If you’d asked me three days ago, “how many bars in America do you think screen live games of Starcraft II?”, I would have said “none of them”. Then the Wall Street Journal ran a story about Starcraft II matches being shown in sports bars “across the country”. That makes it sound bigger than it is, like some sort of craze sweeping the nation. In reality, as the article later makes clear, there are “more than a dozen” bars screening live games. More than a dozen probably means thirteen but it’s still a lot more than “none of them”. I don’t think this sort of thing happens on these British Isles yet but it did make me think about the different ways we enjoy this grand old hobby.
Multiplayer gaming used to involve people being in the same room as one another. Whether on a couch, on a home network or at a LAN Party. Now, we’re all connected and someone is almost definitely tapping your phone while rifling through your hard drives. But connectivity does mean that we can play with people on the other side of the world. We can also watch live feeds of people playing games competitively. We can even watch people programming games live (obviously no longer live, but archived). So many possibilities but many of them involve me being at my desk, at home. It makes sense that people would want to take those experiences into social spaces, to share them with others and celebrate them. It’s one of the reasons people are travelling from far and wide to be at PAX right now.
Gathering in a bar to watch games on a big TV is different though. It takes the game into a space where it is not part of the dominant culture. Starcraft 2 is as unfamiliar to someone without an interest in games as legendary shortstop Marty Marion is to someone without an interest in legendary shortstops. There should be no problem with baseball fans watching baseball together and Starcraft fans watching Starcraft together. And there doesn't seem to have been. The Wall Street Journal unnecessarily implies conflict in its headline, "Geeks Beat Jocks as Bar Fight Breaks Out Over Control of the TV", but there’s no unpleasantness mentioned in the article. Just one man who asked for the feed to be switched off, which is fair enough if he was trying to have a quiet drink. There is a patronising tone in places, though the whole thing is positively angelic compared to this coverage of Gamescon.
Maybe it’s just hard to transcribe things from the commentary such as "It's a drone genocide! Flaming drone carcasses all over the place!” without sounding somewhat bemused. There is something inherently comical about describing the action in games and that’s not limited to the electronic world. Sports commentaries have long been a cavernous and untapped goldmine of comedic nuggets, particularly when they involve protracted clichés and metaphors. The very act of ascribing deeper consequence to an activity that is essentially ‘play’ always risks becoming unintentionally comic.
I’ve never watched someone else play a game live, except over their shoulder, and I’m not particularly interested in professional gaming. However, I’ll gladly watch or read a ‘Let’s Play’ of a game I enjoy. Dwarf Fortress and pretty much any of the Paradox grand strategy titles are particular favourites. It’s the intellectual fascination of seeing how differently things can work out within a robust simulation, especially when the people playing the game often approach things so differently to the way I tend to play and often with more skill.
The Kyoto Lounge in Manchester is a gamer bar, much like those Gamerbase things dotted around but with a more pleasant clientele and alcohol. Some of you may know it. Kyoto Lounge is a place to play games publically though, not just to watch them. I can see more places along those lines springing up as people realise their attraction. I wonder if there is a demand for more social gaming centres; perhaps bars can become the new arcades. Would you want to play games in public, with friends or strangers? Would you show up just to watch in company?
We’re forever being told that gaming is becoming more mainstream and it can feel like that’s the other sort of gaming: the stuff of consoles, tablets and Facebook. It’s also Kanye West performing at the Call of Duty XP. But if PC gaming moves into social spaces where it has been formerly unrecognised, is that not a sign of a move toward the mainstream? If anyone has ever been to a Barcraft event or anything similar, do share your experiences.