A few days ago I got a call from a friend looking for “hardcore gamers” who were willing to be part of a focus group. This friend has a friend who works for a research group, so through a friend of a friend, I ended up taking part in a video game focus group. The important part was I’d be getting paid.
I was a little disappointed that the group was just to get feedback on some commercials; I’d hoped to get to influence the design of a game (“more explosions, bigger breasts, less reading!”). I’d penned a few crazy sounding comments with Pat before the meeting, but sadly didn’t get to recite them. I never got to tell the group that I only buy a game new if it really deserves it or that I will not buy any game that EA publishes because they are evil.
The good news is I didn’t sign a nondisclosure agreement. Not that I’ll be discussing the commercials, they really weren’t terribly interesting. More telling were the “research” questions the moderator asked, who apparently has the easiest job in history. “You mentioned the word ‘fun,’ tell me more about that.”
“What was your favorite gaming experience?” was the first question posed to us. Most of the participants, who were all in my age group of 18-24 and men, said something about beating their friends in games. The most respectable answer was beating Punch Out without losing once. My response was the Shenmue 2 story: A few summers ago, I broke my thumb in a batting cage (which I now use as proof I shouldn’t be playing sports). Pat and I were near the end of Shenmue 2, though, and we couldn’t let something like a broken right thumb discourage us. Thanks to my Soul Calibur training, I can play fighting games with my fingers instead of thumb, so I beat the fat guy atop the building before tossing the controller to Pat to perform the finishing Quick Time move. Oh, the glory. The moderator had never heard of Shenmue and had to ask me to repeat myself a few times so he could write down what I assume was something like Shampoo 2.
The next question was, “Why do you play?” Again, the other participant’s answers revolved around competition. They played to win, they played to persevere. For a hardcore gamer, my answer was not particularly deep. I contemplated giving him the evolutionary answer that games sharpen skills we need to survive, we play games and sports for the same reason tiger cubs play fight. Or a psychological answer about escapism and role playing but then I realized he didn’t want truth, he wanted sound bites. The lame answer that I gave him was I play games for the same reason people watch TV or movies, because it’s fun.
“What does it take to be a good gamer?” Complicated question. The whole group gave good answers, most of which were words they make posters out of: Perseverance. Determination. Will Power. I said manual dexterity and familiarity with old games. A surprising amount of knowledge that seems innate when we play stems from understanding how other games work. This barrier makes it very difficult for adults to get into gaming.
Finally, my favorite and last question of the night, “What is your style of play?” This question doesn’t really mean anything to anyone who plays games in more than one genre. How could I possibly have a style of play that shines through in a hockey game, an action RPG, and a dating sim? The dumber the question, the dumber the answer. The first response was, “To win.” That’s cheesy, but doesn’t compare to the next response, which was, “My playing style is to dominate.” I was pretty sure I had stepped into an MTV commercial by that point. When pressed, I explained that I don’t play that many multiplayer games, but when I do I tend to over think them and get my ass handed to me. The moderator was slightly confused. Everyone had chosen snazzy, ego stroking words to describe their play styles. “So your style is to over think things?” “Well, I don’t really do it on purpose, but yeah.”
The group as a whole, sans me, seemed to only play Madden, Fight Night, GTA and western military games. Most of them had an Xbox 2. Not all of them were particularly bright. A lot of them didn’t understand when the commercials we watched were being tongue in cheek. I was surprised that they were all pretty eloquent.
I found that as the moderator realized I represent a less common perspective, he began asking for my input less. He didn’t ask me at all what I thought of one of the commercials.
The moderator was obviously an intelligent, educated guy and I figured the two of us may have been the smartest guys there (to say nothing of the man behind the glass in the adjacent room). This scenario led to an interesting psychological experiment. Being the moderator, he could not confirm any of my thoughts or opinions. After watching a comedic commercial and listening to the slower group members fail to grasp the humor, I declared that it was a joke. I looked to the moderator for confirmation and he shrugged. He wouldn’t respond because he had to stay objective. It’s amazing how much of your ego exists because other people confirm your superiority.
The whole experience was worthwhile not only because I made more than twice what I normally earn an hour, but because it made me realize something (other than advertising people ask stupid questions and expect shallow answers that would sound cool in a commercial). When I’m online, I feel like I don’t know that much about obscure games because the net is full of people who speak Japanese and have played every random thing you could think of.
But going to this focus group made me see just how different I am from most people. Sure someone on the net is always weirder than me, but as far as real life humans go, I know a lot of useless crap. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel accepted, even at a focus group on video games. There is a lot of talk about how gaming is not a niche hobby any more and how it’s widely accepted amongst my generation. This may all be true, but just as everyone watches TV but most try to avoid talking to people who watch Sci Fi, the people playing only GTA and Madden aren’t always thrilled by those playing imports and Racing RPGs. Real life is a cruel, cold place, and thus I retreat back into the internet.