New York City is difficult in the winter. Most residents still do much of their navigation on foot, and Manhattan's grid-like avenues and towering buildings can funnel the approaching winter's dry cold snaps into veritable wind tunnels. Coats never seem quite warm enough, and gloves make it clumsy to fumble for the little paper swipe card that gets me a train ride a few stops over to my nearest GameStop. If you're like me, maybe you get a good feeling when you hit up a game store, a little rush of positive sentiment that goes beyond the familiar aura of shelves stocked with potential adventures still gleaming in their plastic. Especially now, as the Holiday shopping season starts to get underway, these stores are filled with people buying and trading games, just like you. In one shopper's hand you see a favorite title of yours, and the two of you make eye contact and smile, because you just know, you just get it, right? Maybe not.I can't remember what I was in to buy just a week or two ago when I happened up to the shelf alongside a customer holding Silent Hill: Homecoming, poring over the back of the box in a decidedly indecisive fashion. He caught me looking, and managed to make conversation. "Do you know if this is good?" He asked, hesitantly, nearly immobilized by his dense parka. Well, of course I know. I review games, and I was one of the few reviewers who really, really liked this one. I can barely resist launching into my spiel on all its good points and its flaws — so what I say instead, as a preface, is, "did you read any of the reviews?" The consumer shakes his head slowly. He looks a little nervous - perhaps it's the fanatical gleam in my eye. But he should understand, right? Like, he's a gamer, right? "I don't read any reviews, or anything," he says, looking like someone deftly trying to sidestep a Jehovah's Witness. He puts poor Homecoming back on the shelf, and later I see him get in line with SmackDown vs. RAW 2009 for PlayStation 2. He doesn't read any reviews? Or anything? Well, you can at least expect your local GameStop employees to be on your wavelength. Everyone's heard the stories about the long-suffering GameStop worker, especially as the holidays approach. They're already busy behind the counter here, and on another recent outing I came in for the second time in a month with a bushel full of trade-ins, and the register-worker recognized me. "Got a lot of games again, huh?" He says cheerfully, going through the work of scanning my used titles through the system and crediting them toward my new ones. "Yep, you sure get a ton of stuff." He's looking at me curiously, as if wondering why should this gal come and go with so many games? I begin to wonder if he thinks I'm casing stolen goods, or something, so I quickly find myself saying, "well, games are my job, so I've gotta… you know, keep up." "You make games?" Asks the employee. "No, I write about 'em," I reply, cheerfully. And he looks at me like he's waiting for more information, so I add, "like… on Kotaku." "On what?" The scanner machine continues whirring and flashing as he rings me up. "Kotaku," I say. "Is that, like, a website?" Ladies and gentlemen, there is a world in which people do not know that Kotaku exists. And for the record, the GameStop employee, while he seemed perfectly knowledgeable about the titles in his store, doesn't know what GameSpot, IGN ,Edge or anything else of their ilk are, either. The Strange Gap And these incidents kept on happening to me - popping in and out of game stores in order to research this article, I quickly found that most people are unaware of the topics we discuss here every day. They know what Gears 2 is, perhaps, because they had the first one - but they don't know what Mirror's Edge is, they haven't gotten to hear about how awesome Left 4 Dead is, they don't know about the fire in Far Cry 2. They don't know that EA tried to buy Take-Two this year, they don't know that Nintendo is "abandoning the hardcore gamer," they don't see why it's a big deal that Final Fantasy XIII is coming out on Xbox 360. In your average game store, customers do not read reviews. They do not post on forums, they have never been motivated to leave Amazon feedback just to "send a message," they do not blog. They do not know which publishers have poor reputations and which ones have good ones. They do not know the names of famous Japanese game designers; they might have Mario Kart Wii at home, but they do not know who Miyamoto is. We often talk about how the life of a gamer is something of a lonely one - how the love of gaming still, even in the purported era of social acceptance, often feels like a personal secret, and how seeing, say, another DS in the crowd can feel like a private high-five. But according to recent NPD data, 13.7 million Americans own Wiis, 11.6 million own Xbox 360s, and 5.7 million own PlayStation 3s. Add those numbers up . Sure, some people might own more than one console, but more don't than do, so you can get even a rough idea of just how many people are playing video games just in the United States. Now, think about ubiquitous pop sensation Rihanna. Chances are, all summer you heard her smash hit "Umbrella" more times than you wanted to. Lately you've probably heard her earworm "Disturbia" drift by you on the airwaves, piped in over the mall speakers or sung out loud by teens on the bus. Even if you're not into pop music, more likely than not you know of Rihanna's songs and would recognize her cute Bahamian face, even without being aware of it. You can tell it's a cultural sensation, even if it's not your culture, per se. But Rihanna's newest album, "Good Girl Gone Bad," which contains both of the songs I just mentioned, has sold only 6.2 million copies - and that's not just in America, that's around the world. We're talking about a global smash music success that goes platinum several times - and it's only half as popular as the Wii in the U.S. alone, and only relatively slightly more popular than even the third-place PlayStation 3. So why is it that while everyone's heard of Rihanna, it seems like no one knows what Fallout 3 is when you're not at the computer? The guy buying Smackdown vs. RAW could not be called a "casual" gamer. Neither can the GameStop employee who doesn't read video game websites. But perhaps what our online culture has taught us to expect from other "gamers" is a little bit skewed. All of us "on here," within this world of ours, are not just in love with games - we're in love with the culture we've created around games, and that culture, obsessed with information related to our pastime, is only the most vocal minority at the tippy-top of a great big bell curve. Outside in the so-called "real world," away from our regular guildies, the folks with familiar forum handles, and the hundreds of comments spewing angry invective on the latest contentious review, there are millions of gamers in the world. They just aren't "culturalists" (cultists?) like us, and so we fail to recognize them. Getting Lost And it's convenient we were on the subject of music, because the difference between the fan and the cultist also appears in the music genre. There's often an assumption among music fans that you either read music mags religiously and talk about bands few people have heard of in terms few people can understand, our you're a Celine Dion-loving, mainstream-embracing plebian with nothing that could be called taste. In fact, in music as with games, there is a great and broad-ranging middle ground; some music fans can be quite seriously into, say, indie music, without ascribing to all of the telltale tenets of modern-day "hipster" culture. But as with games journalism, writing about music is enormously bipolar - it's either designed to satisfy the most scrutinizing culturalist, or it's glossy MTV-ish pap about artists like, say, Rihanna. Which is why I don't really read music articles at all, even though I buy several albums a week on iTunes and love to share undiscovered songs with my friends. But recently, I happened to notice that the elite Pitchfork Magazine had reviewed one of my new favorite albums, so out of curiosity, I decided to see what the review said. It called the album "inherently disjointed, very much the product of two distinct, if exceptional, songwriters," immediately compared the album to the two songwriters' prior work as separate acts, and also compared the album to the band's prior one. I could barely puzzle out what a phrase like this means: "focused on skewing darker, on sounding nastier, more perilous, and less straightforward than its predecessor, with elaborate arrangements and, you know, no singles— translates into a lot of proggy diddling (and, ironically, less theremin). The approach yields predictably mottled results…" In short, it was a mixed but fairly critical review of an album I love, rooted in comparisons to the artists' other work (which I also love, but supposing I'd never heard of 'em?). If I'd read this review first - well, I would have had to struggle a bit to understand the critic's language - but after that, I might have not wanted to buy the album. So because I neither possess nor relate to the critical vocabulary of a Pitchfork writer, high-end music reviews are fairly useless to me. It occurred to me that this is how the "average" gamer - you know, the people in line at GameStop, the people who would never in a million years be reading this article - probably feels about game reviews, and the associated culture we've built around game websites. And that's why we don't know them, and they don't know us. Different Things to Different People That guy in the parka who wondered whether to buy Silent Hill: Homecoming probably doesn't read game reviews for the same reason I don't read music reviews; they would have told him all about the controls, the environment, the vibe and the themes, would have listed for him a raft of minor criticisms he'd never even notice, but wouldn't have told him anything about whether or not he'd like the game. He doesn't need the extra facts, the peripheral humor, the sneak peeks we get from our favorite game sites. And he probably doesn't need the sense of community that we get from socializing, networking and sharing content with other elitists online - because he's got about millions of possible pals out there, average gamers just like himself, who are happy to just play with him and enjoy it. "Oh hey," a shy girl who looks about my age notices that I've got my DS in my hand as I'm on my way out of the store. She's holding the new Tinkerbell DS game, she looks a little lost, and I can tell she's been hoping to ask another female for ideas. "Do you have this one?" I tell her I don't; I tell her it's a game for kids. And she laughs a little, shrugs, makes a gesture that encompasses the entire store, as if to say, so? These are all just toys, aren't they? To some people, they are. So yes, our existence is still somewhat a lonely one; we are in the minority, still. But it's not because we're gamers. It's not even because we're hardcore gamers. It's because we're such fanatical culturalists that we forget about the middle ground. Is it a divide we can bridge? [Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, reviews games at Variety,and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]
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