Why are fans so attached to game company executives? Leigh Alexander examines the mockery and idolatry that surrounds the likes of Reggie Fils-Aime and Kaz Hirai at the outset of a new console war.
For serious video game fans, a console launch is akin to a Super Bowl, with that same shared cultural experience of anticipation, speculation, trash-talking and idolatry. The last one's a strange one, though -- game company execs often receive more fan attention and enjoy more instant recognition than anyone who actually develops games.
It's probable that there are more animated GIFs out there of Sony's Kaz Hirai than of anyone else in the industry, and that more people can cite the exec's flat-note enthusiasm for Ridge Racer at the PlayStation 3's announcement than most facts of his career. [See this insane mash-up of Hirai GIFs - Ed.]
At Nintendo events, president Reggie Fils-aime can sometimes be found high-fiving cheering fans, many of whom are over the moon just to get to see him in person after seasons of watching the big guy gamely manning his company's often-unflattering peripherals on big stages before hundreds. "My body is ready" (video above) became an internet meme recognizable even to those who never watched Fils-Aime act as a willing Wii Fit test subject way back in 2007 -- transcending even the video game community, eventually.
Thirst to personify the "suits"
Gamers fervently caricaturize big company executives, half reverently, half snarkily. It probably comes with the territory of being a face, a figurehead, a human shape to which the fortunes (or misfortunes) of a company can be ascribed. Games themselves are made by massive teams, and that probably breeds an understandable thirst to personify the hobby some way, any way.
But game development does produce the occasional "name" for fans to attach to, and yet the creators of the games these fans love don't become iconic in the same fashion. There's something there to do with fan interest in the business side of things that seems sort of disproportionate, and the motivation for that is a little murky.
There's a wide chasm between "games as a business" and "games as a form of entertainment people generally feel quite personally about." What's best for the business is often not what excites fans, and very few of us are genuinely interested in financial results or corporate movements. The enthusiast press has a spotty history when it comes to helping gamers understand the business side -- many players have been raised on a diet of headlines about numbers or layoffs without necessary context.
There's an understanding the "suits" matter, but the most visible execs are viewed in broad strokes: Either their single genius move will rescue the entire console industry as we know it (whether or not it is in peril!), or it will crush games and their fans along with them, a cruel betrayal worthy of years of humiliating soundbites and photoshops.
Fans may attach to fevered celebration and mockery of executive figures out of a desire to simplify a complicated business into winners and losers. That's probably a motivation for some of them, but that explanation underestimates how eager other fans are to understand and discuss the business nuances of the industry in detail.
Sometimes this community of armchair analysts is a gleeful fount of misinformation, but other times it's oddly adept, moreso than even some of the enthusiast outlets with their well-intentioned but mis-aimed headlines can be. Perhaps by making icons of industry execs, fans can feel like they're making their own calls, drawing their own conclusions and taking responsibility for being informed consumers.
We also have a heritage founded in mascot culture. Those of us who cover games now were raised by glossy magazines that embraced the cheerful competition of the first proper console wars. In those days the competitors were represented by iconic creatures: A hedgehog, a plumber, a caveman. Each had to get ever more "edgy," perform in ad campaigns in accordance with the rad-troublemaker aesthetic of the early 1990s.
Your average fans didn't have internet access to a two-hour executive stage presentation about the Genesis, they had a smug-looking Sonic the Hedgehog and some provocative tagline about what Sega could do that its rivals couldn't. That brassy attitude to competition rankled. Kids picked sides, and yelled at each other across the playground about who was better. Bereft of real facts to make their case, they often invented some.
We were kids then. Yet lots of us grew up and thoughtlessly bequeathed this half-baked attitude to the figureheads of business competition onto our modern audiences. The mascot age is over, at least in that incarnation, but fans have shifted that idolatry and score-keeping onto executives, who are the closest thing to "faces" that modern consoles can have.
And they're funny faces, too. Nothing reminds us of the difference between the made-for-TV presenter culture we're acclimated to in the media and the often-awkward tech industry than seeing games people in bright lights and high definition (the slightly-awkward uniform pose of Bungie's team made Kotaku headlines and spawned a good-natured meme). Games presentations are exceptionally easy to snapshot and riff on.
It isn't terribly unnatural for passionate players to attach deeply to the fortunes of a hardware platform, to personalize it and ascribe values to it that they may or may not relate to. That happens in all kinds of hardware competitions -- currently lots of mobile ad campaigns rely on making fun of the iPhone loyalist's unshakeable faith in Apple, even when offered ostensibly better specifications.
Lifestyle devices of any kind -- things we use every day, see as gateways to an experience it's important to us to own and control -- inspire obsession. For gamers, the canonization of executives is one major expression of their long-term relationship with a platform, the sort we've learned to nurture since we were young.
Game developers who inspire the most recognition are also responsible for a "platform" of their own, even if not a physical one. Any developer that inspires recognition, controversy and adulation can be seen to represent an idea space that some people feel a kinship to while others reject.
Watching the culture-cluster around execs can be enlightening, too -- seeing years of derisive Hirai GIFs give way to hyperbolic superhero GIFs assembles a telling, even touching narrative of fans' deep investment in the platform he represents. Ultimately it comes from a good place.