Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgOn the changing nature of communications in the video game community
At the end of last year, the sporadically posted-in forum for this site went down. I don't really have a lot of control over that, but it seems little worth the effort to try and bring it back up. There were basically just a handful of posters that would occasionally make a post, and quite frankly, it just didn't seem like there is a lot of point to try and revive it. I apologize to those who enjoyed discussions there.
Since the very beginnings of SNES Central, I have tried to foster a message board. As a fansite in the early stages of the Web 2.0 era, it seemed like the logical thing to do. Back in the early 2000s, I had made up a board on some free hosting website. For whatever reason, I passed it on to someone else and eventually I destroyed it in a drunken stupor. Those were not exactly proud times. Later, I kept a forum space as a subforum to the NSRT message board. When our host, Edgeemu, died, so did the board. I eventually got new hosting in 2008 and was able to start a dedicated message board for this site, but it didn't really catch on.
With my decision to shut down my message board, it got me thinking of the changing nature of how we communicate online. When I first started my website, message boards were just starting to come alive, and eventually thrived into massive communities. Now a days, most forums have a fraction of the traffic they did then. The Retro VGS/Coleco Chameleon scam and the GamerGate movements have also made me consider the changing nature of how we communicate in our hobby.
Forms of communication
Communications in general have changed substantially over the past 30 years, in no small part due to the evolution of the Internet. I joined the Internet around 1998, so some of the following discussions are generalizations based on limited experiences. However, I think it is important to include them. I have also excluded things like TV and newspapers, since I do not really consider them to have ever been a considerable influence on the video gamer community. I also pretty much ignore what happened pre-crash, since I know absolutely nothing about that time, I apologize if this seems like a gross oversight. I have also not commented on some sites where there are important in the video game community, such as wikis, 4chan and Reddit, because this article is already really long. Anyways, here it goes, sorry if this is tl;dr.
1) Video game magazines
Video game magazines have existed since the Atari 2600 era, but I would argue they really hit their stride with the advent of Nintendo Power in the late 80s. With Nintendo Power, Nintendo was able to communicate directly to their audience - children. They created a colourful magazine full of game tips and strategies to beat those nearly-impossible games like Castlevania II. During this time, magazines were hardly objective, and usually direct reviews and critiques were almost an afterthought. Magazines like EGM and Gamepro started up soon after, and put a bit more effort into reviews. But, like Nintendo Power, they catered directly to an audience of children.
Gamepro probably took things a bit further in its early days. They clearly inflated their review scores, and featured questionable games for their covers, such as the Chester Cheetah cover shown above. As with Nintendo, they were in the business of advertising for games, and rarely gave unflattering coverage. The interesting aspect was that they gave coverage of unlicensed companies like Codemasters, which drew the ire of Nintendo (to the point where Gamepro was not really even able to give good coverage of the SNES launch).
This era of video game magazines really hit its peak at the end of 1994. The December 1994 issues of Gamepro and EGM weighed in at a meaty 328 and 408 pages, respectively. Make no mistake, a large portion of those pages were advertisements, and I would expect that despite their size, they were probably the most profitable issues in their history.
As the demographics of video gamers changed in the later half the 90s, so too did video game magazines. Not only did they feature a much more sleek design, often with dark colours and more mature themes, they also improved the quality of their assessments of games. Probably factoring in this was that games were becoming more accepted as an entertainment media, and game companies could focus their advertising budgets elsewhere. Of course, how do you sell such a magazine? With violence and boobs:
Ultimately, I stopped paying attention to video game magazines after 2000, when I gained consistent access to the Internet. And really, the advent of broadband meant that video game magazines could not last forever. I can't really claim to know what happened to the format after 2000, but at present time, two of the major video game magazines that I grew up with (Gamepro, Nintendo Power) are no longer in print, while EGM is now sporadically printed and probably will not last long.
Video game magazines are basically what I would call a form of "one way communication". What was published in magazines was at the discretion of the editor or company that ran the magazine. In the early days, magazines were basically pure advertising vehicles, geared towards an audience of children and adolescents. And lets face it, we ate it up. True, they did have letters sections, but they were usually were filled with silly letters with anecdotes about gaming, how much they liked the magazine, or to discuss typical fanboy arguments (e.g.Nintendo vs Sega). Though gaming magazines did keep with the times and modernized to keep up with an aging audience in the late 90s, they could not match the speed of communications that the advent of widespread high speed allowed. By the time a magazine could come out, anyone with an Internet connection had already found out about all the games.
Fanzines started up as sort of a counterpoint to video game magazines at the time. These were independently run, and from what I can tell, catered to a more adult and niche audience. For instance, the first issue of Digital Press (published in 1991) covered topics like whether or not a Neo Geo was worth the money and a listing of Atari 7800 games. Even at the time, I think that fanzines likely had a limited reach, but served as one of the first attempts for video game fans to build a community of like minded people.
3) Pre-Internet communications
Prior to the widespread adoption of the Internet, there were two main ways to communicate about gaming online - bulletin board systems (or BBS) and Usenet. To be fair, these communication methods did reach their peak when the Internet became more widespread, just from sheer numbers.
BBS boards allowed you to directly dial in (literally phoning) a computer. They could be used for simple games or to spread information. In the context of video games, BBS boards were the prime place to pirate games (i.e. warez boards):
/\ | _ | | _ | |\ /| | _ | / \
Above is the text file included with the initial leak of Super Mario World on a BBS, circa June 1992. From the video game preservation perspective, we are incredibly lucky that this scene existed. Several cancelled games made their way onto the web via BBS scene releases, some which have never been found in physical form. With the advent of the World Wide Web (which became free to use in 1993), BBSes declined in usage, and apparently peaked around 1994 (conveniently for me, this was also during the peak of the SNES). "Scene releases" (as they were called) continued well into 1996 (though likely more through the WWW and FTP), but I have no records of games coming out that way after that.
Usenet (also known as newsgroups) is another pre-Internet form of communication. At first, Usenet was generally only available to people at universities, so the video game conversations tended to be a bit more high brow than what was in contemporary video game magazines. Using Google Groups, you can coax your way into the vast archives of messages from the past:
The above message is the first instance that the "Super Famicom" was discussed on Usenet, dating to October 1989 (roughly a year before it came out). Looking at these old messages, they all originate from universities. The beginning of the decline of Usenet may have coincided with the so-called Eternal September, which was when AOL started to give regular Internet users access to Usenet in September 1993. From my searches, though, Usenet was still very much a popular mode of communication well into 1996, as it was low bandwidth, and the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. It seems that a stream of spam and advertising, as well as a lack of moderation, led many to abandon the format.
Usenet is what I would call the first real instance of "two way communications". Unlike magazines (and other traditional media), it allowed anyone with a computer and a network connection to join in with the conversation. This allowed a much broader range of viewpoints, much more than you would find on the school playground. It also allowed for reports about the latest games from trade shows to be out far earlier than magazines (which would often publish a month or two after the events took place). Of course, newsgroups were usually reasonably well moderated, so not everything could get through (well, at least before Eternal September). Today, Usenet is only really used by those who are still involved in warez. Classic groups like rec.games.video.nintendo do not really have activity on them anymore (back in 1994, the group was getting dozens of posts per day).
I'll only speak briefly about Internet Relay Chat (IRC). IRC was one of the first developments when the Internet formed. It allows for many people to go in a single location and discuss about, well, anything. IRC really hit its peak in the late 90s and early 2000s. Again, like BBS boards, there was a strong warez aspect to IRC, and I think the event that really hit the format the hardest was the crackdown on Dalnet in 2003. IRC was a great place for collaboration for video game related projects, such as emulators. To this day it is probably the most convenient way for large groups to discuss specific topics. The big disadvantages is the lack of a searchable archive, and that it cannot display images. From my perspective, the people who use IRC now are essentially the same as those who used it during its peak, and there are few new entrants. I think in principle, a successor IRC with features like these could thrive, but there hasn't been the creation of such a protocol (although Slack is sort of like that).
After the advent of the web browser, fansites were soon to follow. From what I understand, one of the first video game fansites was NESWorld, which began in 1995, very soon after the WWW became a viable platform. Fansites were a mainstay in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and really showed off the creativity (or in the case of SNES Central, lack thereof) of the creators.
Fansites can be viewed as the successor to fanzines, except that because of the reach of the Internet, they became far more influential (A good example is Digital Press, which made the smooth transition from fanzine to fansite). They were a big part of the pre-broadband Internet, as people filled up small webspace sites with frames, strange GIFs and white text on black background. SNES Central itself is part of the fansite phenomena, having its beginnings as a response to the lack of SNES-centric websites on the Internet in 2001.
Fansites started their decline in the mid to late 2000s. One of the main issues is that the kind of people who grew up with the classic gaming systems and started fansites got older and had shifting priorities. For whatever reason, people who grew up with disc-based systems did not start them up. The fansites themselves were generally not highly maintainable, and were a jumble of hand-coded HTML pages. SNES Central itself was like this in the beginning, when it was "The SNES Site". Eventually, I switched to using Dreamweaver (a front-end for making big websites), but it too was not really well suited to big sites. TSR's NES Archive basically met its end because it became too big to maintain. Digital Press, at one time one of the biggest video game fansites on the Internet, also did not keep up with the times and make the switch to a Web 2.0 structure, and eventually became irrelevant. The only reason that SNES Central survived was because at one point I sat down and started from scratch with a logical directory structure and PHP.
After the mid-2000s, blog software like Wordpress came about, which made it incredibly trivial to make your own fansite. Yet, despite this, fansites no longer hold a lot of influence in video game communications. I think the reason for this is the incredible growth of the Internet. It is so easy to find information on games from a variety of sources, that people don't need to create these kind of portals. It is no wonder that the remaining fansites that are in operation in 2016 are basically focused on relatively niche things like video game collecting and classic systems that hit their prime prior to the widespread adoption of the Internet.
6) Message boards
Message boards (or forums) were the natural evolution of Usenet and BBSes on the World Wide Web. With message boards, it was possible for any website to foster their own community of like minded people. At first, they were very simple and Usenet-like in their implementation (e.g. wwwboard). Later, message boards became more complete, allowing users to create their own avatars and personalize how they presented themselves. As mentioned at the start of the article, pretty much any fansite tried to maintain their own board, for which conversation based on the content of the site could be made. Usually, someone involved in the video game scene would be involved in many message boards, but would usually gravitate towards some of the bigger ones. My first involvement in the video game community was to join the SNES9x and zsnes boards. I quickly became a moderator on the zsnes boards:
The period between 2001 and about 2005 were the peak years of message forums, facilitated by software like Ikonboard, Yabb and PHPBB. Going to a forum like the Retrogaming Roundtable on Digital Press in the early 2000s was a vibrant place, usually dozens of new topics being started every day. These were also the places where collaborative efforts like the creation of the Digital Press rarity guide became possible. Though we all talk about "crowdsourcing" now a days, I think it really hit its peak in the video game community with the message board era. I think the recent Coleco Chameleon drama at the Atari Age forums is a testament to this. Everything on the forum is searchable, and in chronological order and can be cleaned up by moderators if it goes off topic.
Like with fansites, message forums began to decline as the peak audience grew older and no longer had the time or interest to remain involved. Most of the forums that have managed to stay active (such as neogaf and Nintendo Age) probably remain that way because their initial purpose was to be a forum, rather than as a community for a fansite. Most of the forums that I was a regular at back in the early 2000s, such as the zsnes, snes9x, Digital Press, Lost Levels and NESWorld forums have pretty much declined to the point where there is almost no point visiting anymore. The reason for their declines are unique, but generally have to do with the lack of activity by the site owners. The SNES Central forum was in an even worse position, since I started it in 2008, far too late to be able to generate a community that was sizable enough to weather the sporadic updates on the main site. I have to say that it was entirely my fault that I allowed it to get to that state, but that is just the way it goes.
7) Large corporate media websites
It was natural that after the Internet got going that gaming information was going to be predominantly gathered there. Game magazines that were mentioned above quickly created an online presence on AOL or the World Wide Web as early as 1995. However, they were not the only companies that gained a foothold in the late 1990s and early 2000s - sites like Planet Gamecube and the IGN series of sites had a bigger following than any of the traditional magazine organizations. Like fansites, these places had their own message forums, but they just never seemed to gain the same traction. I actually tried getting into some of these forums, but I think that the age group that frequented them was just too young for me. Just saying the words "GameFAQs boards" was enough to draw the ire of people who inhabited fansite forums.
These for-profit websites basically have the same problems that magazines have - they depend on a pretty close relationship with the publishers in order to exist. And many of them have failed in the social media era. Some of the heavy hitters include 1up (which was the online affiliate of EGM) and Joystiq. With the availability of platforms like Youtube, game companies no longer need these large websites to promote their games like they did prior to 2010. From my perusal of some of some of these sites, they basically have to include non-gaming content in order to keep an audience. For example, I fired up Kotaku, and found articles on anime and a review of Batman v Superman on the front page. Obviously, there is an overlap between the video gaming audience and those subjects. The biggest sites like Kotaku IGN and Gamespot continue to be highly popular (all three are in the Alexa top 1000 sites). I doubt they will go away anytime soon, though we could have said the same thing about Joystiq a few years ago.
8) Youtube (and other static video sites)
Back before Youtube, if you wanted to watch videos, it was often an endless slog to get the right codec, or to have to constantly sit through endless "buffering". Youtube changed everything, with the usage of the ubiquitous Flash plugin and super-fast download speeds. Not only that, but it made producing and distributing your own videos extremely easy! Over time, the quality of videos increased, and now you can see some very professional productions made by fans.
Videos have a much larger reach than print media for the simple fact that they can be highly entertaining and require less time than reading through a long text-based review (not to mention providing video of a video-based entertainment format). They also serve has highly concentrated outlets for video game fans to have commentary on games without any influence of companies. This makes the Youtube format, in a sense, more pure than the magazines of old. Some Youtubers have become pretty famous, notably in the Minecraft scene, and it can be pretty lucrative. In addition, video game companies can directly advertise their games without needing to go through the middleman of a corporate video game site or magazine. For many video game fans, this is perfect, they just want to see the trailers to upcoming games without any filler.
As for the community aspect, you don't have to delve too far into the average comments section to see the bile. The commenting format is not really well suited to deep conversation, and, except in more modest channels, it is unlikely the video author is going to spend a lot of time in them. Navigating through the comments is difficult, as they are grouped together based on "thread", where one post is made, and there is usually a ton of people arguing counterpoints. It is not exactly stimulating, and you can't easily search them. Some of the best Youtube based communities have an outside component, most notably with the speedrunning and TAS (tool assisted speedrunning) communities.
I look at Twitter as being a really shitty form of IRC. I've been using Twitter pretty much constantly for the past two years, and I have to say it feels a lot like yelling at clouds. Even with a follower list that exceeds 1200 people, I might get direct, insightful comments maybe one out of every 10 posts I make. Twitter has existed for 10 years as of this week, and I think the appeal is that it allows people to be part of current events. Anyone can tweet about the TV show that is on, or some major news event as it happens. In regards to video games, it provides a way to directly follow game companies and quickly get information on the latest releases. Although I guess it is a way to "speak directly to the fans", the format of Twitter doesn't exactly lead to insightful commentary. It is more of a notification system, but some people take it a bit far and just tweet too much. It is tedious.
Although social media sites existed prior to Facebook, it was the first site to really be used by huge numbers of people from a variety of demographics. I've heard that people that are moving away from forums are going to pages on Facebook. Really, I think this is a lot like yelling at clouds too. Most comments are heavily buried, and not in chronological order (at least in more active pages). It is basically reminds me of a more chaotic wwwboard. Facebook has pretty much seen the end of anonymity in the community, but with such large numbers of people involved, I think it hardly matters. I haven't really followed the developments lately, but it sounds as though this is causing a pretty big fracturing of the community into more regional entities. I have joined a handful of Facebook communities, but it seems that if you don't actively participate, the notifications don't really pop up in your feed.
It really sounds like a lot of the video game communities are heading to Facebook en-mass. Localized video game trading pages now dominate the classic video collecting scene, supplanting the old forums. Probably makes sense, given the costs of shipping. I looked at a few of the bigger groups (such as I Am A Classic Videogamer, which appears to be a successor to the old Retrogaming Roundtable), and it looks like a place to post links to other sites that might be of interest to the group as a whole.
Don't get me wrong, I love Facebook and have been actively using it for nearly 10 years. However, I just don't see it as being a great communication tool for the gaming community. I basically see people using these Facebook groups the way I use them - to post interesting links, photos, and maybe small updates about what is going on. It isn't very deep.
The final thing I will mention is Twitch. Twitch offers live streaming of people playing video games, and is basically like a new form of entertainment. Most of my experience with Twitch has been to watch the Awesome Games Done Quick marathons. There is something mesmerizing about watching people dominating the games that I grew up with. The best aspect of Twitch is that it has live commentary from the people playing the games, which is really nice when watching these speedruns. There is also live commentating on competitions, sort of like an ESPN for video games. Although I don't really watch a lot of Twitch, I think this is a very positive development in the video game community, as it shows games for what they truly are - entertainment. I don't know if there are many people on Twitch who are interested in video gaming history, per se. There are not many classic games on Twitch aside from popular speedrunning games. In some of the channels that are not so busy, it is pretty easy for the person running the stream to directly interact with the people making the comments. In popular streams, the text stream is so fast that it is basically incoherent. So, Twitch is in some ways more than just a one-way communication method like Youtube is.
Video game communications has gone from its beginnings from video game magazines geared towards children and niche BBS boards geared towards power users, to full blown streaming video of people playing games. 25 years ago, video games were something that were just for the kids or nerdy adults, but I think it is safe to say that gaming is pretty much acceptable for everyone. There are a couple of relatively recent events I would like to touch on to expand upon the previous discussion.
I wrote at length about the Retro VGS system in a previous article in the aftermath of its failed Indiegogo. After that disaster, which seemed more like the work of a dreamer, it was rechristened the "Coleco Chameleon". With the backing of an actual corporate sponsor, it seemed more plausible that it could actually succeed. How wrong that thought was. At the Toy Fair expo in New York, which was supposed the grand revealing of the system, it turned out to be something that looked suspiciously like a Super NES. Even worse was a later attempt to show off a prototype, which was nothing more than a PCI card:
From my descriptions of communication methods, I think it is pretty obvious that I am high on message boards as being one of the best ways to communicate in the video game community. I think the revelation of the Coleco Chameleon scam really shows the strength of message board communities. The Atari Age thread on this became something of legends in the community. Sometimes the posts were coming in so fast that it was not really possible to keep up in real time.
The thing I really like about about forums is the breadth of discussion and the possibilities for collaboration. Would the Coleco Chameleon have been revealed as a scam without the collective efforts of Atari Age? I am not so certain. With forums, many people can chime in with elaborate, multi-paragraph discussion points. If you compare this with something like Facebook, any long discussion is generally cut down with a "show more" link, so most people don't. The discussion points from the thread were supplemented with more accessible Youtube videos. The larger audience of Youtube allowed knowledge of the scam to become widespread. There are benefits to both formats, and they worked together in this case.
When you look at the coverage of the Coleco Chameleon by corporate websites (example here), they glossed over the potential downfalls of this system. They really dropped the ball here. Even after it became pretty clear that the Toy Fair prototype was just a SNES, there were still very softball articles being published in mainstream websites. A quick Google search should have revealed the Atari Age thread, and the many spin-off videos showing this, so really it comes down to a lack of good journalism. I think we should all remember, though, that the purpose of commercial sites is ultimately to sell video games. They were not going to bite a potential hand that can feed them, even with a rag-tag operation like Retro VGS. Only when it became very obvious that it was a scam (i.e. the PCI board "prototype") did they start to report on this. The people who work on these sites have tight deadlines and are encouraged to put out as many stories as they can, so perhaps it isn't entirely surprising there was no investigation.
This brings me to the next item I want to talk about, Gamergate. This has been raging on for well over a year now, which really surprises me considering how stupid the whole affair is. It started when there was allegations a certain developer of an obscure game was in a relationship with someone who worked for a corporate gaming website. This became an excuse to harass certain people they call "social justice warriors", who objected to the treatment of said developer, and the journalists who supported her.
People who support Gamergate claim this whole affair was all about "ethics in video game journalism". But as demonstrated earlier in this article, traditional corporate media sources are ultimately vehicles in which to promote games to a wide audience, and have never been truly objective. But more than that, the evolution of the Internet over the past 20 years has allowed a variety of sources of communications for video games. No longer are people forced to get reviews from insiders that have a vested interest to promote these games. There are hundreds of message forums, Youtube channels and Facebook groups were you can find objective analysis of games. Even Twitter can be a place to get the latest impressions on games without needing to rely on corporate sites. The whole issue of "ethics of video game journalism" is just a convenient excuse, and the whole affair has little to do with communications in the video game community.
No, Gamergate is basically a modern form of class warfare. It is pitting those who think that gaming is an activity excusively "for the boys", versus those who think that there needs to be universal and complete accommodation for people of all genders and sexual orientation, and that this needs to be enforced without prejudice. Of course, I support the efforts of equality, but I think that entering into a rage war with the Gamergate crowd is never going to win them this battle. It is not hard see where the Gamergate ethos is rooted in. Back in the late 90s, gaming was a predominately male activity. This is why many covers of magazines featured exaggeratedly busty women, fighting games like Mortal Kombat, and professional wrestling. The cultural shift that is happening now, with gaming becoming a more mainstream activity, is more than these people can bear.
I really doubt the Gamergate issue would have came to a head even 10 years ago, during the peak of the message forum era. At that time, most of the big communities had effective moderation. Though many complained, this did prevent things from getting out of hand. I was discussing this on IRC the other day and someone very rightly said "your community is what you tolerate". In the early 2000s, during the peak of the message board era, most people on video game forums were male. Good moderators were able to create a relatively friendly environment for the minority that weren't. What happened recently is that with formats like Twitter and Facebook, there is no longer the filter of a moderator to prevent things from getting out of hand. So those who pine for the "best days" of gaming, the late 90s, are able to try and enforce that viewpoint with mob rule. The worst part about this is that I don't think that this movement will ever truly go away as long as the Internet exists in its current form.
What the future holds
The way we talk about and share our experiences with gaming has evolved substantially over the past 30 years. From gaming's origins as an activity that was largely the domain of male children, to its increasingly inclusive mainstream present, it is hard to say what the future holds. Video game communications basically have followed the trends of other entertainment media, migrating away from one-way print media of the 80s to the free-for-all that is Twitter in the 2010s. As anyone getting to this point in the article would surmise, my preference for communications is via a moderated message forum. However, since most of the message boards I frequented are pretty much defunct, it is time to move away from that ideal. As someone who researches niche things in video games, I think that maintaining a fansite is still the best way to keep this information in one spot. Supplementing it with video is probably an avenue I will explore in the future with more frequency.
As far as the social media aspect of communications, I think it will eventually break down. The lack of moderation that occurs on venues like Twitter and Facebook will eventually lead people back to venues that have solid leadership and are troll free. Whether that means a return to message forums, or something that hasn't even been created yet, I do not know. The most recent new communication venue I have got into is Slack, which is a great successor to IRC. Maybe we will see a successor to message forums someday too!
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