Whenever I stroll into a Barnes & Noble (feeling like a secret agent as I scan non-fiction books that I’ll later purchase from a digital store), I always find myself stumbling into the science fiction section. It’s like a city I pass through but never stay in; not foreign, but not familiar. All the book covers look the same to me. All the premises read similarly. I enjoy science fiction games, movies, and TV shows, but deciding what book to read here is intimidating. I don’t want to choose something I wouldn’t like, and I don’t want to accidentally pass up a great read.

And so, I conclude this ritual as per usual, leaving empty-handed, and retreat to my native, non-fiction lands.

Similarly, I might stroll on through Gamestop like I would at Barnes & Noble. What’s different is that nothing is foreign to me here. No matter if it’s consoles, handhelds or PC games, I know every title on the shelves. I can deftly tune my eyes to titles that are the most interesting or the best reviewed. I could be a store expert, recommending parents to look beyond Call of Duty (like their kid might have asked for) and into something more unique and emotionally stimulating, like Journey.

But, to a casual gamer who made their way into a Gamestop, how would they know what games they would enjoy the most? How would they know what hidden gems to seek out? They wouldn’t be unlike me in the science fiction books section – lost and confused.

I’d certainly appreciate the perspective of someone very familiar with science fiction books. I’d want them to show me which novels are the most interesting, and which weren’t worth my time. In short, I need someone who has “good taste” in this field.

Everyone has “that thing” they’re really into; that passion they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and exploring. Maybe it’s music, or perhaps cooking, or even science fiction novels. For me, its video games. I’ve invested countless hours playing games on all platforms, in all genres, from all developers – for my entire life. And I’ve spent just as much time reading about upcoming games, game reviews, and game analyses. It’s a topic dear to my heart, and has brought me, my friends, and my family a lot of joy.

As a result, I feel that all of my time and energy has earned me a small sense of authority on the subject of games; a sense of “good taste.” According to Webster, “taste” is defined as: “becoming acquainted with by experience.”

Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t celebrate taste in gaming the way it rewards other tastemakers. Wine lovers are perceived as sophisticated beings with superior pallets. Art lovers are looked upon as intelligent individuals with a scholarly appreciation for paintings. As for gamers? Our culture usually frowns at us. Our taste isn’t important. We must have nothing better to do. We’re missing out on what life has to offer.

Since when does knowing which wine is “best” makes you any more sophisticated than someone’s explanation of the genius game mechanics in Portal? Why does a film critic praising Argo have more merit than a game critic illustrating how Minecraft provides emergent narratives?

Games are a young medium, and have really only been around since the 1980s. It might not be immediately apparent why games deserve an equal footing with other important tastes. But defending the legitimacy of games is a topic in and of itself. So, for our purposes of “taste,” let’s think about this in terms of time.

In a study published by the NPD Research Group in 2010, the average gamer in the US spent 13 hours a week playing games, although it wasn’t uncommon to find people playing as much as 40 to 48 hours per week. This study is conducted annually, and each year the average time spent playing games has gone up in almost every category. Clearly, based on time investment alone, much of our culture has signaled it cares about games.

And this is why “tastemakers” in gaming are more important than ever. Video games are evolving rapidly, and more and more people of all backgrounds are eager to play. Experienced gamers will be sought after for their good taste; assisting people, like how I needed guidance with science fiction books.

Take, for instance, a casual gamer picking up two specific games at GameStop, and learning about them for the first time. The first is The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games, and the other, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, by Terminal Reality. The former is a game-of-the-year title that revolutionizes the way stories are told in games. The latter is a bottom-of-the-barrel shooter that was thoroughly panned by critics. The former has a rich cast of original characters not connected to the TV show and comic of the same name. The latter is a sloppy cash-in, riding off of the TV show’s accolades.

Yet, to this unsuspecting gamer, how would she or he know the difference? They haven’t poured through gaming sites and read reviews of each title. They haven’t seen blogs and forum posts praising one game and berating the other. Instead, they’re going to make a guess based on what’s in front of them. And if they happen to like The Walking Dead TV show, or maybe shooter games, then they’ll likely, unfortunately, make a purchase they might regret. And, soured by that experience, they’ll likely avoid any Walking Dead game thereafter, and miss out on the greatness they could have went with.

Let me make this clear – there aren’t any “right or wrong” choices here. I’m sure there’s a community that sincerely enjoyed their romp through Survival Instinct. And I’m sure plenty of gamers have played through Telltale’s adventure and couldn’t see why it left many in cathartic tears.

But let me reiterate – “good taste” shouldn’t necessarily govern what people should and shouldn’t enjoy. It’s not a definitive set of standards. And it’s certainly not free from preferences and different points of view. Taste is a guide, not a rule.

For example, I recognize Metroid Prime as a crowning achievement in gaming. I think it has a beautiful art style, inventive game mechanics, an awe-inspiring sense of ambience, and I admire how it successfully brings a side-scrolling game into the first-person perspective. But can you get me to finish it? Never (even though I try every few years). I recognize that DOTA 2 can be a thoroughly strategic and highly competitive game. But after spending dozens of hours trying to learn it, I can’t help but feel Starcraft 2 is a more satisfying experience for me.

Likewise, I know many gamers with extremely good taste who find Final Fantasy VII to be highly overrated. That’s fine, because I think it’s a timeless staple of gaming. It’s true that many gamers think Beyond: Two Souls has awkward controls and lacks a cohesive story. But I believe the female protagonist, character performances, and art direction completely outweigh all the negative points. Tastes clash, and nothing is black and white. But, more often than not, taste carries unspoken principles that the tastemakers follow. Gamers seeking experiences of all kinds will develop that strong sense of taste. They’ll nimbly discover innovative and abstract games that challenge the medium, like The Stanley Parable (Editor’s note: read David R.’s amazing Stanley Parable review here). They’ll relish perfectly-polished platformers outside of Mario games, and cry tears of joy playing Rayman Legends. And they’ll understand how Telltale’s Walking Dead is a landmark for storytelling in games (and why it’s probably best to pass on Survival Instinct’s take on things).

If you’re a lifelong gamer, who is always expanding their pallet, take pride in it! You’ve worked hard honing your craft. You’ve commanded armies in real-time strategy games, gone on epic adventures in role playing games, heightened your reflexes in first-person shooters, and explored personal interactive journeys in indie games. Your experience has turned you into the tastemaker that can provide an expert perspective to other hungry gamers looking to dive deeper.

With video games being such a young medium, we’re only starting to look more closely at the positive qualities they have on our society. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves to take our taste in games seriously. Because, someday, it will be a given that gamers sit equally among wine-tasters, art-scholars, and book-lovers as important, necessary tastemakers of culture.

About The Author

Devin is a lifelong gamer, and host/creator of the radio show "The Curious Gamer." This show discuss the design, culture, and joy of video games, and is meant to inspire serious dialogue around the medium for non-gamers and gamers alike. (www.thecuriousgamer.org). Devin is also the creative director for a video company called PictoMoto, which makes animated explainer videos to visualize products, services, and ideas (www.pictomoto.tv).

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