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A single game as a lifelong hobby
by Daniel Cook on 07/26/13 04:32:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

(This essay was originally posted on Lostgarden.com. Worth catching up on the existing comments so far.)

Do you finish one game and then move onto the next? This is the dominant pattern of play for gamers. What happens when players stop consuming and start investing in a single evergreen computer game for years on end?

Players of traditional games specialize

Across the 5500+ year history of gaming and sports, players typically focus on a single game and turn it into their predominant hobby. A chess player may dabble in other games, but chess is their touchstone. They join chess clubs, they play with fellow chess fans and they spend 90% of their gaming time playing chess. Overall, players specialize.

Such players do play other games, but to a far lesser degree.

There are also communities that embrace the identity of being good at multiple games or sports. These are a minority.

And some are inclined to claim all hobbyists are 'athletes' or 'players' and thus unified in some common tribe. Such verbal gymnastics rarely provide much insight into a dedicated hobbyist's specific passions or the nature of their community.

Specializing in a hobby occurs for many reasons. Traditional sports or games often have the following attributes:

  • Evergreen activities: You don't beat them. You stop when you get bored. Usually they consist of nested loops that operate on time scales of up to a generation. Consider the nesting of Match : Event : Season : Career : Training the next generation.
  • High mastery ceiling: Most are nearly impossible to master completely. You can always get a little better. You can always get better at Go, Soccer or Poker.
  • Strong communities: There exist strong social groups of like-minded players that have their own group norms, hierarchies and support structures. To be a dedicated basketball player is to be part of an extensive basketball playing network.
  • Life long identities: Someone who excels in the game starts to identify as a member of that group. The game becomes source of purpose bigger than themselves. They can look back on their life and say "There were some ups and downs, but I'm secure in my accomplishments as a player of game X"
  • Grass roots or service-based business models: Any cultural structure can be fruitfully analyzed by understanding the flow of money. Many traditional games have extremely low barriers to entry. It costs little to access the initial equipment. Often items like decks of cards or chessboards are either communally owned or purchased by a family and one set of equipment serves multiple participants.

    At higher levels of play, cash flows into the ecosystem through purchases of more advanced or higher status equipment or various service, membership or event fees. In all cases, the businesses involved have strong financial and culture incentives to get you playing and keep you playing.

Players of digital games consume

The hobby of computer or console gaming follows a different usage pattern; gamers play a wide variety of games. NPD claims core gamers buy an average of 5.4 games in a 3-month period. In a recent discussion of Steam purchases on Kotaku, commentators chimed in that they had purchased 100 to 800 games. These are played for a period of time and then set aside so that a new game might get some play.

These players specialize far less. They may prefer a genre of games such as RPGs or shooters, but they'll still consume many games within that genre.

Why the difference in playing patterns? Commercial digital games have some distinct attributes that encourage serial play instead of evergreen play. Not all digital games fit this mold, but the trends are worth noting.

  • Complete-able games: Most computer and console games can be completed in 5 to 40 hours. It is rare that you find digital games that retain users longer than 6 months. Actual playtime is shorter than the official length since most players do not complete their games and even fewer play through a title more than once. Compare this to the generational nested loops of traditional evergreen games.
  • Narrative and Puzzle-focused gameplay: The majority of the gameplay is focused on high burnout single use puzzles or evocative narrative stimuli. Designers spend their budget handcrafting specific scenarios for maximum emotional impact the first time through.
  • Low mastery ceilings: Since the design goal is to move players through the content of a game as smoothly as possible, the game mechanics are generally balanced towards the average skills of first time players. It is rare and surprising when a single player narrative computer game offers examples of masterful play. All this leads to early burnout where players rapidly become 'bored' and put the title aside.
  • Weak player identities: It is difficult for a player to establish their identity around their excellence in any one game. To be a good Braid player just isn't that special. Lots of other people have walked the same path; there is little player creativity and outside the occasional Let's Play video, few people care.
  • Content-focused business model: Digital games businesses have a strong financial incentive to get you to pay upfront and then move onto their next title. Games are treated as a content or boxed product business. An optimal strategy is to put high quality boxes on shelf (either physical or virtual) and get people to buy as many boxes as possible. Since exciting content remains a large cost center, there is ever increasing pressure to make games flashier and more marketable on the front-end and shorter on the back-end.

Shortness of play is perhaps the key reason why players end up consuming multiple games. With gamers spending 16-18 hours a week gaming, it doesn't take long to burn through a single title. When a single game fails to entirely fill a person's leisure time, players buy additional games. Only a set of multiple consumable titles provides enough engagement for someone to make a full-fledged hobby out of content-based games.

This fits the general profile of a media hobbyist. As we shifted from evergreen hobbies to digital retail-focused games, we trained users to behave in a fashion similar to that of a reader who reads many books or a movie goer who watches many movies.

A media culture

To be a 'Gamer' is to buy into numerous requirements that only exist to enable the creation of easily consumable media products.

  • Reviewers exist to help players select their next media purchase
  • Critics exist to demonstrate how media conveys a message to society. They are trained (if they are trained) in other media-centric fields such as movies or literature. There is little systemic thinking since media is first and foremost not a functional system but an evocative stimuli.
  • The form of popular games is determined by whether or not it fits in a media box. Form is the standardized structure of a piece of media. The 2-hour narrative movie is a form of video. The 300 page novel is a form of writing. So too is the 14-hour adventure game or the level-based narrative FPS.
  • Stores and storefronts exist to sell the hobbyist a steady trickle of new media. Since media creation is expensive and the share of a player's time is small for any single piece of media, aggregators of content are typically 3rd parties that don't produce all the media themselves.
  • Communities are built around mass media that act as a shared experience for large populations of consumers. Big brands like Mario, Mass Effect or Final Fantasy form cultural anchors much like Star Trek or Star Wars. Comparisons, reminiscences and fan fantasies about future sequels or expansions are common.

Digital evergreen hobbies

Into this media-centric ecosystem we've seen the reemergence of major games that hew more closely to the traditional games of old. MMOs like World of Warcraft or MOBAs like League of Legends are services. A digital game like Minecraft ties into numerous communities and is often played for years. Some like Halo or Call of Duty cleverly camouflage themselves as traditional consumable boxed products all while deriving long term engagement and retention from their extensive multiplayer services. These games share many of the attributes of older hobbies:

  1. They attempt to be evergreen.
  2. They have high mastery ceilings and robust communities.
  3. Many, especially eSports, replicate the nested yearly loops of a traditional sport.

Each of these games is a hobby onto itself. People predominantly play a single game for years. In one poll of 5400 WoW players, 49% claimed to never actively play another MMO.

The rise of services

The shift to services is accelerating, driven by business factors and steady player acceptance. Developers are slowly coming around to the realization that an evergreen service yields more money, greater stability and a more engaged player base. Experiments of the past few years with social, mobile and Steam games suggest that microtransactions will likely become a majority of the gaming market. They already represent 70% of mobile revenue and continue to grow rapidly on other platforms.

This new revenue stream places new constraints on game designs.  Types of laboriously handcrafted content that was once feasible when your game was played 10 hours is no longer profitable if revenue trickles in over hundreds or thousands of hours of play.  Deep mechanics once again matter.  Communities you want to spend time in become a competitive advantage.

There are indeed manipulative companies scamming settlers in this newish frontier. Don't act so surprised. This is the case for any frontier and this is not the first time games have attracted disreputable developers.  Look beyond the flashy, inevitable crooks, just as you looked beyond the licensed games, the porn games and the gambling games that infest your typical game markets.  Look at the big picture and observe where the new opportunities for greatness blossom.

No, they won't cross over

These new evergreen players become hobbyists, but not media-centric gamers. This is most evident in the audiences that play 'casual' social and mobile titles. Many of these players never bought into the current gamer culture. It is common to see someone deep into Candy Crush and when you ask them if they are a gamer, they will deny it. They do not 'game', they never have 'gamed'. They don't share a common heritage of Mario, Zelda, COD, Halo or any of the mass media touchstones that unite current gamers. What they have is a wonderful hobby that in their mind has nothing to do with existing computer games.

There exists a fantasy that somehow new players will get hooked on one game and then transfer over to consuming other games. Since this assumes a play pattern of high volume serial consumption, I doubt that this will occur. Great evergreen games leave little room in a hobbyist's schedule for grand feasts of consumable content. You don't finish a great hobby and then look for your next dalliance. You keep playing the game for years or even generations.  

The perfect service-based game is one worthy of your entire lifetime of leisure.

If this seems an exaggeration and current titles feel unworthy of this high bar, wait a while. Developers are very talented. And the financial incentives to build the perfect service-based game are strong.

Not one gaming hobby but many

So where does that leave our understanding of 'gaming?'

  • Some people avidly knit in their leisure hours.
  • Others play a creative game like Farmville, Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft or the Sims.
  • Others participate in a social online game like World of Warcraft, Eve or Facebook.
  • And then there is a small but active community of proudly old-school Gamers that like consuming puzzles and story media.

What we currently think of as 'gaming' becomes just another hobby amidst a vast jungle of digitally augmented hobbies.

There are those who might see this as a threat, but that is mere fear talking. Existing hobbies tend to last for at least a generation. Those who've tied their identity to consuming media-style games as their hobby will stop participating in the hobby when they die. I expect to see 80-year olds still buying adventure games because that is what they were raised on and that is what they love. Niche producers can make good money serving these avid fans.  The rise of new hobbies thus do not invalidate a current hobby.  In fact, you'll have media-centric games for at least the rest of your life.  

Though each hobby likely will need to compete for new members.

Impact on the cultural ecosystem

With this shift comes change. The following may challenge your existing expectations.

  • Specialized interests, not shared experiences: The drop rates on defense potions matters little to your typical gamer. Yet it is of earth shattering importance to the community of Realm of the Mad God players, impacting hundreds of hours of their life. At a certain level of mastery, the language used to describe in-game concepts becomes indecipherable to casual audiences. This inhibits communication with external groups, but facilitates bonding within the group.
  • Deep systemic analysis, not broad media criticism and reviews. Hobbies are predominantly comprised of human systems and communities, not texts to analyze or boxes to sell. Political, anthropological or economic forms of discourse are more appropriate yet there are few game critics trained in these fields. Successful commentators are typically past players with a master-level understanding of the hobby. They are rarely dilettantes flitting from media event to media event.
  • Unique cultures, not mass cultures: A hobby can develop a set of inward facing social norms. This can be a negative if extreme viewpoints are allowed to fester. It can also be a huge positive and promote inclusivity, equality and long term positive relationships. Each hobby is a cultural petri dish that need not adopt dominant tropes or values.
  • Participation, not marketing campaigns: New players of a hobby hear about it from a friend or stumble upon a free trial. They participate first and see if they enjoy the lifestyle that the hobby promotes. Big bang media events can flood the early stages of the acquisition funnel, but they do not directly result in revenue or a sustainable community. 
One aspect that surprises me the most is the stealthiness of inwardly sufficient hobbies. A smoothly running process is barely newsworthy for those unfamliar with the hobby. Over 5 million people partake in Geocaching, one of the greatest modern games ever invented.  Yet other than the occasional human interest story, it rarely breaks into the public consciousness. What would a media-focused rag say?  "People are having healthy fun...still.  Just like they were last year." That's not news. There is no new box to hype or content to whinge about.  There's no advertising to sell. So silence is the default until you look inside the vibrant magic circle. Geocachers return the favor by labeling outsiders Muggles.

Let a thousand flowers blossom

The concept of one true gamer community will be less feasible as evergreen hobbies grow in popularity. Instead, we have a crazy mixing bowl of diverse, separate, long-term communities. Few will share the same values or goals. Few players will consider themselves having anything in common with players of a different game.

Social organizations such as PAX will still promote common ground, much like the Olympics promotes common ground between athletes. But day-to-day cross-pollination will be rare.

I personally value a wild explosion of diversity. We need less mass culture and more emphasis on vibrant, generative communities instead of passive industrialized consumption.

The existing society of players may be tempted to deal with those not like themselves negatively through shaming ("I can't believe you play Farmville, stupid person!") Here's how we might instead react positively.

  • Freedom of Play: Like freedom of religion, any player has a right to devote their life to any game even if it isn't something enjoyed by another player.
  • Mutual respect: Any player deserves your respect for their hobby even if you do not personally understand it. Avoid stereotypes and engage with the person.
  • Willingness to explain: Any insider should be willing to explain to an outsider how their hobby works. Proselytize by inviting them to play with you. An open-minded outsider should be willing to listen.

The fact that individual hobbies exist is not new. The shift comes from realizing that individual digital hobbies will soon to be the default play pattern. Adapt accordingly.

take care,
Danc.

References and Additional Links

Note: Gamers often wonder why Farm Equipment simulators sell.  Judged as mass media, they are horrible.  Judged however as an independent hobby, they have many of the attributes of an engaging lifelong interest.  If you laugh at them, it is because you are outside their tribe and ignorant. 

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Comments


Lars Doucet
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Nice article! I think there's plenty of room for expanded understandings of gameplay, and I think "evergreen" titles are an oft-overlooked category. The rise in RogueLike/RogueLite influence in the market is evidence of this interest increasing even in the "hard-core" market. Beyond that, we dismiss the compelling interest in things like Farming Simulator at our peril.

One point:
"Developers are slowly coming around to the realization that an evergreen service yields more money, greater stability and a more engaged player base. "

I'm not sure if that is generally true. Software-as-a-service is usually *more* expensive to build, deliver, and maintain, and it also makes the game prone to vanishing in the blink of an eye if the player base dwindles and the servers are shut down. Nobody can take Chess of Soccer away from us, but I seriously doubt we'll be able to play the original version of Ultima Online ever again (not to mention all the MMO's that were shut down for good). By contrast, even while remaining closed-source, a narrative-driven 'high-burnout' game like Super Metroid has a dedicated following to this day:
http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/196769/why_super_metroids_h
acking_.php

That's not to say I don't acknowledge the advantages. Just that I think these downsides to SaaS are pretty significant - how have you dealt with them at Spry Fox?

Side question:
Do you feel SaaS and EverGreenness are joined at the hip, or can EverGreenness be achieved separately from that business model? (In video games, that is. Chess seems to have done it just fine)

Daniel Cook
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@Lars

Software as a service can be more expensive to build. Multiplayer games, I'd guess 3-4 times as expensive for the initial release based off my experience. This is balanced by it being able to earn 2X to 10X as much over a longer period of time.

There's the single player variation which involves a single player game that is updated with content regularly, has evergreen mechanics and a long grind. When augmented by regular purchases of new users you get a lower dev cost and an ongoing revenue stream. However, I'm not sure how long these actually last. 5-10 years perhaps? To me personally they are a far less intriguing topic since the community is usually so much weaker.

The biggest downside / surprise: You iterate a ton because these service-based games are judged by real statistically valid numbers, not some non-representative reviewer expounding upon their sample of one. Retention and engagement determine if the game lives. Unlike boxed single player games, you can't fake it and declare your game awesome. As a game developer you really need to up your skills to make users happy.

---

"No one can take X away" is a gamer's perspective. Spidey-sense! There's a common risk in adopting the shallow heuristic of "Just think like players! And utopia will arrive" The actual problem is far more nuanced. One way of couching it is to ask "What is a long term organizational structure that will survive different types of variability?" These can be financial, but they can also be political. Technology (servers, rendering engines, platforms) is often a focus, but it is usually the least concern if the other types of disruption of the community are shored up. The cost of porting a game is low.

It can be nice to imagine that grassroots players organizations are a mysterious generative force that will always persist, but typically they are the result of a handful of dedicated people putting in place structures that grow the community. Sadly, we often take those community organizers for granted. Take away those key people and the 'grassroots' wither. In the end, you need leadership and community design. That can come from players or a company, or the common hybrid of a company that organizes local groups of players into clubs. This is governance design as much as it is game design.

---

Sure evergreen games exist in a wide variety of business models. The business model always influences the form of the game so pure design does not exist. Games fit into an ecosystem and if your game is not fed regularly with players, updates to keep it culturally relevant and any financial resources to support that, all the lovely evergreen mechanics in the world will not keep it alive. Even chess clubs raise money.

Lars Doucet
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Definitely a good, comprehensive response!

One point of clarification: my point about archivalism was a bit muddled. What I was really getting at was the fact that for all their potential downsides, boxed single-player experiences can be historically preserved in more or less their original forms, whereas SaaS driven games are at greater risk of disappearing as repeatable experiences.

An analogy: as long as Magic: The Gathering has a continuing economy and metagame, you can keep playing the game as it was designed, more or less. Contrast that with buying decks of the now-defunct Star Wars and Star Trek CCG's. You can play them, sure, but the metagame has long since died on the vine, so the original experience has vanished. It's a totally different experience playing them now that the economy and metagame is basically gone. And they can only still be played at all because they are physical and still obtainable, which isn't always the case for SaaS that dies on the vine.

There's nothing wrong with experiences that are bound to a specific place in time - after all, there's no real replacement for watching the original cast do Les Mis live on broadway other than having actually been there, but historic preservation is a valuable thing too, and it's something I think about a lot.

Daniel Cook
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When studying culture that are trying to thrive in the modern world, you run across two examples:

One is preservation. People dress in traditional dress and they perform ancient dances for the tourists that stop by the museum and buy ceremonial masks made just for tourists. It is a crude snapshot of process that no longer runs. Not the same people. Not the same motivations. Not the same context. Not the same rules. Not the same dynamics.

The second is a living culture. Each generation, children learn about the songs and history in order to participate in the rituals. These exist for the community and the culture regenerates itself and adapts to new circumstances. See the singing contests that Hawaiian schools use to preserve the system of meaning shown through their music.

How do you preserve a human process? By living it. Not by taking photos of it.

A theoretical revival from old artifacts is a nice dream. At best when a culture dies, the owners of the body can do their best to spread the ashes to those that might make use of them. Perhaps open source the code? But to reiterate Frank Lantz comment, games are not media. (And this is why you'll never recapture that moment at summer camp. ;-)

Lars Doucet
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@Daniel Cook:

With all due respect, that response feels a bit like a dodge. The analogy does not quite fit.

"Les Miserables" the book as a cultural artifact preserves quite well, it can be enjoyed today much as it was when it was first written, with great fidelity. If you speak French, you can even enjoy it in the original language. Sure, time has passed, but it is hardly "dead." It is very much alive.

"Les Miserables" the live stage play cannot be re-experienced in its original form unless you had been there, and a recording (via photograph or motion picture) is admittedly a crude copy, and thus this fits your analogy about preserved vs living culture.

Daniel Cook
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Ah, I see the confusion. The difference is between inventing, promoting and cultivating a community around the hobby of musical theater vs. Les Miserables. Go up one level.

Lars Doucet
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I see where you're coming from. Thanks for the lively chat!

Robert Green
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This article really bugged me, but only because I was halfway through writing up something very similar. I may have to go back and rewrite it as a reply to this with some further thoughts, but I guess it's nice to know that other people are already on the same page.

Edit: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RobertGreen/20130730/197225/More_t
houghts_on_hobbyist_gaming.php

Curtiss Murphy
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I am routinely drawn to games with evergreen behavior. I've played a thousand games in League of Legends and spent maybe a thousand hours in EQ1. These are games I'll pick up and put down, on and off for years. I never considered that I associate myself with those communities, much as I do with soccer or snow-boarding. Although, 'Heya Baby, I'm tired form an all night LoL jam!', isn't nearly as sexy as, 'Yeah, busted my ankle in some major pow in Utah last winter.'

Fantastic article - good insights on the importance of promoting a vibrant community. Thinking of the two games I've played most in my life, I can see how the way Riot & Sony treated their customers drove their long-term results. Sony spurned theirs, whereas Riot formed an entire professional community and now pays the best-of-the-best 25K/year + travel! For a select few, Riot and LoL could represent a significant portion of the entire career, just as soccer and snowboarding have for others.

/boggle.

Tyler Coleman
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Another distinction that is needed is the level of involvement from the community. Some evergreen hobbies have little direct modification of the ruleset, but its feasible (play soccer in 3v3, etc). This isn't always true in games.
In digital products, the user isn't able to directly modify the hobby unless you have some element of user-generated content. I would say that something like model trains relates very well to Minecraft, in the sense that the user generated content is the result of the hobby. I believe this form of correlation also creates a comparison to evergreen hobbies, but in different categorical elements.
I would argue that there are direct -vs- indirect hobbies (unless better terminology already exists). Direct being hobbies that you directly create the content as compared to those you indirectly exist within a predefined system. Rules are made to be broken and all that, but chess has held the same formula for centuries, whereas games see mods and alterations on a yearly basis. That's not to say there aren't variations on chess, but they have not taken on quite as well. If every railway modeler had to adhere to the same structure, would it still exist as a hobby?

Ian Bogost
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The discussion in the comments above about archival is dismissed too quickly as a "lower order" problem than that of "culturing community." Think of it instead as a problem of stable materiality. This is the missing factor in your list of traditional gaming attributes. Chess, football, and musical theater possess stable material groundings upon which many communities across many generations can tread both the same and new ground. Games and sports have very few such examples distributed across a long period of massive historical contingency (most modern sports are actually no older than the Victorian era in their current forms, while board and token games like chess and go developed and thrived under circumstances of relative material and leisure scarcity.)

In computer gaming, the rapid obsolescence of technology is part of the problem. That's not just true of console cycles, but with SaaS of ever more rapid updates to APIs and underlying infrastructures (the Facebook platform, iOS, etc.). In this post, you gloss too quickly over both the service-game strip-miners and the "consumption games" as negatively anomalous. On the one hand, the strip-miners are actually working to extract all the potential value from these material platforms rather than to allow them to evolve and mature organically. And on the other hand, many media consumables offer just the sort of examples of long-term longevity you want.

For example, when people like me make new "consumable" games for supposedly dead systems like the Atari 2600, we're really doing just what you're calling for: treating a material infrastructure as a coherent and worthwhile long-term prospect. The Atari is no different from a tennis racquet or a view camera.

There are far weirder aspects of the material construction of games that apply to non-digital as much as digital games. In the Victorian era, when most modern sports solidified, emerged, and spread, there just wasn't as much media generally speaking. There wasn't as much leisure time, nor as many ways to fill it. Today, the sheer noise of possible hobbies has a dampening effect on all of them, but particularly on new ones, making the sort of activity you're calling for historically difficult and perhaps even impossible. In fact, every tech start-up is trying to become a "hobby" in the way you call for here. This last matter is covered over by the rhetoric of originalism ("Across the 5500+ year history of gaming and sports..."), when clearly the fact that we live in 2013 AD rather than 3500 BC (or even 1870 AD) has some considerable impact on what sorts of cultural activities are possible.

The very idea of a "lifelong hobby" has a different meaning at different moments in time. Chess and go and Association football were possible given complex and largely accidental historical circumstances. To hold them up as ideals is not wrong nor ignoble, but it's also not that simple.

Daniel Cook
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Agreed that 'lifelong hobbies' have different meanings and forms at different moments in time. In using Chess as an example, the idea is not to replicate their success but understand some of the element and techniques involved so that we can engineer more robust hobbies. Consider us genetic engineers looking at existing successful species to understand why they function.

Existing technology platforms are indeed quite ephemeral. And they are flooded with numerous competing hobbies. These are challenges, but they not insurmountable. It is the difference between evolving life in a jungle versus in a desert. An optimist might think how nice it is to get more attempts in less time. The number of dead little mutant hobbies may feel extravagant, but you still end up with a surprising number of survivors in their own tiny niche.

The material infrastructure of a platform or ecology or culture is of course important. Though I often feel that we place too much emphasis on it as primary and ignore the human processes at play. Perhaps this is because physical tools and artifacts are easy to put into museums and easy to dissect? A living thing or even worse a dynamic process computed using living things proves slippery.

Much like life, when the human process stops, the physical infrastructure is rendered far less meaningful. You can look at a board game and know nothing of the game. We have boards for Senet and Mehen but are uncertain of how it might be played. We have the stable platform, but the games are dead to us.

Alternatively, if you have the community and the practitioners, you can often recreate the material infrastructure. Or something roughly equivalent.

The small era of technological change that I've lived through has been rampant and radical enough that I assume it to be a constant fact. Porting to new physical infrastructures is a given. Running the process on new human hardware (aka newbies) is a given. Evolving the process to be pertinent to each subsequent season, climate or generation is an essential element of designing a long lived hobby. Is the process running? How does it need to change to keep running? How do we diversify risk? How do we survive shocks? How do we maintain a semblance of coherence?

All and all a fascinating problem. How do we build robust and adaptable human processes? That's a question at the heart of the design for every government, religion or human organization. Hobbies (and digital games) are an experimental opportunity.

Michael Pianta
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I think Tetris and Street Fighter might be the best examples of evergreen games I can think of. Street Fighter is an interesting case because it changes, and yet it doesn't. Other than graphically, the differences between Street Fighter 4 and Super Street Fighter 2 are fairly subtle. The fundamentals of the game (don't jump!) are basically constant. It reminds me of chess, which early on had lots of variations before finally settling on the version we're all familiar with. I wonder if the same thing won't happen to Street Fighter, where eventually a "perfect" version of the game emerges and basically persists unchanged for a long, long time.

Ilya Zarembsky
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My perspective is that of a guy who has long tried to have it both ways: I am both a grazer/wader/con[sumer|noisseur] and an "evergreen": I've played chess and poker for decades. If you'll forgive the facile and obvious analogy, the difference between the two is much like the difference between the life of the bachelor and that of the married man. Both have their advantages and disadvantages: the thrill of novelty, the pain of yearning for something less superficial and fleeting, the monotony and the companionship. In both cases, the anxiety that you're missing out on something better, whether a greater variety and intensity of experience, or a greater depth and security.

Ilya Zarembsky
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My sense, based more on my superior intuitive understanding of human nature than on familiarity with any specific "facts", is that you're wrong both about the past and the future: the proportion of evergreens has not decreased as much as you claim, nor will it increase in the future as much as you claim. Rather, both ways of engaging with games have always been and will long continue to be popular and commercially viable; they both, in different ways, serve the deep-seated psychological needs of large numbers of people.

Philip Minchin
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Thoughtful, and thought-provoking, post and comments. Thanks!

I think there's some very fertile ground between these two points, and part of my mission with the work I'm doing to promote games to libraries (especially public libraries) is to open that ground up. Rather than, like Ilya, seeing it as two competing impulses, I see it as the sweet spot that allows full exploration of the possibilities of the medium.

A reader can be a devotee of Austen/Shakespeare/Dostoevsky/Stephenson/Dunnett, and go back to their works repeatedly, but still enjoy reading the latest blockbuster - and can bring the fruits of a deep reading of Atwood to their shallow reading of Rowling, or vice versa. If you love literature, only reading Homer, Journey to the West, the Eddas, the Mahabharata or the Tain and ignoring everything that comes after is as much a waste as never reading any of the above.

Similarly, a gamer can delve deeply into the theory and/or mastery of a particular evergreen game, whether go, Werewolf/Mafia, Street Fighter, or (potentially) Minecraft, but still muck around with other stuff more superficially. I think both the general gamer community (which by now is pretty much the community at large) and the specialist game community are greatly enriched by it.

Which is why I agree with Ian that archiving is actually more important than we realise. Part of that "deep grazing", to coin a phrase, is the ability to go back and forth through the history of the medium: to read Shakespeare, Fielding, Austen, Dickens - not necessarily in order, but to at least encounter the sequence and understand how people build on (and demolish and reuse) what their predecessors made.

As the first generation of gamers and game designers die off in the next few decades, for the first time in human history we run the risk of having an artform which has been cut off from its roots. There are worse tragedies, I'll admit, but I do think it would be one. Similarly for the current extraordinary renaissance of the tabletop game, which has even less support for archiving efforts: in fact, a couple of years ago at PAX Prime Steve Jackson (the US one) told me that he had been in the habit of giving his local library of record a free copy of everything he made, but that they had recently told him to stop bothering!

If we love games, and want to share them with the future, it's time to realise that legacy matters, and to start persuading the institutions in our lives of that fact.

Amanda Lee Matthews
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It is not only digital hobbies with a high consume rate, and I was actually going to use knitting as an example, so it's quite funny to me that it was mentioned! I am both a knitter and a gamer, I participate in knitting social media, and am part of knitting communities both online and off (and there are quite a bit of other gamers in those communities, so I don't think the "OTHERS play..." comment is quite correct).

Knitting is quite like gaming when it comes to consuming. A knitter will knit many things. Some knitters knit only one type of thing, some knitters knit a wide variety of things. Different things obviously take different amounts of time to knit, so those that knit things that take a lower amount of time will knit more things. Gamers buy games, computer upgrades, etc. Knitters buy yarn, patterns, needles etc. My yarn collection (stash, we call them) is probably the only thing that takes up more room in my house than my video game collection (though if I had physical copies of all my digitally purchased games, that wouldn't be the case).

Cross-pollination between, say, sweater knitters and hat knitters is not rare. Cross-pollination between even knitters and crocheters is not rare (I'm both, for the record). Some people DO cross over; some never do, but we still share some common ground, on a daily basis. There pretty much is one true knitting and crochet community online, though that community has different subsets within it (for people that specialize, for people that happen to share another hobby as well - such as gamers that knit - etc.), we do come together in the main community, despite our differences.

I don't think hobbies like this are new. Obviously, the digital aspects are new, but for example the knitting communities I'm in have people from at least 3 generations participating. Books aren't new, and books as a hobby operates in quite the same way. I really think evergreen hobbies are anomaly, rather than a former rule.

(I'm also a gamer that loves farming sims...)


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