Ahh… That awkward moment when you realize you posted something to the wrong blog… Check out more posts like this one at Active Design.
There’s been a fair number of discomforting events over the past few weeks where designers and developers that I know have been forced to face anger from fans outraged enough to threaten them with murder (or words), simply because they aren’t making the “right” kind of entertainment and/or aren’t making things the way the fans think they should be made.
Before I go any further, or say anything else, I’ll say this:
If you have ever referred to another human as a cancer on anything, you need to stop reading this, and go get yourself some spiritual chemo.
The truth is that the reason creative people fail to make everyone happy all the time is that making entertainment is tough. When you’re making a tool that’s designed to solve a clear problem (nails need nailing!) it’s pretty easy to tell when you’ve gone off course. (That screwdriver won’t work on a nail!) When you’re creating content designed to capture a person’s imagination and hold it for hours, days, or weeks of their time you first have to overcome your own insecurities, push the work out into the world, and then, *if* people actually pay attention to it, be prepared to be serenaded with the blazing criticism of fans who are more than willing to take you to task for the unpardonable crime of not giving them exactly the experience that they imagined they wanted. Some may decide to take it one step further. Seeing themselves as protectors of the imaginary worlds they love so much, they will threaten your life simply because they worry that your inability to provide the content they want means that they will never get what they want.
Over the last decade, as the overall nerd market has grown, the early nerd genres such as “hard” science fiction and “core” gaming have begun to contract in the face of more broad mass-market entertainments. Buffy falls into Twilight, Grand Theft Auto becomes a footnote to Candy Crush Saga, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek becomes JJ Abram’s Star Trek. Feeling threatened by the success of what they see as diminished quality, the rage of the hardcore has grown to epic proportions. And because corporate entities such as Disney/Paramount/Warner Brothers care about the enraged nerds now that they’ve broken their hold on the bottom line, the angry fans focus their rage on the individual creators—suddenly accessible through social media. It’s become bad enough that I see a number of talented people expending a great deal of time and energy trying to solve the problem of internet (and real-world) rudeness rather than focusing on the distressingly difficult act of creation.
Witnessing (and experiencing) this has left me grateful that I’ve spent the last decade on creating entertainment for masses as well as writing novels. In the case of games in particular, I’ve been focused on growing an audience of players rather than simply pleasing hardcore gamers. Mass market audiences are (for the most part) people who just want to play. They have no vision of the experience outside of the experience itself. If the entertainment vanished tomorrow so would their personal involvement. Players don’t tell their friends and family about how hardcore they are, start tumblrs, or organized protests. Hardcore fans, on the other ha
nd, are those who find some sense of self-worth in their fantastic experiences. As they spend more time and effort inhabiting other worlds they begin to define their own self-worth through what they‘re playing. Most people know when they’ve gone too far. Once you’ve attached your sense of self-worth to something as ephemeral as a fantasy experience, threats abound. Is the Iron Man in the movies the “right” version? Is adherence to canon a test for the faithful?
For people who consider themselves to be the embodiment of an ideal, the idea that your mom may not only like something you like, but that she doesn’t care why she likes it may be more than some of us can bear.
But the mass market doesn’t care! And once the fan discovers that denial seems to have no effect, they head deep into anger. “These experiences are wrong! They are an abomination!”
They are constantly watching out for the false and untrue. Having seen the light, everything that doesn’t satisfy them is a poor imitation of the “deeper” and more “interesting” experience. If only people could open their eyes, they too will be transformed into the hardcore. They love it so much and understand it so deeply that it must be the creators who are at fault! They’re doing it wrong!
We often compare our modern fantasy stories to classic mythology, but the hope has been that our understanding of the narrative as imaginary will lead to less anger and suffering. Yet, tearing through that tissue-paper thin veneer of value seems to be something that turns fans into zealots. And simply pointing that out can sometimes be enough to set them off.
I think that they’re going to end up disappointed for a few reasons:
First (and foremost), the distinction that many people are describing doesn’t really exist. Once you’ve watched people play the higher levels of any casual game (Candy Crush Saga, for example) you’ll discover that they can become crushingly difficult and complex. Just as in a core game it takes a deep familiarity with the nuances of gameplay to win on the higher levels. It is the presentation of the difficulty curve that distinguishes them. Casual dynamics tend to directly integrate a bit more luck to level the playing field. Also, it’s sometimes possible to use real cash to buy an element that increases your chances of winning. Note that the games that do this well don’t guarantee victory.
Once their righteous is utterly crushed, disappointed nerds only have denial and depression left to work with. Since depression is hard to express in comments anger gets another workout, and we are treated to more name calling, and wishies for people to die.
I’m beginning to suspect that one reason that the hardcore genres aren’t gaining new audiences the way that they used to is because the existing genres are being heavily policed by the guardians of grief. It’s said that “you only hurt the ones you love”, and it’s deeply true in nerd culture today.
Like all good mass-market entertainment, the key to succeeding on a large sale isn‘t just about trying to find the perfect point of the mushy middle (although that can help), it’s also helpful to make changes in tone or the “rules” of a genre in order to create entirely new experiences that push themselves out of the existing boundaries. Harry Potter, for example, didn’t revitalize the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres as much as the series turned the Young Adult category into a powerhouse of genre fiction that has since generated even more sub-genres, from vampires to Greek gods. The trick is to repurpose the content and context for a new audience before the old guard can come and tell you what to do and how to do it.
For those of us who create genre entertainment, one of the fundamental joys remains connecting with a ready audience of passionate fans. The nerd community, or at least a growing and vocal part of it, seems intent on replacing that passion with anger. They would rather burn down the (fantasy) world around them before being willing to share anything that doesn’t please them.
Destroying the imaginary environment is not only unsustainable, it’s actively killing off the new experiences of the kind they’re hoping to protect. The creators who can navigate these rocky waters find themselves more and more resistant to inventive change, terrified of the criticism that they will receive from their most devoted fans. Only those who can think outside of the box can survive.
Despite the meteoric growth of nerd culture, genres remain fragile things. Even as the theaters are bursting with superhero movies, the comics that spawned them are becoming less and less relevant as they turn ever more contorted backflips to fulfill their fan’s ardent desires. For gaming of all types, the ability to attract (and entertain) the mainstream audience is fundamental to the medium surviving the transition to mobile.
As a fan of genre media of all kinds, I hope this kind of deep, focused, “hardcore” entertainment can find a way to thrive before it’s slaughtered by the ones who love it the most.