Video games aren’t just a first-world problem

13 Jul

My post the other day on how video game consoles are regressing technologically spurred some discussion among fellow gamer-journo types, as well some readers. That’s always great to see as it’s why many of us do this in the first place.

Justin Amirkhani, a nearly 8-foot-tall young stallion who’s in the midst of a gaming pilgrimage across North America – and documenting it in entertaining fashion through his blog – wrote in a similar vein. Both of us were spurred to our respective missives by the unexpected success of Ouya, an independent console project over on Kickstarter.

Steve Tilley, the gadgets-and-games reporter for the Toronto Sun, jumped in and essentially called us grumpy old men. I won’t speak for Justin, but I thought Steve – who I consider a friend and a rock-solid journalist (even though Gears of War 3 made him cry) – missed the mark on what I was trying to say. My point wasn’t necessarily that video games suck now, but rather that consoles have gone from simple to unnecessarily complex, which is the opposite of how technology naturally evolves. I’ll revisit that topic soon as there’s lots more to say about it.

The thing that really bugged me about Steve’s take, however, was the suggestion that my complaint was a so-called first-world problem:

You wanna know what a first world problem is? Complaining that it takes minute longer to begin playing your video game because there are new technologies in place that didn’t exist in 1995. Have we become so spoiled by instant-on everything that this is really an argument?

I’m as amused as the next guy when somebody jokes about “first-world problems” on Twitter. It’s usually done in a self-deprecating way, as in “Oh, look at me, I’m complaining about something trivial, aren’t I a douchey brat?” But to use the phrase as a way to counter a valid criticism – or at least one that I considered to be such – is kind of lazy. Indeed, the trope – which has its own website – is quickly becoming overused. Like addressing inanimate objects and entities with “Dear…,” it should probably be thrown on the pile of obsolete internet memes.

Why? Because it’s silly and, as that website shows, can be overused to the point where it means nothing. A movie reviewer didn’t like a certain actor’s performance? First-world problem. The sole on your shoe breaks a day after you got it? First-world problem (which is ironic because it definitely wasn’t made in the first world). Ingesting peanut butter may kill your child? You get the point.

The thing is, video games aren’t a first-world problem, or privilege rather. They have – or can have – a vast effect on the entire world.

The more complex and convoluted games and game hardware get, the smaller the potential market for them becomes. The smaller that market, the more expensive games get.

Simple economics means that the more games or game consoles you can sell, the cheaper you can sell them. If kids in poor countries are ever to experience the joys of beating up a virtual hooker or sawing someone in half with a chainsaw (an act that obviously moves some reviewers to tears), game makers first need to sell a ton of their wares in, you guessed it, the so-called first world.

Put another way, without economies of scale bringing the price of technology down across the board, developing nations will never get Xbox or PlayStation consoles.

While being spared violent games is perhaps a blessing, the real downside is that without cheap and simple hardware, kids will also miss out on the educational value of video games, a fact that’s gaining credence both here in the first world and in developing countries such as India. Games can indeed be revolutionary learning tools in places where literacy rates are low.

It may be over-rationalizing it to say that simpler game technology is a tool that is urgently needed for the development of poorer nations, but it’s similarly underthinking it to dismiss criticisms of issues in the developed world with a silly and overused meme.


Posted by on July 13, 2012 in video games


8 responses to “Video games aren’t just a first-world problem

  1. Marc Venot

    July 13, 2012 at 12:52 am

    The first games on the Apple II were full of peek and poke. Now the OS of tablets and smartphones have a sdk. At least on that level the improvements are huge.

  2. Chris C.

    July 13, 2012 at 8:57 am

    Actually your complaint about how ‘complex’ new games and consoles have become is the same exact complaint one could have about how gong through airports have become a hassle and seemingly every other activity in or declining so-called western democracies.

    It is a symptom of a much larger issue – that of control and dirigism in a society where citizens are stripped of free will and are basically told how to enjoy themselves.

    In other words; there is absolutely NO technological reason why games should be so aggravating to use (or airports, or building an extension to your house…). The real problem is that we, as a society, quietly abdicated our freedoms and let governments and corporations rule how we are going to lead our lives.

    The computer revolution as a tool for freedom? No it aint… At least not in the past 10-15 years! It’s been appropriated by corporations and government as a tool to enslave people…

    Wake up, folks!!!

  3. Justin Amirkhani

    July 13, 2012 at 9:59 am

    All I had suggested was that people be wary of the difference between buying entertainment and the means to entertainment. Content is what’s king, it always will be. Selling gadgets and services to allow you access to already available games/movies/music is as useful to consumers as selling a premium shopping cart at the front of a supermarket.

    The Ouya doesn’t have any original content, heck it doesn’t have any content at all. Think about all the times you waited on buying a console because it didn’t have a killer app. Can you honestly tell me that the Ouya is a solid investment when it doesn’t have anything to play on it?

    • petenowak2000

      July 13, 2012 at 10:12 am

      Yup, good point. I think we’d all like to see them succeed but at this point it’s just vapor ware.

  4. Steve Tilley

    July 13, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Pete, I think you’re missing the point of the first-world problems site that you borrowed that image from. It’s not making fun of the meme for being played out and tired, it’s still quite firmly making fun of people who complain about, for example, having to wait a little bit longer to play their video games than they did in the days of solid state game cartridges. The joke remains squarely on the privileged and entitled whiners, not on the meme itself.

    And you and Justin are wrong about technology always, or even generally, advancing towards simplicity. Look at two of the devices hundreds of millions of people use on a daily basis: the telephone and the television. In 1980, you picked up a phone, punched in seven numbers and it rang on the other end. Today, you pick up your cellphone, unlock the screen, scroll through your contacts, select the specific phone number you want to dial for that person (home? office? cell? private jet?) and hope your call doesn’t get dropped halfway through due to bad reception, or that you get the person on the line instead of their voicemail. It’s more complex. It’s arguably even less reliable. But that’s a function of the technology evolving and offering an overall richer experience, whether it’s digital phonebooks or apps or the mere fact you can carry the phone in your freakin’ pocket.

    In 1980, you turned on the TV, flicked the dial to the channel you want to watch and settled your ass into your chair. Today, you have a collection of three for four remotes on your coffee table, turning on your TV, your cable box, maybe your A/V receiver and what have you. You scroll through dozens or even hundreds of channels in an on-screen guide to find something you want to watch. If you feel like checking out something on Netflix instead of TV, that’s another box to set up and a another subscription to manage. And so it goes from there. Watching television – perhaps the single most ubiquitous use of technology in first-world countries – is far more complex today than it was a decade or three ago.

    The point is, as we get more stuff with our technology, we often have to put up with increased complexity and a greater investment of time and intelligence required to use that technology. So it is with phones, with TVs, with computers and with video game consoles. Really smart companies find ways to pare down this complexity and make their products simultaneously advanced and accessible – that’s why consumers like Apple stuff so much. But that’s often the exception to the rule. And yet I don’t think this added complexity is hurting TV or cellphone sales.

    No, you can no longer just pop a game into a console and begin playing five seconds later. Yes, developers and publishers are doing a lot of annoying shit that needs to be addressed. But grumbling because you have to download an update or log into an account or install a game the first time you play it is silly, when the trade-off is gaming experiences that were the stuff of pipe dreams a couple of decades ago. Things like Skyrim or Mass Effect or Shadow of the Colossus or even just a really solid first-person shooter like Halo or Gears of War. (And yes, I thought it was sad when Dom sacrificed himself in Gears of War 3. But I’m not going to apologize for getting emotionally invested in games. If you can’t do that, why play them?)

    In a perfect world, technological advancements would make everything simpler. Here in reality, that’s often the opposite of how things work. If new technology is causing you that many headaches, I’d suggest downgrading your Xbox 360 to an NES, trading in your HDTV and set-top box for a black-and-white set with rabbit ears, and ditching the iPhone for a rotary dial landline. Then yell at those kids to get off your lawn.

    • petenowak2000

      July 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm

      All good points, Steve. I’ve spent the past few weeks working on a story about ubiquitious computing, or the idea that technology will soon be all around us, and invisible. In doing so, I talked to some of the smartest thinkers around when it comes to the nature of computing and technology (people like Microsoft’s Bill Buxton, John Seely Brown and Intel’s Genevieve Bell), and they universally agreed that we’re in this “middle age” where all sorts of things are now possible, but they’re kind of broken because we’re still fine tuning it all. A lot of the stuff we have – i.e. game consoles, phones, TVs, etc. qualify for that.

      Yes indeed, the same argument can be broadened to all that other stuff too, but I focused my posts on games just because the Ouya was a hot topic. I was holding off on addressing the meat of our disagreement until that story is published, and I think that’s still the way to go, so let’s pick it up then? In the meantime, why do you hate children in Africa so much? ; )

      P.S. Re: Gears of War 3 – thanks for the spoilers!?!

      • petenowak2000

        July 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm

        Oh, one quick rebuttal because I can’t help myself. Yes, phones are way more complex than they used to be, but the act of making a call is the opposite. Before, I’d have to go fumbling through some sort of phone book looking for numbers. Now, I just tell the phone to “call my wife” and it does. There are significantly fewer steps to take and less time to spend to accomplish the same goal (swiping the unlock screen is about as complicated and time consuming as picking up a receiver, so no, that doesn’t count as additional complexity). Phone calls, as opposed to the phone itself, have become considerably simpler.

  5. Derek S

    July 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I think the added complexity of any new technology needs to be weighed against the added benefits. An old rotary phone may have been simpler to use, but it was extremely limited. Basically, the person needed to be home. With the added complexity of a smartphone you also get the ability to leave them a voicemail, text them, or see if they’re logged into Facebook chat in order to get a hold of them. Things may not be as simple and straight forward as they used to be, but the added benefits, at least in my eyes, far outweigh the few extra steps required to get anything done.

    That being said, I’m sure there is technology out there that has a lot of added complexity that offers little in the way of benefit, and can certainly be seen as “moving backwards”.

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