Quick, describe what comes to your mind when someone mentions teen pop star Justin Bieber.
Was it “Ugh?” Or, “Oh man, I’m nauseous?” Or, “What the hell is wrong with kids these days?” But if you’re not a 15-year-old female, why waste time and energy hating on something that’s clearly not meant for you?
So goes the ancient question that’s troubled humankind’s artistic community since chalk drawings first went up on cave walls. When a creative work gains a significant amount of approval and/or a following, the critics trail right behind, like hounds after a fox. The result is often a deeply divided fan base: Those who thoroughly enjoy Product A, and those who detest it.
Social games, for instance, have carved a furrow in the gaming landscape. Titles like FarmVille, Mafia Wars, and a significant portion of the Wii’s offerings have caught the attention of men and women who previously had no interest in playing “the Nintendo.” But many traditional gamers can only spit when someone mentions social games. They’re more than happy to list their criticisms: Traditional games leech money from unsuspecting players, they’re boring, they’re derivative, they’re overly-simple, they’re creatively bankrupt, and they exist only to make bank.
And there’s a great deal of truth behind these criticisms. Social games are developed with profit in mind, which is why so many of them come off as bland and unoriginal to the folks who don’t dig them. However, you probably won’t find a social games developer that will claim it’s making a huge creative contribution to the industry. Even Zynga’s overlord, Mark Pincus, told SFWeekly last fall that Zynga’s offerings are meant to be lightweight “TV programming” whereas the rest of the industry is making “movies.”
Still, the scorn continues. But maybe it’s to be expected. Developer Brice Morrison recently wrote an excellent article that outlines the reasons why indie developers and their fans hate social games. He cites originality versus base design, artistic expression versus “cash cows,” and games that the developer pours him or herself into versus a game that is manufactured for the entire world through intense focus testing and number-crunching. Morrison’s article doesn’t take a side: Rather, it unravels the psychology and business that’s behind the creation of indie games and social games alike. The contrast is intriguing.
Moreover, people have an inborn tendency to group themselves. Not so long ago, gaming was regarded as a pastime for kids, nerds, and recluses. When lifelong game players see video games adopted by celebrities and other aspects of the mainstream culture they once shied away from, it’s understandable why they might feel a touch resentful.
There’s also a lot of appeal in rooting for an underdog, even if it’s a completely separate breed from what the world favors. Limbo is a great game accented by its haunting, silent presentation. Despite that (or maybe because of that), it’ll never achieve the success of FarmVille. Not surprising, but it gives one a good reason to sigh over how the real “artistic” games out there are buried under the “social garbage” that everyone else adopts.
People have a right to their criticism, even if a game was not specifically developed to ensnare them. The important thing to remember is not to blow an artery on a message board stationed on some corner of the Internet; there’s no reason why traditional games and social games can’t co-exist. Take the movie industry. There are still studios making deep, thought-provoking films for artistic merit rather than money, even though other studios have found major financial success by churning out DVDs about Barbie shopping for a dress with a team of unicorns.