a.k.a. Technological Novelties vs. Progress 2: Electric Boogaloo EX-+@ Championship GOTY Edition Redux.
A trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since I wrote about Novelty vs. Progress.
In that time, we’ve seen things rise and things fall. It’s the natural order of things that allows us to see what is truly technological progress and what is a technological cul-de-sac, the things we can use to enhance and progress our hobby and the things that, whilst nice, are ultimately a futile money-pit seeking a market that has more monetary means than common sense. Take, for example, the Oculus Rift. There’s no doubting the power of the people behind it, or it’s desirability. But in the quest for immersion, is it really the answer? And then, last week, a new addition for those hungry for the device: an Omnidirectional Treadmill – basically, a big ball you walk on like a gigantic analog-stick.
I admire the technology on show; there’s a serious amount of creativity and sure, I can see future uses for this kind of technology. In it’s current form, perhaps not. But here’s a point; it IS a gimmick. The Oculus Rift is a gimmick – sure, TV Glasses and headphones are an awesome fun idea, but it is a sensory deprivation tank for the modern era. What exactly is wrong with a really good TV and a pair of nice headphones? Same with the Omnidirectional Treadmill. I am totally for people getting more exercise (says the guy who can’t walk more than 10 meters without grabbing onto something to keep him from falling flat on his stupid face!), but a big ball like this? Playing a videogame at the same time? Surely there are nicer ways of exercising and playing games, right? And why would you want both to somehow co-exist in such a manner?
Look, let’s get something two things out of the way;
1.) Not all gimmicks are bad. A gimmick is a gimmick.
This is very important as we are often very disparaging about what we call “gimmicks”. Except a lot of what sells games, and an awful lot of the things we hail and exalt as somehow important in the video game industry right now are in fact gimmicks. We’ve just become very forgiving of the good gimmicks and marketing ploys – to the point that we barely notice them at all. Harsh truths time; Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite. She’s a strong woman. She’s an intelligent woman. She’s a great character. And she’s a device, a hook for so much of the game that it revolves around her. The game is her story; her tale, and you are her companion, nothing more.
Now, let’s think about this very carefully without jumping up and down and making some kind of grotesque, childish scene akin to a four-year-old throwing a tantrum in the middle of a supermarket because mummy won’t buy him candy. Is Elizabeth worthy of all the attention? Yes. She is. She’s an anomaly in the video game market; a woman who defies being defined in basic tropes. But she’s the star. She’s always there. This is what many reviewers and bloggers picked up on; the strength of the game would be great without, but Elizabeth adds a whole new dimension. And yet, yes, the game could likely work without her constant presence. So she attracted attention and publicity, and very likely business – a strong female character like Elizabeth is rare. Not even Lara Croft in a dozen games has had that kind of attention lavished upon her.
So, all evidence suggests that Elizabeth is a gimmick. So, if we can define her as a gimmick – and we can – is she a bad gimmick? Of course not. But we can redress this later.
2.) Gimmicks CAN evolve into progress.
There’s nothing that states that a gimmick cannot become a market standard at some stage, and Nintendo have ably demonstrated this fact with the Nintendo DS. There was once a time when the notion of a touch-screen for video games was considered nothing more than a cheap marketing gimmick, a fanciful but ultimately daft idea that would eventually cripple Nintendo due to the sheer weight of costs involved. And yet, can we imagine our handheld devices now without touch controls? Smartphones, tablets, handheld gaming consoles – touchscreen technology, once seen as nothing more than a flight of fancy for an industry desperately looking for a means to move forward, is now here. And it has evolved from that cheap gimmick into a serious market standard.
It entirely depends on how you see gimmicks at a base level: gimmicks are a tool, a device in themselves. They are marketing footholds, the kinds of things that grab the attention of the press and generate attention, which it is assumed and hoped will translate into sales as curious people invest to see what all the fuss is about. If the gimmick has serious legs and the concept can be run with, then it will run on its own accord. There is nothing that says a gimmick in itself cannot grow up; where you start doesn’t matter, where you finish does.
With both of those points out the way, we can extrapolate from here and drift neatly back into my original thought; the line between novelty and progress.
The relationship we have with technology is often quite difficult and complicated; once, markets were decided by what customers like us bought, and what sold. In a modern era – and this goes for Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung and whatever other company that you care to mention – companies have become adept in trying to tell us what we want, trying to tell us what we need and that their vision for the future is the right way to do things. Do you think Adam Orthy would have made his comments on Always Online if he didn’t fundamentally believe that it was the future? Of course not. He’s part of a company which has ideas for their next machine, part of the system that tries to convince us that we need whatever measure is being dreamt up to protect themselves, often in the guise of trying to protect the consumer.
The challenge is obvious however – and it’s what Adam Orthy ran aground on. Consumers, the people who are required for such an idea to work, are against the measures because they can see the underlying flaws far more clearly than anyone involved in the project may ever be able to. Consumers will ultimately decide if an idea lives or dies by how willing they are to spend money on something. Microsoft can look to engineer better ways of always-online DRM checks. They can look into compromise, but by giving into compromise they must first accept that their ingenious new concept and rumoured/proposed console firmware security system is flawed. This is never easy to do, it’s never easy to accept that you haven’t hit the goldmine on your first swing of the pickaxe. Or that the gold substance you have found may be nothing more than fools gold. But if consumers don’t buy the new X-Box on the grounds of the bad press already and the proposed idea of a machine that cannot be used unless it is connected to the Internet, then your idea has no legs. Your idea isn’t progress. Your idea is, fundamentally, a bad gimmick.
When we sit down and look at the notion of such novelties, there have been lots of these little flights of fancy and they have almost always run aground. When the Nintendo Wii came with the Wii Remote, it was “the future”. Indeed, we even saw games like Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition and House of the Dead: Overkill to demonstrate the whole notion that the Wii Remote was the way forward. But it wasn’t. It became hard to bend games around the controller, when it should be a natural fit. In the end, what you had was an extremely nice gimmick – but it was a novelty, it was a distraction from the underlying problem that controllers hadn’t really evolved much for a while, and everyone wanted to do something different.
But if I am to pick on Nintendo, then so too must I slap Sony around the back of the head for the Move – the Wii Remote knockoff, an over-engineered response to the intrinsic fascination we all had with the Wii Remote. It was an expensive luxury that has only been used a handful of times over the years, and there’s no greater sign of a novelty than that. And yes, I will call the X-Box Kinect a novelty too. For all the promises, for all the attempts to make it work for games in general, it failed. Each attempt was an exercise in compromise, every “core-gamer title” it tried to shoot for only ever ended up using one element of the device. This generation was one founded on gimmicks, not progress. Apart from graphical fidelity (which happens as the PC market develops anyway), how we play games hasn’t changed all that much. RPG’s still play like RPG’s. First-person shooters haven’t really developed all that much. There have been great examples of the genres in question, or in any genre. But have they really moved their genres on that much? Or, perhaps we can ask this another way – how do we know that these fanciful headline-grabbing gimmicks and marketing tools will survive the leap into the next generation?
The thing is, progress happens because it needs to. Graphics, naturally, will always improve from generation to generation. This is the nature of the technological rush that we are still in the middle of. But visuals aren’t a great indicator of progress; they get better because the industry can make better chips and developers can make prettier visuals as a result. No, this is the normal course of things. Progress needs to be a spike, a leap in any given direction rather than a natural line. Something that changes the industry, changes genres – progress changes everything. Novelties can only ever provide a limited kind of pattern inevitably doomed to extinction, because it cannot sustain itself for very long. Once exposed for what it is, or perhaps even regulated, the market for such a device or concept invariably fails to survive on its own accord. Unable to manoeuvre in the market, unable to make money and unable to find a meaningful place inside it, a novelty will find itself becoming more and more obscure and the demand for it becoming less and less pronounced.
We’ve already seen it in action; as the market for 3D continues to shrink, the industry is in a panic; the amount of money invested into the world of 3DTV and big-screen cinemas has been huge. Cameras and boxes, sets and screens and training. All of this has cost the industry a vast sum of money and it’s struggled for some time to make as much as it had hoped. There’s a good reason why the current variation of Stereoscopic 3D hasn’t worked; one in seven of us cannot see it. This is the problem and what makes it the worst kind of gimmick; that for many, it’s not progress – it’s a step backwards. If you are punishing a huge proportion of your market because of something that is beyond their control, then you can never achieve market saturation. You go to a movie with a group of friends, one person can’t see 3D. What happens? You choose something in 2D. So everyone can enjoy it. That’s just how we are. That’s how it works. People won’t spend money on something that doesn’t work for them.
Video games, and especially controllers, haven’t changed much. Nintendo are attempting it again with the Wii-U; it’s a bit early to tell if the U-Pad is progress or a novelty concept but there’s promise there. There’s the foundations of something to build upon, if they can get it out there and sell it. But I can use it. We often talk about making video games more accessible to disabled people – not merely those of us who can’t walk, but some who have limited sensation in their upper bodies as well. There’s a big push towards a more inclusive world of video games. So, what we have is an omnidirectional treadmill. And this isn’t a gimmick? There are lots of people who will never be able to use it. Not merely in monetary terms but just through base biology – they don’t have legs, or a spine is damaged, or they can’t stay stood up for long. If there’s a portion of the market that ultimately is shunned in the chase for a new idea, it cannot survive. Because to be inclusive, the industry has to design for those whom the standards work for. A controller may not seem very exotic anymore, but it works. It’s functional. And ultimately, even for many disabled people, it can be used either with a bit of creative thinking or a bit of creative engineering. And as long as that remains the case, a controller and a mouse and keyboard combination will continue to be the industry standard. Because it’s usable by ALL. Not just a few select wealthy able-bodied people.
The question to ask yourself is this; “Is this solving a problem that doesn’t actually exist?” That’s the measure of a novelty. And ultimately, the best way to spot a bad gimmick.
And so I come back to Elizabeth. Is she solving a problem that exists? Perhaps. She may indeed be the model for the industry to build upon; but right now, she’s a gimmick. She’s a one-off. She’s an anomaly. Time will tell if Elizabeth has a pronounced effect on the video games industry; this year, we have other strong women in games coming. The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls and Remember Me – all games which currently promise us equally strong and human females that don’t much more carpet than a malfunctioning Roomba. Elizabeth may be a turning point; but it’s really too early to tell. The only way we will know if she was a character that helped develop the market and push it away from being so dominated by male stereotypes is when we’ve had time and space to look back. She’s still fresh, new, exciting and different. She’s a gem for the marketing people; people are talking about her. They like her. They find her fascinating. But she is currently a gimmick; nothing more to them than a device to attract attention and publicity to their game and have us all talking about it.
However, perhaps in a few years we’ll look back and find this whole debate incredibly patronising. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that women in general these days enjoy much the same things as men do. We watch horror movies, sports, we (mostly) all gawp at porn and other adult material. They enjoy video games – and not girly games either. They play what the guys do and they do a damned good job of it as well. When games like Skullgirls come to the market, some people tut and go, “That’s terribly sexist.” What happens? Most women love it. They find it fun, crazy, enjoyable. Lara Croft was created as an object to stare at. Women made her an icon of female empowerment at a time when Girl Power was all the rage. They took that creation, and made it their own. Perhaps we’ll eventually come to a realisation that women have already become attracted to gaming for the same reason the guys are; it’s fun, and they’re enjoying it. And they don’t want or need special attention, because they’re just fine thank you very much. Perhaps Elizabeth is a symptom of an issue that isn’t really that big an issue at all. We can’t know yet. We won’t know yet. We’re inside the eye of the storm. It’s going to take a while before it’s passed before we can assess the landscape without fear of repercussions.
Progress isn’t always immediately obvious. Sometimes novelty parades itself as progress. Sometimes something with the potential for progress is treated as nothing more than a novelty item. Telling the future is difficult because the world, and society, is changing on a constant basis. Hindsight is so much easier because we at least have a grasp of all the facts. But we need to understand that gimmicks are all around us. Gimmicks are important, but “gimmick” is a very broad term as well. So it’s not the gimmick at fault. It’s not the term that is important here. It’s how you build upon it. And that entirely depends on the foundations the gimmick lays for itself… the more shaky the foundations, the less likely anyone can build on it.
And the less likely we’ll hear from them ever again. Andy Warhol was right… everyone gets their fifteen minutes…