Earlier, Miyamoto, a bluegrass fanatic, had suggested that learning to play a game is like learning to play a musical instrument. “Take the guitar,” he said. “Some people, when they stumble over how to accurately place their fingers in an F chord, they actually give it up. But once you learn how to play an F chord you become more deeply absorbed in playing the guitar.” The F chord, as he sees it, is a kind of bridge between indifference and pleasure. “If the bridge is too easy to pass by, it’s called ‘entertainment.’ If it’s rather difficult, it can be called ‘hobby.’”
hen I say “hardcore gamer,” a certain image probably enters your mind: someone sitting awkwardly in a computer chair, saddled with an expensive headset, rattling off Counter-Strike instructions to his teammates over Ventrilo. Or maybe you instead think of someone who enjoys twitch platformers, someone able to press the jump button with millisecond precision.
Or maybe you just think of someone who spends a whole lot of time playing video games, whether on console or PC – someone who sinks countless hours into the latest action game.
The above images are not necessarily inaccurate. These people exist, and as much as we raise a ruckus about casual gaming, games like StarCraft and Street Fighter continue to sell millions of copies. Even in our post-Wii, post-Facebook world, the industry cares about the people that continue to define gamer, that continue – in many ways – to define nerd.
Though these people do exist, I can’t shake the feeling that the label “hardcore gamer” doesn’t quite fit. It’s not wrong, but it’s not entirely right. When I think about my own gaming, and the gaming of people I’ve known throughout my life, the notion of discrete casual/hardcore categories breaks down. The hardcore label, though superficially helpful, rarely describes an individual in a satisfying way. But like I said, it’s not wrong. When we use the term “hardcore” (or a similar term), as vaguely as we often do, we’re not referring to people, but process. It is, as Miyamoto said above, perseverance in the face of in-game adversity. It is the desire to progress not horizontally, but vertically: to get not just further, not just better, but deeper. But it’s not a person; it’s a perspective, and one that offers its own insights into games and why we play them.
Writing for Kill Screen, Brendan Keogh describes his experiences with Super Meat Boy, a notoriously difficult platformer that will punish most players with an incredible number of deaths. We might call it masocore, a genre of games I discussed previously. “How can Super Meat Boy justify consuming an hour of my time for a single level?” he asks. “Or, perhaps more importantly, how can I justify volunteering to spend an hour on a twenty-second level, when in any other game I would have given up long ago?”
Keogh identifies, notably, that Super Meat Boy is distinct from many other platformers. In other games, Keogh would simply give up. “Super Meat Boy is not just about the task but the process, about the refinement as much as the eventual perfection.” Each death in Meat Boy is not a failure, he says, but a “first draft,” an apt metaphor and a good way to think of the hardcore perspective. When Keogh spends 60 minutes on a 20 second level, he is not progressing in a game the way we normally think of progression. He’s not moving forward or backward, he’s not gaining experience points, he’s not advancing the plot. Instead, he’s experimenting. He’s studying the level, the movement of his character, different ways he can interact with the environment.
Miyamoto and Keogh both liken hardcore gaming to a creative act – to art, in other words. It is expressive. These games allow us to express our personalities and make creative choices, but more than that, they ask us to struggle. In hardcore gaming, nothing is easy. If we want to do something – anything – we have to learn how to do it, to ask ourselves if it’s worth learning, if it’s worth mastering. Even if we can’t quite articulate why, nobody spends hours learning some new skill without having some personal attachment to it.
The reason we can spend so many hours playing Super Meat Boy, when we would give up on other platformers, is because Super Meat Boy rewards our mastery of the game. As we understand the game better, as we get better at jumping, at sliding along walls, we uncover greater depths of the game and find outlets for our creativity. Though the goal in every level is static and unchanging, and though every player has to bypass the same whirling buzzsaws, nobody takes quite the same path. You play until you find the path that works for you:
The replay shows all my early attempts running simultaneously. A mesmerizing swarm of Meat Boys leaps across the screen. Swathes miss the platform and splatter into the maggots below. More are devoured by the circling monster; a few miss a jump and are cut up—until the last Meat Boy, that of my successful run, is left dashing improbably toward Bandage Girl.
To use another example, no two players play Street Fighter the same way. The characters you choose, the moves you use, how you play the game, these are all creative expressions. Though the most recent version of the game contains 37 unique characters, virtually nobody plays all of them. You select a few, the ones that resonate most with you – maybe even just one. One player might play Ryu aggressively, another more patiently. When you first start the game, you may not even know what you like to play, and you may even be surprised. At the risk of belaboring the art metaphor, your character is your palette, the joystick your brush.
Hardcore gaming is distinguished, as Miyamoto says, by the bridge between indifference and pleasure. That bridge, by definition, is not easy to cross. Many, of course, don’t bother crossing it, thinking there’s nothing worthwhile on the other side. Some prefer staying where they are, exploring more familiar regions. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Those regions can be just as fertile, in their own way. At this point, I even worry that I am unreasonably ennobling video gaming. While it’s tempting to compare the very act of gaming to artistic expression, I don’t want to be too dramatic.
But I will be. Few of us identify as artists, but many of us practice some sort of art. Miyamoto plays the guitar, though history will never remember him as a guitarist. For all I know, he’s not even any good. And that’s fine, because sometimes we like to express ourselves merely for our own pleasure, and the struggle of that expression is just as important as the expression itself. A guitarist spends more time practicing than playing shows. If a StarCraft player learns something about herself and other people in her struggle to master the Protoss, then StarCraft has done something good and (to be honest) kind of wonderful. If Brendan Keogh walks away from Super Meat Boy with a better understanding of his abilities, of himself, no matter how small and indescribable that understanding is, then Super Meat Boy was worth that time. (And I suspect it was, since he wrote about it.)
Ultimately, nobody is a “hardcore gamer.” Hardcore is not a category of people, but a mode of play. In fact, I only use the term “hardcore” because it is so well established in the gaming lexicon. Certain games are geared towards hardcore gaming, others are absolutely not, and still more operate somewhere in the middle. You can apply the hardcore perspective to Super Mario as much as Super Meat Boy. You can play Street Fighter with friends and mash buttons, or you can struggle to master combos.
Hardcore gaming is not superior to casual gaming, nor is it necessarily more insightful. Casual gaming, in its own way, is just as expressive. Perhaps “hardcore” and “casual” are not even the best way to think about these modes of play. But there are many ways to channel our creative sides, and often we express ourselves in minor, seemingly insignificant ways. For all of the multiplayer games I’ve played, I’ve seen countless minor achievements: teammates finally pulling off some impressive technique, opponents demonstrating some utterly original move, friends spontaneously transforming into leaders to coordinate an attack over voice chat.
These achievements, as I said, are minor, and often private. Nobody will ever know about all of the cool stuff I’ve done in Super Meat Boy, nor do they care. But I’m not playing Super Meat Boy for anyone else. I’m playing it for myself. It’s a personal struggle, and – game by game – relatively trivial. But through any challenge we learn more about ourselves, and gaming offers us so many interesting ways to challenge ourselves. Perhaps the Counter-Strike player with the expensive headset is not going to experience some sudden epiphany during his game, but at the same time, not everybody practicing guitar right now is going to be the next Jimi Hendrix. We all still keep playing.
Image credit: Pål Berge, Flickr