Taking the Game out of the Hobby

. . . or, Old School versus New School

So we all know there’s been a lot of opinion posts in the blogosphere of late.

I’m talking about all the attention-grabbing discussions of fluff versus competitive, whether 40k should be a sport or a hobby, etc.  What these posts have in common is that they normally don’t say anything new, and they don’t actually contribute to anyone’s gaming or hobby life.  Why then do they keep popping up?  Certainly, some people love arguing and insulting strangers on the internet, but I think mostly it’s because people care about these issues, and feel uneasy that they aren’t being resolved.

Why is that?  Well, I have an idea about what causes this growing rift in the community.  As far as I know no-one has ever said this directly before, but it seems kind of obvious once you think about it.  I know I’m a pretty long-winded blogger, so if you lack patience then you can er . . . stop reading at the jump, and I’ll give you the gist now:

Games Workshop’s history spans several generations of players, and these generation’s attitudes to the hobby are opposed. Roughly, the older generations (and GW themselves) see the flagship games as a complete, traditional hobby.  The younger, and growing majority of gamers see it as a game first and foremost.  In terms of the nine gamer mentalities, the dominant approach to GW games in the past has been immersive, but among the growing majority of younger players it is now for fun. These two viewpoints conflict and can’t be reconciled, and the debate will only end when either the new school gamers abandon the hobby or the old school hobbyists stop playing the game.

If you’re still with me, I’ll explain further.

Every generation has a different attitude from the previous generations to pretty much everything.  When it comes to GW games we have a situation where ten year-olds, teenagers, twenty and thirty-somethings, and even the odd middle-aged or older person all play the game.  Each of these groups has a different way of looking at the world and gaming, and in the case of adult players they often have a long personal history with the game and the way it was played in the past.

How does this relate to the endless repetitive clashes of opinion we’re always reading about?  Simple.  Games Workshop’s flagship games have always been made and marketed as a hobby – a complicated past-time that involves modeling, painting, army planning and actual gaming.  The thing is, the world of gaming has changed since the turn of the millenium.  Truly competitive games (for example Collectible Card Games and First Person Shooters) have become really common in the last few years.

In the minds of most players aged from roughly their twenties and down, a competitive game is any game where there is a clear winner and loser, and the aim of the game is to get better at it.  People don’t normally play Call of Duty: Black Ops to recreate being a CIA agent in the 1960’s, or Magic: The Gathering to pretend they’re a wizard or whatever.  That’s just the window-dressing. They play the same way they play sports on weekends – in a spirit of friendly (but serious) competition.

A team of super-cool professional gamers. They even have haircuts.

I’m painting in broad strokes here, and I know there are exceptions, but people of the younger generations know a competitive game when they see one, and they see one at the heart of the GW “hobby.”  They don’t (again, there are exceptions) really hear GW’s pitch about the game being just one part of the larger hobby.  They see all that as just the window-dressing and go straight for the game.

That’s the real source of all these moves to make 40k like a sport.  That’s the reason people don’t want painting scores to affect tournament rankings, and they don’t want composition scores at all.  It’s a competitive game right?  It’s about war after all. And the people who are good at it want all the bullshit minimized when they meet up for serious gaming.  Ultimately (although they may not realize it themselves) they want to separate the game from the hobby that it is presented as a part of.

Some traditional hobby enthusiasts. Note the lack of killer instinct. And haircuts.

Older gamers on the other hand probably grew up with the GW hobby back before competitive gaming was common.  They don’t see the game of 40k as a self-contained core you can take out of the 40k hobby.

The hobby, to these older gamers, is just that – a hobby.  A by-definition non-competitive activity made up of painting, modeling, recreating the background, and of course playing the game.

To these old-school players, 40k is not a competitive game like any other, dressed up with some neat sci-fi background, where the aim is to get good at it.  It’s something else.  It’s a method for bringing the background to life so you feel like you’re building and painting all these little guys for a reason.  They know this is true because it was true back when they learned the hobby, and Games Workshop still claims it’s true now.

It's the way we look at things that makes all the difference.

The problem, and the reason I reckon these debates are so passionate and will never end, is that neither viewpoint is right, because both are just ways of looking at something, not facts.  The only fact is that GW makes models and prints rules and sells them to you.  Oh, and they assume you’ll take them in the spirit they’ve always presented them, i.e. immersive play, because they are kind of a backwards company and the world has changed around them.

Here in the blog community when we talk about this issue we usually say something like “everyone can play however they like, there’s room for both kinds in the community.”  I hate to be a downer, but I don’t think this is true at all.  I  can only see this ending one way or the other.  In my experience whatever the majority of players want in an area, that’s what sorts of games you’ll find.  So with the internet connecting everyone these days and travel being easier, I think one view will eventually become the dominant one in 40k culture.

At the moment (because of history) it’s casual play, but that could easily change once a tipping point is reached.  I just can’t see the GW hobby fragmenting successfully though, as the game simply can’t stand on it’s own merits without the rest of the hobby.  Competitive players often say that cries of “the game isn’t designed to be competitive” are a cop-out, but I disagree.  It clearly isn’t designed to be competitive in the sense they mean, and the design studio has to seriously change their attitude for competitive 40k to really be an option.

Where do I stand?  I’d be lying if I said that the idea of 40k as a competitive sport appealed to me.  If I wanted that I’d play Magic.  I also think that the competitive players should perhaps be careful what they wish for.  If real respect and money came to be attached to the 40k scene, a lot of the top players now would suddenly be facing real competition, not the hordes of casual players they currently smash through.  I know what it’s like being a grown man with responsibilities competing against young adults who have nothing in their life but mastering your game.  It’s really hard!

I’d like to say I’m an old school games workshop hobbyist and I don’t want my game to turn into a competitive nightmare, but really . . . I’m not going to fight any wars over it.  I’ll just keep painting my models, and if the scene gets too intense I’ll stop playing, except against like-minded friends.

I’ve had more than 20 years of 40k.  I think that’s a pretty good run.

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7 responses to “Taking the Game out of the Hobby

  • Dorrie Bly

    On the other hand, time has shown that those games that promote a super ‘competitive’ environment tend to drive away potential casual players and become dominated by a small hardcore elite. If you were a company selling product, would you want to corner yourself into an increasingly hard to please niche, or would you rather cast your net wide?

    Look at Magic the Gathering. In the 90s it was huge, now it’s… just okay, and I’ll bet their demographics are uncomfortably lopsided toward die-hards near their 30s. The exact opposite approach has been taken by Blizzard with World of Warcraft, which is constantly making things easier and more user friendly for casual players. For years the more competitive WoW players have been raging and predicting doom, and yet WoW is still top of the pops, outselling their competition by about a million per cent. One suspects that maybe they might be doing something right.

    I don’t think the younger generation is as you describe it at all. It’s just easy to mistake the loudest mouths for the majority, especially because very few bother to go online just to say ‘I’m quite happy with the way things are’. It’s usually the ones screaming ‘Aargh! I am not pleased and the world must know!’ But that doesn’t mean the other 90 per cent aren’t out there.

  • James S

    Fair point, and thanks for commenting. It’s always dangerous to generalize, and maybe I generalized too much. I hope I didn’t come across as thinking that gamers under 30 are overly-competitive jerks, because I don’t think that at all and I didn’t mean it to sound like that.

    I do think it’s fair to say though that gamer culture today is driven by perfectionism, and I’m not just talking wargaming, I’m talking online video games, the whole lot. I’m in my 30s, but I game with friends in their 20s and encounter people much younger online when gaming. The majority are there to have fun (rather than be a prick), but for most of them “having fun,” to a large extent means getting better at the game.

    That’s not the case with me and most other gamers I know who started out with the GW hobby years ago. To us, “having fun” means messing about with our carefully built and painted models. The perfectionism comes in at the hobby level, not so much the gaming.

    I want to emphasize that I don’t think anyone’s right, and I really don’t want to come off as some old dude criticizing the “kids of today.” It’s just a change in gamer culture, which is inevitable over such a long time.

    And I agree with you. I don’t think GW will change their games to be competitive, that would be a stupid move business-wise. Your comparison of WoW versus Magic is a good one. I mostly wanted to point out where the competitive gamer mindset leads when we apply it to GW games: the game is separated from the hobby. And that’s definitely not what GW wants . . .

  • Von

    I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with separating the game from the hobby. I consider them to be integral in my own Warhammerings, possibly because while quite young I’ve been playing GW games for long enough to remember the fully-integrated unpainted-models-are-a-sin days – but I wouldn’t dream of forcing paint onto people who don’t paint or demanding that people put their beautiful collections on the gaming table. Admittedly, I think the latter’s a bit weird, but I don’t really like purely ornamental things in any context, so that’s me rather than my perspective.

    I also feel that there are quite a few people my age who remember when GW games were full of cards and tokens, when a non-hobbyist gamer was a filthy tinboy and not to be trusted, and who have moved beyond that mindset and now see competitive gaming as an end in its own right. Rather than clinging to How The Hobby Was When They Were Lads, they’ve directed themselves towards developing it as a competition.

    Mind you, I see where you’re coming from; those older lads trying to push towards a bright and competitive future are likely to run into this

  • James S

    That cartoon is gold.

    And you’re right about there being older competitive players – in fact they probably drive the new school. Every scene has it’s elders, and the competitive shift definitely has older players who’ve converted. It’s easy to understand. After playing for so long you come to want something different.

    And yeah . . . I too wouldn’t force someone to paint. More because I just don’t care how other people spend their time than out of a concern for their freedom or whatever. I do think though that, especially in the case of GW games, if you minimize the hobby aspect you’re missing out on the main feature. I’m a bit baffled as to why someone who wanted a competitive game with minimized hobby would pick a GW game, unless it was the only choice in their area.

    It’s an example I’ve used before elsewhere, but imagine a competitive 40k player who uses a famously effective list rather than building one themselves through trial and error, then pays someone to build and paint their army.

    Now I don’t care if someone wants to do that, they can knock themselves out and I’ll happily play them. I do think though that it’s a bizarre way to choose to spend your time and money, when other games out there are ready made with little-to-no hobby potential (e.g pre-painted games and video-games).

    Paperhammer makes far more sense if that’s what you want from a game. It’s only the scorn of loud-mouth traditional hobbyists that keeps many competitive players from realizing this I think, and keeps them buying models and slogging through the painting, hating every minute of it.

  • rjkwahoo

    Competitive game play has its place, but it should not be the defining meaning of the GW game systems.

    Where I play the competitive mindset is dominating the entire scene. ( I call it Tournament-Hammer.) In my 25 years of playing this game, I have never seen such a bunch of self absorbed, self congratulating power gamers as this new bunch of GW gamers. These guys would try and make “tic-tac-toe” into the next e-sport complete with “prize support”, if they could get away with it. I kid you not: one fella from the competitive group claimed that, “…too much terrain gets in the way of my tanks…[ and terrain]…should not be the deciding factor in a [table top] wargame”. So yes, as disgruntled “long-beard” of this hobby, some of these kids need to go back to the magic card game, or whatever video game is all the rage these days.

    When I started this hobby, the army lists were sparse or non-existent, the game play hinged on the creativity of the players and not the game designers. As times changed so have the players; the newer players demand to be entertained like they are watching a TV show. So yes, I can stomach some competitive tournament play, as it helps get the new blood into the game, but I refuse to let the competitive players dominate the entire hobby.

  • James S

    Thanks for commenting rjkwahoo. I’ve never experienced anything like that level of competition – I’m Australian and our tournament scene is dominated by an old-school “all rounder” mentality of painting, playing and sportsmanship. I have no doubt though that this is because we are a pretty isolated country, and the amount of competitive talk coming from the internet is bound to influence future generations of our players.

    I’ve been playing for a pretty long time (not quite as long as you). But even I have trouble remembering a time when army lists were optional and meant for those people who wanted to take it to the next level of competitiveness. That’s interesting.

  • The Inner Geek

    I’m a little late on this topic, but I want to thank you for writing it. I feel slightly less old now… or at least not so alone in oldness. I have a two year old son, and I’m seriously thinking of teaching him to play Rogue Trader when he’s old enough. Maybe I can convince him that it’s the newest edition available for a few years… probably not, damn internet!

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