Living on a prayer: why the consumer games show is a quasi-religious experience

E3 Expo (Electronic Entertainment Exposition) at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, California on June 17, 2015

E3 Expo- one of the biggest churches in the religion of gaming

Our Father, who are into gaming. Halo be thy name. Thy Taken King come, by Just Cause 3 done. In Deus Ex, as it is in Hitman…

It might seem strange to start an article about consumer games show with a broadly blasphemous gaming themed version of the Lord’s prayer. But having attended Eurogamer Expo (EGX) and Gamescom this year, it’s pretty clear that the consumer game show isn’t about experiencing games anymore.

Instead, it’s changed into something bigger and different. And rather than being a circus or a festival, consumer games shows are now a quasi-religious experience for gaming fans where the faithful come to worship. It is something which events organisers need to foster and exhibitors need to adapt to if they’re to make the most of games shows in the coming years.

The good old days

Conventional wisdom in the industry is to look at these shows through the prism of the product release cycle. As The Summer Games Drought™ kicks in on console and PC, consumer gaming shows are meant to a) give the punters something to look forward to while they bore themselves to tears during July like going outside and b) to help drive excitement ahead of the festive release period.

And of course, consumer shows do precisely that. If you were fast enough to grab a day ticket to either EGX or Gamescom this year, you’ll have had the chance to play Destiny: The Taken King, Warhammer Total War, Just Cause 3, Star Wars Battlefront, FIFA, PES and literally dozens of other titles well before they’ve hit the shelves.

Attending a consumer show and getting to play the newest games first remains a badge of honour for many attendee. But when we say that you get to play these games, what do we actually mean? The answer is a little complicated and sits at the heart of why these shows are changing.

Disrupted play

When I think about playing a game, I think about so many factors beyond simply playing the damn thing. Like reading a good book on holiday or remembering a film you’ve watched that really worked in the cinema, the context in which you play a game shapes how meaningful an experience it is.

Even from the past year, I can think of ways in which the way I played shaped my thoughts on a game. I think about how Majora’s Mask on 3DS captivated me, taking my focus away from the living room I played the majority of it in (despite the small screen size of my oldest of the old device). I remember the time in Bangalore airport when I cracked open a reassuring Football Manager save to help reset my mind after a hectic work trip. And I think of the lights down, total focus approach I had with Journey and how that ensured its message really hit home with me.

But in comparison to those experiences, playing a game on the show floor of a consumer game show is a serious let down. Amidst the excitement of trying something new out is the nagging feeling that what you’re experiencing is a bit of a let down.

This is particularly the case for the paying punters. While the press, Youtubers and celebrities get to sit in a nice room behind the scenes and play away, people who’ve actually paid to attend the event get what can only be described as a raw deal.

After queuing for hours to play the one thing they want to play, the average consumer will get at most 15 minutes to experience a game in a poorly lit room – with sweaty headphones the only barrier to the world around. And then they’re bumped off barely a second after they’ve finished playing, left to shuffle off into the dark of the show floor to make sense of what they’ve just experienced.

At an event which is meant to be the gaming equivalent of a wine tasting in Bordeaux, most attendees are treated like free sample grabbers at the local Netto. And I’ll agree there are some understandable reasons for that, of course. The sheer number of attendees and the practicalities of managing such a horde, whether it is feeding them or preventing anarchy at the Battlefront screens, means a certain industrialisation of the process of allowing people to play games.

But truthfully, it isn’t an experience that I’d see as a great one for selling a product. For the individuals, groups of friends and families attending, a show that was just about the games would be a grim experience.

The lengthy queues, short play session and often uncomfortable show floor experience is not a nice environment in which to play games. And I can’t imagine that alone could ever be a driver for either ticket sales to the event or for the game itself anymore.

The show must go on

Which leads me nicely into why the religious experience has emerged surrounding the event. In amongst the familiarity of playing games has emerged the trappings of a game worshipping culture that encourages you to actively demonstrate your faith in the medium, while shuffling games out the limelight.

At EGX, which I’m simply using as an example because it happened last week and it is what I can remember, there was:

• A Fallout 4 mascot statue, which you’d receive a free mask for taking a selfie with.

• A cosplay arena to allow super fans to show off their outfits across four days.

• A Youtube Gaming stage, upon which the biggest games were shown off with the help of various industry personalities.

• The indie showcase area, where you could play dozens of games with nary a queue around.

• An opportunity to meet the Yogscast team and get stuff signed by them.

• Roving Darth Vaders and Tie Fighter pilots, with whom you could take your picture with.

• Merchandise stalls where you could buy t-shirts, figurines, games and just about anything else you could fancy.

To be honest, this list is simply the tip of the typical consumer games show iceberg. There was plenty more going on at EGX that I’ve simply expunged from my brain, probably because I hardly had any time to process what was going on.

And that to me is sort of the point. In the same way that Glastonbury is an all encompassing sensory overload that isn’t really about going to see musicians, a consumer games show isn’t really about going to see the games. It’s a ceremonial rite; an experience observed as a show of faith to the religion of the consumer gaming industry.

Even if the queues are so long that you only get to play one or two games, the major thing these shows encourage of its attendees is to prove they’ve taken part and been a part of the gaming congregation. And in that context, what matters more – playing games or loudly declaring faith? You can be a Christian without taking communion, or even without attending church. And I’d argue that at events like this, the fact you don’t need to play games to show your gaming devotion is a sign of fandom transforming into faith.

Prepare for the faithful

What are the implications of this shift towards games events as a ritual then? The main answer is that event organisers and displayers need to spend more time tapping into the trimmings of the experience.

Obviously, playable games still remain an important part of the experience. Having those unreleased titles remains an essential draw for many consumers and for the press who are looking for things to cover, with them acting as a reassuring and legitimising presence for the show to call upon.

The key though is for companies involved in these shows to foster the devotion of the faithful. For an organiser, this means allowing for fringe events, companies and experience providers into the tent. It means accepting that these shows have to go from being a thing that happens to being an “event” in the dramatic sense of the word.

Using the new games as the hook, organisers need to stoke the feeling that this is a “must attend” by constructing a schedule so over powering that people in attendance can only excitedly grab at fragments of it. Despite the experience of playing the games actually sucking somewhat, it doesn’t matter as much as creating the right atmosphere for the fans to show their fervour. Success for a consumer games show will be measured by whether those who come along proudly display their attendance and those who don’t apologise profoundly – creating routine to support ritual.

As for exhibitors, it’s essential for them to tap into the sensory overload the organisers need to create. In the same way that Catholic churches have always tended towards grandeur, even decadence, within its decoration as a way to stun the faithful, the packaging of an exhibition stand should aim to plant the power of the game, the company or the brand into the mind of attendees. Things that encourage people to photograph, film or simply bask in what you’re offering help to project that power of faith further down the line.

And if you’re reading this feeling deeply cynical or jaded right now, maybe you’re right to feel like that. However much I love games, I can’t help but feel sad that the act of playing them is becoming only one part of a wider culture powered by top down marketing rather than bottom up enthusiasm. All I can hope for is a splintering of the capitalism cult of faith away from this grandeur towards Lutheran or even Calvinism focus on the fundamentals, where experiencing the games becomes primal once again.

But that’s the world we live in and we have to adapt to. In the same way that John Lennon told George Martin ahead of the recording of For The Benefit of Mr Kite that he wanted to “smell the sawdust on the floor”, consumer games shows have to create the feel of a broader games culture at their event even if (like John Lennon) the people demanding it aren’t aware of how it is created. And in this instance, that culture is closer to religious in nature than many might realise.

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