Gaming and the Election 5: American and Global Economic Problems

So. Obama won. The Republicans got routed. But what does that mean?

Okay. It means a lot. It means an awful lot. Since my wheelhouse is supposed to be “the intersection of politics and gaming”, though, it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at what it means for gamingSo I’ve put together a short series speculating on how the Democratic triumph (which, honestly, is what it was) is going to change and/or be reflected in the future course of gaming.

Now we get to the economy. Prepare for many words…but nowhere near enough. I’m still thinking about doing a big Nightmare Mode feature about this issue.

5) Remember Clinton? It’s still the economy, stupid.

Identity issues are important. But the big lesson of the election may well be that the economy is universal. The only reason why it was even as close as it was had to do with dissatisfaction with the economy; the Republicans lament that social conservative outbursts made it less and less likely that people would vote for them as time went on. The economic conservatives in the Republican coalition are furious that an election that they saw as a “gimme” turned into a rout.

Whether that’s true or not, the fact is that the American economy just isn’t doing well right now. That’s very slowly changing, but there’s a lot of reason to believe that it’s going to be very slow indeed. More than that, it’s going to be uneven; there’s a gap growing between the wealthiest Americans and the “99%”, and that gap isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s also not just an American phenomenon; doldrums are happening in pretty much every part of the world that isn’t directly pumping out oil.

The results of the election may help with that, but they probably won’t. The president has something resembling a mandate, but the House is still controlled by a Republican party that owes its control of the chamber to the Tea Partiers. All of the other issues and recrimination is only likely to redouble their commitment to financial and economic conservatism, which means that any sort of stimulus is unlikely. In fact, if the “fiscal cliff” isn’t averted, America could be staring down a second recession. The only way that that will be averted, unfortunately, is with the kind of revenue-generating tax increases that the modern Republican party simply cannot accept. So things aren’t looking promising.

(That’s not a figurative “cannot”. That’s literal. If any of them try they’ll get destroyed in the only elections that worry them in a Gerrymandered house: Republican primary battles. Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge hasn’t gone anywhere.)

How does that affect gaming? Well, gaming is expensive. Really expensive. For all that publishers regularly whinge about the cost of production, the simple fact is that laying out sixty-plus for a five- to six-hour-long game with maybe two hours of truly engaging content is almost ludicrously pricey in a world where consumers are facing huge financial challenges. Why do you think so many PC and mobile games are free-to-play? “Free” is about all that users can afford!

(And, please, don’t go on about how they can afford smartphones and PCs. Being willing to lay out ten times the cost of a game for a device that has a thousand times the utility and entertainment value isn’t hypocrisy, it’s financial sanity. Besides, most smartphones are bought using plans.)

Gaming, as a hobby and as an industry, requires a strong, healthy, prosperous middle class. Even the free-to-play games require “whales” that are willing and able to outlay significant sums to make up for all those free players. Some might be wealthy, but I suspect that the truly wealthy aren’t likely to be spending their time playing F2P games in the first place. No, many F2P players are going to be middle-class people who are willing to fork out for something they or their children love. Nothing wrong with that…but they have to be able to do it first.

That’s the reason why console gaming is having a tough time. It’s not really about budgets and whatnot. It’s not about a lack of innovation. It’s actually straightforward: people aren’t going to be able to buy new consoles or many new games. When they DO buy new games, they’re very conservative, so they tend to pay for  tried-and-true franchises and  accessible, multiplayer-focused games that can add a tremendous amount of value to their purchase.

You wonder why Call of Duty sells well to the “core” audience each year? It’s a series they know, it’s got predictable gameplay they generally like, and it’s got a gigantic and reliable multiplayer community that generally includes their friends. The better question is why it wouldn’t sell under those conditions. It’s all network effects and path dependency.

Sure, consoles still sell. But it isn’t necessarily for gaming. They’re becoming convenient Netflix Boxes, and Netflix’s monthly-fee model is one of those models that DOES make sense in a recession-strapped economy filled with people who are trying to stretch their dollars. That doesn’t even help console manufacturers; a Netflix Box ain’t one that’s paying them those sweet, sweet platform royalties. Frankly, if the economy doesn’t change, things look pretty dire.

If things turn around and American incomes even out a bit more, then things might be different. Dedicated consoles and dedicated console-style AA or AAA games are worthwhile, and the price to create them is only going to go down as the tools become more and more accessible. Not every genre or game can or should be an el-cheapo mobile-style game or a social F2P game. There’s still hope, but only if these trends reverse.

As to whether they will…well, it really depends on whether or not everything remains deadlocked. A complete victory for either Romney or Obama could have changed things. I believe that Romney’s plan would have changed everything for the worse, but at least it would be a change. As it is, American government is still divided; there’s still going to be a House controlled by Republicans that owe their jobs to the tea partiers and serve at the far right’s pleasure, arrayed against a Senate and White House controlled by emboldened Democrats.

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