In every sound, the hidden silence sleeps. -Dejan Stojanovic
The Well-Red Mage has asked another monthly question, for August 2018: “What counts as a hidden gem, anyway?” The literal definition of a hidden gem is a good game that nobody else knows about. I myself published a list of hidden gem PlayStation racing games recently, but that wasn’t inspired by the question, it had actually been scheduled for quite some time. But the question isn’t asking for a definition (why would we need to discuss that?), but is instead asking for our own opinions on how to define such an ambiguous concept: how do I know a game is a hidden gem? I don’t know that nobody else has played it, and it would surely be impossible for that to be the case? Or at least, so unlikely that it may as well be impossible. Perhaps it’s measured by games that were financially unsuccessful? But something as simple as statistics doesn’t make for an interesting conversation, and would also render the question a moot point.
However, there is one response that I have to this: there are no hidden gems. At least, not anymore. We, as individuals, now exist in a digitised culture, in which anything and everything can be found online. In many ways, that’s a good thing, because the globalised dissemination and transmission of interests, lifestyles and art breaks down the boundaries that previously kept us apart. But, cynically, it also creates a filtering system in which all aspects of culture are converted to being the same: accessible and all knowable. Your special thing, the thing you do to escape everything else, is now open to all who wish to participate and criticise.
When it comes to video games, that’s led to the elimination of what were previously known as hidden gems. The retail industry basically doesn’t exist anymore. CeX is still making a profit, but that’s by selling second hand games cheaply. The rest of the UK’s major video game retail chains are in real trouble. Grainger Games ceased trading in March 2018. GAME entered administration. The company that purchased it had closed down Gamestation after acquiring it from Blockbuster – the video rental company that was reduced from being the international by-word for any video store to merely one branch as a result of unbeatable competition from streaming services and has thus become the definitive case for the obsolescence of physical media and its dying market. The most effective of these streaming services, at killing the video retail market, is Netflix, which itself began as a mail-order video rental company, before launching its streaming service in 2007 when paying for an Internet subscription became cheaper than the costs of returning rented DVDs through the mail. An article in Variety stated that, on average, 190, 000 customers cancel their subscriptions to Netflix’s DVD rental service every quarter – a trajectory that will see the service likely cease operations in 2022. And video games are no different: console-exclusive services like PlayStation Network and Xbox Live allow games to be be played as soon as they can be downloaded.
As a result, the consumer market is now almost entirely online, and that’s shifted the paradigm of retail: services now control their consumers. By creating their own profile for each service, they allow their viewing choices to be tracked and calculated into an algorithm that can be used to target them with exactly the right products that will keep them using the service. When members allow their recommendations to choose their next TV obsession, they’re reinforcing the feature by clarifying its effectiveness, as well as surrendering their desire to browse and choose. Thus, nothing is discovered anymore, lest it challenge our tastes.
The cloud has condensed, and so to have our interests. Ignorance is rewarded and called customer loyalty. We watch what we’re told to watch, because what we’re being told to watch is what we’ve already said we want to watch – and thus we rarely watch anything for the sake of the art. Popular media is that which attracts the lowest common denominators and can please as many people as possible. And anything else is forgotten.
Nothing needs to be discovered anymore, because nothing is hidden, it’s right there for everyone to find. But what is the cost? And to what end? What’s sacrificed along the way?
There’s no such thing as gamer culture anymore. Now, if you want to become a gamer, you can go online, look at a few YouTube videos, decide what games you like and what console you want, and make an investment in them. You can decide on a whim, and can have done it pretty much straight away. Before, becoming a gamer was a rewarding expedition; a friend or family member may have been a gamer, who could get you started with the right titles for newbies, and then you’d expand into reading gaming magazines, attending conventions and meet-ups and socialising at game stores. It was a process of integrating oneself into a subculture that was rewarding because it required effort and dedication. But now, it can be done overnight, with almost no thought required. And that is the death of something beautiful.
The Internet had the potential to enhance culture. Instead, the Internet has created a hall of mirrors around us, reflecting only what we already like. And it’s controlled by the subliminal hypnosis administered by the people we pay to sustain the illusion of choice.
Once upon a time, we had to work hard at exploring this consistent online open world we all inhabit, discovering its secrets for ourselves. But now that the strategy guide is a click away, it just isn’t fulfilling anymore.