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When is a game not a game?

Traditional gamers wish that social gamers could find another name

At a press conference earlier this month, Microsoft’s director of gaming and devices, David McLean, suggested that gaming was no longer “just for sweaty thirty year olds in Metallica t-shirts”. He went on to further describe traditional gamers as a “basement-dwelling nerds”.

Of course, he was trying to paint a picture of Microsoft’s new Kinect motion controller as the latest get-up-off-the-coach cool way of gaming, but his remarks struck a sensitive chord with the traditional gaming community. “Reducing gamers to the image of barely socialized troglodytes doesn't do anyone any favors,” wrote one offended commentator.

The exchange highlights the dilemma facing the video game industry as gaming equipment and the games themselves become more mainstream. On the one hand, companies such as Microsoft see the huge potential in the family and non-traditional gaming audience; but on the other hand, they don’t want to alienate the core gamers that turned M-rated titles such as Halo into hugely profitable franchises.

This difficulty in defining the current day video gamer is further complicated by the rise of the “social gamer”. The social gamer will typically have nothing to do with console gaming and wouldn’t dream of jumping around the living room with a Wii Remote in hand. Instead, he – or more likely, she - sits in front of a PC at work or at home and plays games such as FarmVille, Café World, Mafia Wars, or Bejeweled.

These games don’t require a console gaming system or even any traditional gaming expertise. They are played on a PC or a notebook and they can be found within the giant social networking site Facebook. In fact, the incredible popularity of these games – FarmVille was played by over 80 million people worldwide at its peak – is, in turn, directly due to the popularity of Facebook itself.

Now, PC-based social games are not new. Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft is the best known of a slew of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). As the name implies, these games involve large numbers of players competing together in the same virtual world.

But World of Warcraft has all the elements of traditional, edgier console-based titles: there is an elaborate fantasy world, you fight monsters, and the game itself is relatively difficult to master. Contrast this with FarmVille, which takes just minutes to learn and largely consists of repeating the same actions over and over to progress or “level up”.

And it’s here, in the area of expertise, that the majority of traditional gamers have their biggest problem with social gaming. They have no objection to games being popular – after all, Halo: Reach recently recorded first week sales of over $100 million. They just don’t want to be lumped in with social gamers when it comes to assessing traditional gaming skills.

Social gaming is fine for the masses but, if you are to earn the respect of the traditional gamer, then you better have an Xbox or a PlayStation. Facebook just isn’t going to cut it!

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