Welcome to another edition edition of the C3 Weekly
Today Jaroslav Švelch gives us the final installment of his piece on gamer identity. Here he ties the concept of gamers with Von Hippel's notion of lead users.
In our Closing Note, C3's Consulting Researcher, Grant McCracken, gives us his take on the new Microsoft Campaign with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates.
We are also taking this opportunity to remind you that FOE 3 is almost here. We very much look forward to sharing this productive and intense conference with all of you.
If you have any questions or comments or would
like to request prior issues of the Update, direct them to Ana Domb editor of the C3 Weekly Update, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In This Issue
Opening Note: Jaroslav Švelch on reconstructing the identity of the hardcore gamer
Executive Summary and White Paper: You Tube: Online Video and Co-Created Value by Joshua Green (with Jean Burgess)
Closing Note: Grant McCracken on the new Microsoft campaign.
The End Of Gamers? Reconstructing the hard core identity (Part II of II)
Masters of Crosshair and Two-handed Axe
Technical skills are but a part of a gamer's subcultural capital. Gaming accomplishments are, naturally, another one. When interviewed in Score, a pair of Czech gaming legends claimed they "turned the score over in Jet Pac"1 or that they "can walk through first levels of Doom, blindfolded".
Before the advent of multiplayer gaming, accomplishments can be measured by scores achieved or by the number of games defeated. The structure of accomplishment has become much opaque since then. We could assume that MMORPGS, which allow direct confrontation with other gamers, might therefore attract more hard core audience than single player games.
Personal gaming histories were just as significant as the collectively built history of the gaming culture and an overall knowledge of the medium. No matter how much obsessed with the technological advancement the gaming industry is, maintaining the continuity is one of the assumed tasks of the hard core.
Moving towards the community aspects of subcultural capital, we must acknowledge the network of interpersonal contacts which helped to spread gaming software (in gaming cultures tolerant to piracy), walkthroughs and general gamer advice. Nevertheless, for gamers, unlike club cultures Thornton is writing about, actual gathering in the physical world is not essential. It is a mediated subculture, but it does not mean that gamer is a mere tag for a consumer group or a demographic. Gathering occurs at different levels and in virtual and discursive spaces.
I'm Swimming in Blood and I Feel Fine
Having given an account of a gamer's subcultural capital, I want to argue that there is another important dimension of a gamer identity, which is the one of transgression. In of the responses to "the end of gamers", a reader who calls himself Red Arrow writes:
[...] your unfortunate decision to discard the nicknames and the sacred term pařan (and giving such a feeble-minded explanation) is another in the series of your sins. Have you gone mad or what? What distinguishes a gamer from a normal human being is the ability to navigate many realities thanks to his computer, while completely changing his identity and name while moving from one reality to another. (Score#14, 1995)
This argument is deeply rooted in the early visions of cyberspace, but it reveals the idea that due to the very nature of videogames, the gaming "arena" is considered a place where the rules of the real world do not apply, an extended magic circle. I believe that it is not only the actual game worlds that bring alternative sets of rules, but that the gamer subculture discourse also presents specific value systems, quite often operating on the assumption that "it's so bad that it's good".
The roots of this rhetoric can be traced back to the early 1980's gaming press, in which addictive was synonymous with good. Whereas the critics were afraid of the power video game and its addictiveness might have over the player, gamers' rhetoric is to fully give in to their power. As one of the staff writers of Score writes in a review of the highly rated-game Little Big Adventure:
[...] I played [the game] like crazy. For three days, I didn't leave my computer! Parents of some children call us professional deformists2, but I'm saying, it's not me, it's the games themselves, just look: I'm giving an order to my legs to stand up and carry me into the bathroom, but nothing happens. (Score #13, 1995)
It is very hard to distinguish what is true and what is just pure pařan rhetoric. Quite easily, the pařan stories slide to the realm of imaginary. As another reader confesses:
They call me Coffeebean and I am the wife of the great pařan that goes by the name of Broken Stick. [...] My husband has been immersed in playing games, Doom specifically, for several months now. [...] In his greatest pařan ecstasies, he jumps out of the window, just in his slippers, and beats our dog Azor with a broom. [...] Yours truly, Coffeebean. (Score #11, 1994)
We might see this rhetoric converge to what Dovey and Kennedy call two dominant tropes of technoculture: the ideas of hackers and cyborgs3. Whereas hackers are mostly present on the production side of video games, the idea of the cyborg is evoked more explicitly in the gamer talk. Funnily enough, in the definition of pařan we already quoted, the magazine staff explain:
Anybody who thinks we are cyborgs who were born with joysticks in hands and VR goggles on our eyes, is wrong (we were actually three years old when we had the joysticks implanted). (Score #3, 1994)
Even this "denial" makes it clear that the idea of cyborg is present in the discourse. In 1994, the idea of virtual reality was very powerful and these gamers believed they were on the cutting edge of technology and, at the same time, at the edge of another world, in which addiction meant quality, violence was delightful and juvenile was accomplished. The gamer subculture therefore also offered a space for imagination, in which the real world rules were turned upside down.
The five-letter word
We can now approach the question of what is at stake for gamers when they are afraid of being stripped of the symbolic representation of their gamer identity, and also get back to what their place is in the evolution of the medium.
In the first place, it is the question of their subcultural capital. If it was of a purely personal nature or easily convertible to economic capital, the gamers would not hang onto the symbolic integrity of their identity so much. If there was no gaming subculture, their narratives, knowledge and accomplishments would lack a space to be appreciated in. But this hanging onto a medium-specific fandom is what, along with turbulent online flame wars, annoys some "progressive" gamers like Douglas Wilson:
Imagine, for example, how ridiculous it would be if all television watchers identified as their own "Tubers" subculture. It's a humorous hypothetical precisely because a vast majority of first-world citizens watch television [...]. The very notion of the "gamer" implies that games are a niche hobby, only for the sufficiently devoted. This exclusivity is exactly what impedes games from attracting a more diverse player base beyond the white adolescent male stereotype.
But video games are already on their way to become adopted by the mainstream, the hard core having partially shifted to new domains of the medium, such as multiplayer online games or retro gaming. What Wilson is afraid of is the self-referential circulation of the literacy within a subculture. But literacy is a continuum, not a binary attribute that you either have or don't. It is also losing its exclusivity, allowing non-gamers to enjoy the medium. Moreover, gamers are not a monolithic group. There are many gaming cultures and gamer subcultures that emphasize different kinds of skills, accomplishments and knowledge.
While diverse player base will in consequence diversify the games being made, its contribution will be primarily determined by game developers, because new and casual players (non-gamers) will less likely be active in development and content generation. In his book Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel introduces the idea of lead users4. He cites research that shows that a high percentage of users - usually those who care about the product - design innovations of a product and gives examples of user groups who contribute to the innovation of the products their using. Sports communities might be the most interesting in our case, because in their case innovation does not automatically translate to profit, but rather to a certain kind of "subcultural" capital.
Similarly, dedicated gamers contribute to the evolution of the video game medium. Numerous innovative games like Counter-Strike or Portal started out as user modifications of commercial games. Although technically skilled hard core gamers will most likely tend to make games for hard core gamers, their innovation might be used in other games. Inclusion of new groups can loosen up the gaming culture and discourse and create conditions for more diverse medium, but gamers indeed are a part of the diversity. Every medium needs its buffs, its geeks and its addicts, who consider its world a space for achievements and fantasy, however fascinating or questionable their endeavors might be.
- In ancient games, when the score count runs out of digits, it reverts back to zero and "turns over".
- A coinage.
- Dovey, J. - Kennedy, H. 2006. Game Cultures. London: Open University Press.
- Hippel, E. von. Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Jaroslav Švelch is a Czech Fulbright visiting researcher for the academic year 2007-2008. He is a Ph.D. student at the Charles University in Prague, with degrees in Journalism and Media Studies. His studies of Linguistics/Phonetics and Translation/Interpretation Studies double major are also nearing completion. As a journalist, he has written on popular music, film and marketing. As a student and scholar in training, he has written theses on comics, time structures in narratives and video games. In his Ph.D. thesis he wants to focus on the subcultural meaning of video games and the relationship of content and activity.
Executive Summary and White Paper
As you may have noticed through two recent e-mail distributions directly from the C3 Team, an Executive Summary related to and the White Paper entitled You Tube: Online Video and Co-Created Value (by Joshua Green with Jean Burgess) have been completed. They are now also available on the C3 backend for future archival reference. Again, Joshua and Jean did a thorough and insightful analysis - and we are confident there are many actionable thought leadership ideas (tactical and strategic) you will find in both documents. We sincerely hope they contribute to and influence the conversations within your organizations and stimulate your worldview at a personal level.
Seinfeld, Gates, and Microsoft: brand rebuilding
The new Microsoft ad featuring Seinfeld and Gates has arrived. People are using words like "dud," "misfire," and "bomb," but I thought the spot was brave and interesting.
More particularly, people are saying the spot is confusing. Russo of the LA Times says,
"many ... viewers are leaving a trail of rancorous confusion all over the web. People are asking, nay, demanding to know what the minute-and-a-half spot is trying to convey.
Peter Collins offers this case in point:
I watched the commercial this morning online--I may be stupid but I just didn't get it! What was the purpose. What did it have to do with selling computers. And Microsoft is supposed to be paying $300 million for this series ???????
Peter, I have bad news. Please sit down, and we can call your wife in from the waiting room, if you'd like, but you must listen to me very carefully. Your self diagnosis is exactly right.
The Microsoft spot has a clear task: to rebuild the Microsoft brand. It is using Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Gates and a particular situation to perform an act of meaning manufacture. We can say it is good meaning manufacture. We can say it is bad meaning manufacture. But we can't be mystified a) that this ad exists, b) what it means to do, or c) what it has to do with "selling computers."
Microsoft has dug itself a very deep hole. It is seen to be smug, arrogant, monopolistic, and indifferent to consumer wishes. What was left of the brand after this misbehavior was pretty much finished off by those brilliant Mac vs. PC ads by TBWA\Media Arts Lab. So, hey, Microsoft had to do something.
What they did was call Crispin. I haven't been persuaded by all the work of CPB. Some of the Burger King work seemed to suffer a Steve-O fascination with stunt marketing. But this spot is interesting.
Simplifying, we would say that Crispin's job was to move the brand from the PC side to the Mac side of the TBWA\Media Arts campaign. So, what do you do? Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at Crispin as they ran through their options! Oh, to have taught this as a case as a bschool or dschool challenge! Me, left to my own devices, I got nowhere. I ran this experiment in my head when I heard that Crispin had been hired and eventually just threw my hands in the air. I couldn't think of anything even remotely convincing. Microsoft seemed to me a little like a meteor so utterly wedged into the surface of a planet that you really don't have much choice but to leave it there. But the new Microsoft spot actually manages extraction. The brand is not saved. It's not repaired. But it is mobilized a little, and this is a Herculean accomplishment. This may not be a sufficient act of brand rescue. But it is a necessary first step.
Frankly, I didn't think hiring Jerry Seinfeld would help. I mean, for all his centrality to our culture in the 90s, his star had faded, his moment passed. But here he is replaying Jerry from the TV series, that goofy guy who believes he has all the answers and is just smart enough to be right some of the time and interesting all the time. Mr. Know It All, this was Jerry and especially George on Seinfeld. Often wrong but never in doubt. These are guys who believe they can beat the system, only to watch their best efforts spin gently out of control in a slow motion Rube Goldberg disaster that brings embarrassment to everyone. This is the Seinfeld Crispin recruits for the ad.
The meaning mechanics of the ad are wonderful: Jerry's shoes squeak like a cartoon character. A store called Shoe Circus. A family gathered outside the store window in solemn and learned reverence for shoes within. The meaningful glance between Jerry and Bill that makes no sense. Seinfeld's lunatic advice that Bill try wearing his clothes in the shower. The starring role give churros. The idea that anyone would want to earn points in a store like this, especially when the card calls them a "shoe circus clown club member." The idea that computers could ever be "moist," "chewy," and edible. The idea that Jerry suspected this "all along."
In a more perfect world, Crispin might have put Microsoft into company with something like the Wes Anderson movie The Life Aquatic, the one that starred Bill Murray as Steve Zissou. But there were two problems: Microsoft is utterly out of touch with contemporary culture, and Bill Gates is, as someone once said of Dick Cavett, "spectacularly gentile" which is to say utterly out of touch with contemporary culture. The Aquatic Life was a world too far. Some day. Perhaps someday this will be the "sufficient" act of meaning management.
Well, what does this have to do with selling computers? I am going to have replace my laptop in the next few months, and despite the fact that I have been an intensely loyal Thinkpad and Windows guy for more than a decade, I am thinking for the first time of an Apple conversion. And I have to say that this ad, for a very brief moment, actually gave me pause. Maybe, I thought to myself, Microsoft is not an embarrassing relic after all. Briefly, very briefly.
And so what is the act of meaning manufacture? Crispin manages to mine Jerry Seinfeld, a very particularly Seinfeld. Crispin transfers Jerry's off kilter way of seeing things to the brand, and this makes Microsoft seem more human, more actual, funnier and more companionable. and most of all, more present to the world. Is this a good thing? Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about a brand that had made itself the paragon of the humorless and the monolithic. I would say this is work well done. Crispin earned its dough and then some. It's just a start, but what a start.
The meaning passes through a series of intermediaries. It must pass from Jerry, this Jerry, and the ads particulars (as above) into Bill and from Bill into the brand. And Bill plays his part very well, considering. He seems in every way hip to the joke here. And this anthropologist is inclined to suppose that some of this ad is a mystifying to him as it is to poor Peter Collins (above). But Crispin, to their credit, brought him into the ad and found a way to make him work. (We can imagine how Bill calculated the risk: if Jerry thinks it's funny, it's probably funny, and, if Jerry is prepared to share the risk, it's probably not so risky.)
So everyone hates the new Microsoft ad? We shall see. It represents an act of meaning management by one of the best agencies at the top of its game. It is a powerful first effort to rebuild the brand. Let's hope Microsoft sticks to its guns and gives the campaign a chance. This thing could work.
Russo, Maria. 2008. Seinfeld and Gates' Microsoft Misfire. LATimes: Webscout. September 5, 2008. here.
See the Seinfeld-Gates Microsoft spot on YouTube here.
See the Microsoft PR backgrounder on the campaign here.
Grant McCracken holds a PhD from the University of Chicago in cultural anthropology. His latest book Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture is available from Indiana University Press