogging, and I hope game developers will still make hours-long walled gardens for me to escape into, just like I've done since I was a little girl. There's hope for console devotees in games like the rightfully-flourishing Red Dead Redemption, which seems to face an easy skate from here to Game of the Year for pretty much everyone. One can play that game for hours. One can also play it for five minutes.

The chronology of the gaming consoles I've owned is now finished over at Thought Catalog. I notice a marked decrease in sentimentality from the first installment to the last. Chalk it up to nostalgia, but my changing relationship with the landscape has a lot to do with it, too.

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