I recently had an argument with a friend about games that require a constant internet connection. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” he kept repeating. “Everybody has the internet.”
What’s funny about this is that my friend lives with his parents while attending college part-time and working a low-paid internship; his parents pay for his internet connection. But rather than point out my friend’s incredible luck, I emphasized to him that not everyone has internet, as this global map of internet saturation levels reveals. In rural areas, playing the latest iteration of Sim City will never be possible, as that game requires an ever-present connection. Even in densely-populated areas, the cost of internet remains a barrier to entry for gamers who can’t afford high-speed internet or internet at all.
I told my friend a story that baffled him about two much poorer gamer friends than I—a couple who couldn’t afford internet and would instead steal it from their downstairs neighbors. Every time their PS3 needed to download an update, they would pick up the console, haul it into their bedroom, and hold it outside their window in an effort to get a signal good enough to download the patch. Was it immoral? Depends on who you ask.
No matter how many examples I gave or stories I told along these lines, my friend came to the unfortunate conclusion that people just shouldn’t be gamers if they can’t afford it. He had no sympathy for my internet-stealing friends, or for players who pirate games out of financial need. He told me he thought players just had to be able to meet a certain price point—and live in a certain part of the world (perhaps, let’s say, with a set of generous parents?)—in order to be a true “hardcore gamer”.
Unfortunately, my friend is not alone in his thinking, and since the recession, a serious gaming hobby has become less and less of a financial possibility for most. The necessity for an internet connection is but one of many reasons why videogaming on a “hardcore” level is a hobby meant solely for the middle and upper classes. Consoles also have a high up-front cost, as do new releases of videogames. Poorer gamers hear about the release of the PS4 and Xbox One this coming November and rather than excitedly place their pre-order, await the ability to finally upgrade to a PS3 or Xbox 360 at reduced cost. The bargain bin—be it on Amazon, eBay or in physical form at Gamestop—is the poor gamer’s friend, along with Gamefly, which is a mailing service for games.
The Xbox One initially planned to make their console online-only; after outcries from both the internet and probably also Gamestop Corporate (used game sales keep videogame retailers in business), Microsoft walked back their announcement. But given low sales numbers for retail games in both 2012 and 2013, it’s no surprise that Microsoft might want a bigger pay-out. Just as gamers are worried about how they’re going to afford the games they want, so too are employees at videogame companies concerned about their jobs.
Was it always like this? Since I can’t find a comprehensive study of class vis-a-vis videogame consumption between the 1980s and the present day, I asked my friends (and my Twitter followers) for their anecdotal evidence. I had assumed that consoles and handhelds were the more accessible answer for poorer players, given that buying a console has a lower up-front cost than building one’s own PC. On the contrary, I heard over and over again that PCs were the go-to gaming experience for lower-class players in earlier decades. Consoles were considered a luxury—an expensive item with “playing” as its sole functionality likely did not sound like a justifiable cost for people pinching pennies.
I think this standard has switched around, nowadays—at least it has for players who either game on a competitive level, attempt as best they can to keep up with modern releases or both. In order to be a competitive PC gamer, the cheapest answer is to build your own PC—but that’ll still cost about $500, and it also has the barrier to entry that is general technology know-how. (Building a computer often seems intimidating even to folks who know a lot about technology; I had no idea how easy it was until I built my own via YouTube tutorials, but I won’t pretend the up-front cost was easy to part with.)
Becoming a competitive console gamer has a much lower barrier to entry both in terms of hardware knowledge and in terms of initial cost. Fighting games, for example, necessitate an arcade stick purchase ($150), a console (~$300), and at least one videogame ($60); shooters require the same, except for the arcade stick. Even so, the overall cost is lower, and I often wonder whether the easier entry to consoles explains the popularity of the console peasants/PC Master Race meme. Do we see competitive PC gamers as snooty compared to competitive console gamers? If only we could compare, for example, the class (and racial) demographics of fighting game players, versus the demographics of StarCraft II players. I have a hypothesis already as to what such a study would find.
The most poverty-stricken players never make it into the “hardcore” echelon at all. Over half of Americans own a smartphone, also known as the console for filthy casuals ... along with the Nintendo Wii and Wii U, also branded as systems meant for “casual” players, and also the cheapest mainstream consoles available. PC game that do not require expensive graphics cards (e.g. Facebook and browser games) are also the ones that are considered “casual” no matter how many hours or high scores the player logs in-game. It’s not about how much time you spend playing games—it’s also about what you can afford.
Games have a serious accessibility problem. Usually when people complain about games not being accessible, they are talking about the culture, as well as the difficulty and in-jokes inherent in videogames. I think a big part of gamer culture is about class barriers as well: You have to be a “nerd,” which unfortunately implies a certain class bracket. If you’re a poor gamer and you want to be considered “hardcore,” then you’re going to have to work a lot harder to prove your credentials socially than a rich gamer who can easily fill their living room with expensive gadgets.
I think developers’ speculation about why mainstream publications don’t include videogame coverage in their arts criticism sections, why games criticism has no Roger Ebert, and even why gaming has no Citizen Kane has less to do with the artists making the games not being talented enough, and more to do with accessibility overall. As long as videogame creation and consumption are Rich People Activities, videogames as a medium just won’t see their full potential. Perhaps the future Roger Ebert of videogame criticism is too poor to buy the games she wants to write a blog post about, or perhaps the future Orson Welles of videogame creation cannot afford to get a Computer Science degree.
That’s why I have such high hopes for strange little independently developed consoles like the Ouya, and for simple game-making tools like Twine and RPG Maker. The existence of the Ouya and of indie games trip up the dichotomy of “hardcore” vs “casual” gamers by defying both labels.
The game developers who make these inexpensive, accessible indie games are often barely able to scrape by financially themselves, sometimes having to ask for donations from fans to attend conferences or to enter their games into contests, to go on publicity tours or to find out that their unusual ideas might just be able to turn a profit after all.
I don’t believe that making games, critiquing games or playing games should be a privilege reserved for people who can afford it, and I hope that the ingrained cultural picture of what a “hardcore gamer” looks like begins to change not only on racial, gender and sexuality lines, but also along class lines. The belief that poor people are entitled to create and enjoy art without having to worry about starving in the process might sound radical to some, including the friend I described at the beginning of this piece. But people can change—no matter how set in their “hardcore” ways they may seem.
Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.