A Couple of Thoughts on the “PC Gaming Master Race”

Synopsis: Some of today’s video game players have decided they are the “PC Gaming Master Race”, holding the idea that computers are fundamentally superior for gaming than consoles.  This concept is rooted in the history of computer video games, but those players fail to realize that the games and hardware that created a “Master Race” were defined by high barriers of entry.  Back in the day, computer video games (and computers) demanded money, patience, and intelligence.  This, in turn, yielded an educated and intelligent player base.  Today’s distribution services, low price point, entry-level game titles, and the ease of modern computing have redefined what computer video games are about and who they attract.  Computer video games are now like every other platform: Small audience of savvy users, large audience of plebs.  So if you’re identifying with the PC Gaming Master Race, just be aware: You are identifying with a culture and an economic model which does not exist anymore.

Update on June 1, 2013: This entry has been edited and expanded slightly.

So, this one time, some game reviewer with a British accent said something about a “glorious PC gaming master race” and compared them with the “dirty console peasants”.*  Missing the point of Ben Croshaw’s attack on the “complex and unintuitive” interfaces in computer video games, an entire generation of people who started playing computer video games in 2007 have decided they are the “PC Gaming Master Race”, the idea that playing Call of Duty on computers makes them superior to the losers playing Call of Duty on their consoles.  I would probably ignore this movement if it was a new thing.  But let’s be honest: The movement is an extension of the mythos of computer video game history, tracing back to the first-person shooters and real-time strategy games of the nineties, often including the computer role-playing and adventure games of the seventies and eighties.  So…congratulations to another large audience of video game players for missing the point.

If it was up to me, I would look at some of the games championed by today’s “Master Race”—League of Legends, DotA 2, StarCraft II, Team Fortress 2, Minecraft—and I would be laughing too damn hard to write this article.  (Didn’t you hear?  Virtual LEGOs make you hardcore.)  But that won’t get us anywhere.  People tend to forget that when Doom affirmed the platform as an outlet for high-quality action games, long-time computer game players declared it brainless, an assault on the platform’s penchant for complex narrative.*  And when developers took advantage of the new mouse peripheral to usher in an era of point-and-click adventure games, purists claimed that it dumbed down the genre, removing the skill of navigating, exploring, and understanding the text parser.* It really doesn’t matter what the platform is or how good the games become.  A defining tenet and/or mental illness of the video game community is that the best games came out when you were seven years old, and everything after that has sucked the big one.  It’s them nostalgias, brother.  So, I’m not going to argue that “computer video games were better back in the nineties, that’s the bottom line, go home”.

There is also an argument to be made that the personal computer can simply do video games better.  The platform’s input devices were designed for an efficient business environment.  And today, high-quality emulation and third-party game controllers exist for use with the personal computer, allowing consumers and video game players easy access to a large portion of console and arcade video game history.  Basically, computers can be the other gaming platforms as well.  And in addition, you can gain all the conveniences of modern computing with your purchase of “the ultimate gaming platform”.  While that is perfectly valid, that is not the focus of this entry.  This is not a discussion of the platform.  This is a focus on what makes a “PC Gaming Master Race”.  This is a discussion of the culture that surrounds the platform.

So you see, video games are a commercial medium, where the goal is to get people buying and playing software so companies and individuals can make money.  And broadly speaking, the history of video game development can be understood through the economics of video game development.  You get what you pay for, you get what you’ll support.  In return, developers and publishers release the games that they think will be profitable.  Well, historically, computer video games have had an unusually high quality of game experience for an open source platform.  Compare computer video games with platforms that have a low barrier of entry—the console video games of the eighties, portable video games, today’s mobile phone games—and you will find a huge difference.  Why do you think that is?  It’s simple: The “PC Gaming Master Race”—the players, the developers, and the hardware manufacturers—were defined by the incredible barrier of entry required to play computer video games through the seventies, eighties, and leading through the aughts.

The history of computer video games runs parallel with the history of the medium, the first video games being programmed into university mainframes.  Computers have long been the realm of the educated and elite, and for most of the device’s early consumer history, it would remain that way.  They were expensive, were only necessities within certain sections of the business world, and were a mere bonus for academic use.  (If your experience is like mine, your first exposure to computer video games came from someone else’s business venture.)  If you were purchasing computer hardware for the purpose of playing video games, you needed a lot of disposable income to toss around.  If you had lots of disposable income, there was a good chance that you were educated.  While education is not always a sign of intelligence, it certainly doesn’t hurt.  But in order to manipulate a command-line interface and deal with the hassles of then-computing, you needed a modicum of intelligence and a little bit of patience.

Up through the eighties, computer video games had already established an identity, one built around the most complex game controller in wide use.  But the most important developments, the one that established the popular perception of the PC Gaming Master Race, occurred during the early nineties.  A series of revolutionary computer game programming techniques (fast texture mapping, smooth side-scrolling capabilities) and the popularity of new computer peripherals (the optical disc, the mouse) turned the platform into a plenty-capable device for action games and audiovisual wizardry.  Most importantly, these advances led to experiences which could not be found or matched on any other platform.  Games like Myst and The 7th Guest took advantage of the optical disc’s incredible storage format and popularized the media for use with games.  (Yes, the PC-Engine and Sega CD explored optical media, but the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn would be the first consoles to really get it right.)  Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, and Command and Conquer popularized a fast-paced hybrid of action and strategy.  And while Ultima Underworld and Doom were hardly the first games to use a fluid and immersive first-person camera layout, those games provided the most compelling blueprint.

These developments set off a massive arms race within computer hardware development, leading to the creation of graphics cards, sound cards, and hardware specifically designed for computer video games.  Consumers wanted the fastest, complex, and most visually pleasing games they could find.  Developers wanted to keep pushing boundaries and further distinguish their games from the offerings found on competing platforms.  This placed a heavy burden on the consumer.  This meant replacing (or upgrading) computer hardware every other year at a cost that could run well over a thousand dollars.  (Speaking personally, the computer my parents purchased in 1993 had a processor first sold in 1992, could barely run Descent II in 1996, and could not run Quake at any setting when it came out the same year.  In three years, that two-thousand-dollar machine was obsolete for the purchase of playing new computer video games.)  This was a cycle that played out for well over a decade.  Anyone who had more than a passing interest in computer video games had to bite this expensive bullet, because that was the price of admission.

Source: InfoWorld, November 1992 (via Google Books)*

So do you understand the point that I’m making?  The audience did not define the platform.  The platform defined the audience.  This barrier of entry—a combination of money, general intelligence, and passion for the product—created a user base that was educated and knowledgeable about computer video games.  Computer video games developed an elitist reputation because the people purchasing the hardware and software—collectively, and within the context of the consumer market—were genuinely elite.  Where console video games maintained a high degree of quality with publisher and manufacturer barriers, computer video game players weeded out the good and the bad on their own.  And many, many people were eager to pay for that leap forward.  It’s also important to mention that as computer video games were pushing boundaries for visuals, they had not become expensive enough to restrict the development process, assuring that developers could expand upon old concepts and try out new concepts.  I’m not going to argue that computer game fans got it right one-hundred percent of the time.  Look at the middling sales of the System Shock series.  But many, many excellent games would get their due.  This led to the creation of progressive, forward-thinking games which did not disrespect their audiences, many remaining the class of their genres.  How else do you go from Dune II to Total Annihilation in five years?  From Wolfenstein 3-D to Descent II in four years?

Actually, we should ask the more important question: How does that compare to today’s computer video games?  And that’s where things become clear.  For starters, you no longer have to purchase an expensive computer in order to play them.  This myth is still perpetuated on various message boards, a myth generated by the computer arms race of the nineties.  While there is still an audience which will purchase absurdly powerful computer hardware setups for the purpose of playing these games, they are hardly necessary.  Remember: From roughly 2004 to 2006, major game publishers responded to their massive, self-inflicted game budgets by aiming to make their wares more accessible.  In order to do that, computers have been getting hand-me-downs from the more popular game consoles.  But also, Blizzard Entertainment sold eighty bazillion copies of World of Warcraft, and now, computer game developers want their games to work on as wide a range of computers as possible.  Fans still get the occasional Crysis, Supreme Commander, or Battlefield 3, but there’s more success to be found in visually-subdued offerings like Diablo III and Minecraft.  (And as I understand it, unless hardware manufacturers can find ways around the physical limitations of silicon processors, the hardware upgrade cycle is going to slow down even further.*)

But it’s not just cheap hardware.  Look at the software.  The resurgence of computer video games as a lead platform for development has been accomplished with digital distribution services.  Since these services dabble in digital goods that subvert the brick-and-mortar retail model, they can achieve positive business goals when sold for pennies on the dollar.  Developers can even reduce the price of admission to “free” and make their bread with a healthy cycle of post-release content.  Wait, though, it gets even easier!  The games can be installed with a couple of clicks and any hassle with physical media is optional.  The games are automatically updated through these distribution clients.  (And while this will become an inconvenience for digital archivists, it’s more convenient for everyone else.)  Even the platform’s vaunted world of modmaking is being centralized and organized through features like the Steam Workshop.

Not only do these services make software cheaper, they make new hardware less desirable, because these services are exposing old and new video game players to games they may have missed on the first run, games which hardly break a sweat on today’s low-end hardware.  Should these games (and others) give you any trouble, you now have an entire body of knowledge at your fingertips, a body of knowledge which has grown exponentially since 1995.  You can now find the technical fix (or deduce a logical solution) by typing keywords into a search engine.  (And don’t gag reflex with the rebuttal that the lower price point and access to older, obscure games proves the superiority of the platform.  Console gaming distribution services provide access to their older titles as well.  And also, “hardcore gaming” might as well be defined as “What will I do to play the games I love?”  In the world of video games, frugality is not hardcore.)

With help from these distribution services and similar programs, computers are as easy to use as they have ever been.  Computers are no longer “scary”.  The last decade has been a marketing race by Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Google, and others to make computers un-scary.  They have done this by introducing hundreds of millions of people to simplified computers that double as cell phones and reading tables.  Today’s adults use their smartphones and tablets as a substitute for being decent parents, tossing their kids in front of these devices from the earliest age that they’re capable of using them.  And when these kids get into school, home and school computers are now “necessary” for achieving their academic goals.  And no, I am not suggesting that these users are more computer literate and intelligent than previous generations.  Take one look at a Facebook or YouTube discussion threads and it’s easy to discover that the use of symbols to create words and meaning can be taken to terrifying lows.  It just highlights how much easier it is to use these machines than they were in the past.

So you see the issue?  To play computer video games, to become a member of this supposed PC Gaming Master Race, you needed money, a degree of intelligence, and some patience.  Or, at the bare minimum, you needed someone with access to these tools.  (I could find my way through DOS, but I relied on the disposable income of others to get the games I wanted.)  You need none of those tools now.  I repeat: There is no longer a barrier of entry for computer video games.  Anybody can now pick up and enjoy games on this platform.  Do I inherently think that’s a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  I’m not opposed to a world where anyone can play computer video games with ease.  I’m not opposed to a world where information is easy to access.  But remember: This is a business, and the first goal of game design is to sell the game.  That becomes much easier when you can appeal to the simpletons, instead of an audience that demands fine meals at every hour of the day.  The computer video game market is now as open and accessible as the loathesome mobile game market.  And yes, the more demanding video game players will want something which uses the mouse and keyboard to their full potential, insisting on games more substantive than a Farmville or a Bejeweled.  But there is now a gigantic market for those so-called “casual games”, one that dwarfs the world of heightened expectations.

Therefore, one no longer becomes a member of a PC Gaming Master Race by simply investing your time and money into the platform.  I mean, I love computer video games, but money is money, and why would I upgrade to a top-of-the-line machine every other year when I don’t need to and don’t gain much benefit from it?  Why would I spend fifty dollars for a game when I can get it for half- or quarter-price three months down the road?  PC Gaming is much like every other platform now: There are small pockets of enthusiasts that are dedicated to specific genres, platforms, and the medium itself, an audience that demands and pays for the optimal hardware setup and the optimal games.  Maybe a larger percentage of people that self-identify as computer video game players are knowledgeable about their platform than comparable user bases, leading to a “higher average quality” of game.  But there is no concrete evidence to suggest this, and considering that digital distribution has opened the floodgates on low-quality computer video games, it’s unlikely.

That’s just how it rolls these days.  Back in 1995, when Microsoft needed a way to distance themselves from the dominant Disk Operating System, they went to id Software and secured the rights to an enhanced port of Doom,* proving that Windows 95 could do video games as well as any other operating system.  Windows’ competitors died a horrible death.  Today, computer video games are so universally hardcore, that when Microsoft needs to advertise and sell Windows 8, their commercials feature Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds Star Wars.**  For every knowledgeable and competent video game player who identifies with the platform, you now have a hundred spewing their nonsense in games like League of Legends.  And even lower on the food chain are the tens of millions who now play the cheap, disposable “social games”, made famous through Facebook and played on their computers.  So if you’re identifying yourself with glorious tradition of the PC Gaming Master Race, just keep in mind that you’re identifying with both a culture and an economic model for which really does not exist anymore.  While I guess you’re entitled to do, just don’t act like any obsession with a free-to-play hat simulator makes you superior to anyone else.

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