Cab Driver - Customer, The Third


In which our hero ponders just why we do need the industry, and how they can help drive the reforms so many of us claim to want. You decide to catch up on your reading - the conversation would get awkward as I'm trying to keep my eyes on the road. It's not often you see an attractive woman in a provocative state of undress - the cover of that book you're reading has one on it. The title mentions secrets of black magic.

Another customer. Yeah, I'm late. So?

You decide to catch up on your reading - the conversation would get awkward as I'm trying to keep my eyes on the road. It's not often you see an attractive woman in a provocative state of undress - the cover of that book you're reading has one on it. The title mentions secrets of black magic. Designed to attract attention, you bet...

The marketing acronym this week - AIDA (which I always thought was opera) explains why a strategy that allegedly alienates many gamers, if you believe the articles we see in the gaming press, can work at all.

Attention: Clearly, sex and sexual images are an effective strategy, particularly when you are dealing with a predominantly male demographic. It works for Britney Spears, Lara Croft and even Cosmopolitan. You didn't think Tomb Raider sold all those copies solely on game play did you? Ask MTV: we're influenced by what we see. Britney Spears knows about that as well, but she's a virgin so that makes it OK, doesn't it? Beautiful women on the cover isn't a guaranteed lechery draw, but in the case of Cosmopolitan, it's all about context. Cosmo is a publication about fashion and lifestyle with some interest in female sexuality. Just how many gaming products can claim the same?

Interest: Hook a buyer beyond 'Ooh!' and 'Ah!' and 'How can she run?!' Known also as title and cover blurb: in our case "the secrets of black magic". Who may buy a book like this? Outraged fundamentalists, those unstable few believing the contents explain the world... gamers might buy it too. Driving past the TV stores, late-night talk show repeats show floor bouncers separating a puce-colored fundamentalist with tombstone teeth in a white suit from sullen black-haired, black-eyed and sneering teenagers to a soundtrack of beeps and derisive jeers from the bloodthirsty audience. So if the industry uses sexist imagery and controversial titles to draw an audience that isn't out of place on Jerry Springer (and let's not forget the gamers in that equation - super ratings!) to sell products that promise and too rarely deliver, why should we be surprised?

Desire: Promise a reward for buying their product, make them desire a change in their world which your product can fulfil. New ways to bring in black magic to enrich your game and here the cover blurb comes truly into it's own. So often, it is apparent that the ad copy promises the moon and then gives you a flashlight.

Act: Yeah, buy the book! Buy the book! And we do. So why do we have an image problem if we're so good at marketing, our artists talented, our writers erudite and the content is invaluable to the game? Could it be these emperors are really stark naked after all?

Shortcut time!

People in Gamegrene have posited that we don't need the game publishers, other places agree and even E. Gary Gygax admitted that the games publishers aren't necessary. Individual gamers are running games for smaller groups each year and gamers lament that numbers are shrinking, fewer people are interested in tabletop gaming, rather they prefer the wild frontier of computer RPGs or online role-playing and finding out that not much has changed since they kicked the MUD habit and began talking to real people.

Some of us have lives outside of gaming or lack inspiration and cannot create a magnum opus. So, we do what anyone does if they lack skill or time to deliver and pay a professional to do the job for us. When did you last play a game you created from roots up, world, system; everything in it your own invention or cunningly-hidden inspiration?

The industry influences what is played. How many Vampire games were set in Chicago or Milwaukee or cities bearing striking resemblances? How many D&D parties visited Castle Ravenloft or the Temple of Elemental Evil or the Keep on the Borderlands? Ed Greenwood doesn't personally run each Forgotten Realms campaign but we know that a lot of games are played in the Realms.

The industry influences how the game is played too. World of Darkness took role-playing back to the fore. Dragonlance introduced script immunity and back story into campaign play, and Paranoia made it OK to kill player characters and to trust the Compu - er, games master.

In computer and online RPGs, this truth is self-evident - without the code, you aren't playing and how you play is defined by the codes and reward systems used by the creator of the game. This is no big surprise when you realize that this is also true for tabletop RPGs. A number of people have written articles on reward systems modifying player behavior.

I wasn't kidding about the shortcut and so you relax. Remember the Spider-Man saying, with great power comes great responsibility? I could drive you just about anywhere if you've got your head in a book and you wouldn't know... but this is why you trust me as a professional to get the job done and why you shell out the money at the end of the ride.

Or if you're a gamer - at the start.

Sure, the tabletop appears to be the area in which most gamers meet. Let's not forget industry web sites, conventions, magazines or even games stores themselves in which the industry can and does influence you. Even if you do brew your own material, use a system of your own making and believe the industry is entirely inferior to just about anything you can write, you're still going to be influenced.

Something that puzzles me is there are a number of articulate female gamers who make great games masters and who have imagination by the bucket load. Why aren't they publishing stuff that they want to see? It's not difficult now that there is an open source system. With the Web and free desktop publishing packages, you can easily publish something. If you're so distinctive as to produce a system that doesn't offend female gamers, be sure that word of your product will spread.

However, since the only effective way you can influence large numbers of gamers long-term is to become a part of the industry, write a game where you impose the stereotypes you want to create. Or break them. It's your game. And if it's good - it's everyone else's.

Interestingly, AIDA works in reverse too - cause public interest to decline, disinterest lets you act how you want, a desire for change is replaced with cynical despair that the industry can't change, won't change - ultimately leading to inaction and the same old tropes being trotted out over and over and over again. You can have any color you like. As long as it's black.

What always surprised me are the attitudes that professionals display towards their customers. Perhaps I haven't been to enough conventions but those sessions I have attended have convinced me that chunks of the industry have little love towards its customers. Ironically, those chunks are almost always in decline as a result.

I wonder how many gaming companies try to stop things changing by antagonizing fans - if you are told to @#$% off by the professional then your interest in the product will decline. Should a professional declare that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, people will believe them.

There was until very recently a trend to not include beginning-level material for games, hence a beginning games master had to guesstimate what was acceptable in some kind of rite of passage as the more established players used supplements that required experienced characters.

The industry also marginalizes itself in its publicity. Call customers 'lean, mean threshing machines' or ask them to do what their characters should and you attract those who over-identify with characters. Sell your product along the lines of 'Get this so you know everything' and you will encourage rules lawyers. Cover your products in soft fetish porn and you not only alienate certain players but also persuade people that this isn't a family-friendly hobby. What you use as bait will reel in certain kinds of customer. Do you want to encourage these behaviors in your game?

The games industry is lazy in presentation (a trend that describes many gamers) and suffers as a result. Those few games that can get their acts sufficiently together make a splash in most cases and if the product backs up the hype, they become gaming classics. This is true for computer games as well as role-playing games. Console games have got the presentation thing down cold.

If you don't think any reverse AIDA has been happening in the gaming industry, let me ask you a question: When was the last time you were sufficiently motivated to introduce someone new to the fun you know? Surely we aren't stable gaming groups or inbred cliques, are we? If you can tell me why you haven't introduced anyone in the last year without using the excuse that you haven't got the room in your gaming group or the time, then try to find out why you don't want to share your hobby with anyone any more.

You get out, slipping the book back into the bag. Money exchanges hands and you step up into the street. Through the door and upstairs to the strip club. I wait a moment and then drive on my way to the next pick-up.

Incidentally, a role-playing game created around opera may be an idea for a struggling d20 or other publisher to pursue. All the classic tropes of literature and your character can deliver a perfect aria and die of TB before immortality in a film by Baz Luhrmann stops the carriage for you. How long before it will be up on the shelves for a review here, I wonder...