This is the first in an 11-part series. A new installment will run each weekday until the conclusion.
Why are online game discussions so contentious? Why are Joystiq commenters and NeoGAF boarders so apt to substitute chest-beating and mud-slinging for substantive debate? The easy answer is the dismissive one -- that gamers are socially stunted men-children who have been conditioned by years of fragging to consider every online interaction a fight to the death. But that can't be true of everyone. I don't think anyone who ever has shared an opinion about games online would put themselves in this category, and we can't all be wrong. (Can we?)
I think the answer is more prosaic. I think the rancor stems from a lack of understanding. Playing a game, even a multiplayer game, is a singular and subjective experience. No two players will experience a game the same way, even one as rigorously linear as, say, Half-Life 2. It's not simply a matter of interpreting the events differently, as it might be when discussing a movie. As a participant, your unpredictable actions and style of play are what determine the end product.
Continue with the example of Half-Life 2: if you spend your time trying to find new and creative ways to exploit the gravity gun, then you'll have a vastly different experience than somebody who sticks with the more familiar firearms. Your proclivities determine equally how you respond to a game, and how you affect the game. We may be talking about a particular title, but in a very real sense, we're not talking about the same thing at all. What we lack is the vocabulary to bridge that gap.
By "vocabulary," I don't mean words about the games themselves; rather, we don't have a workable idea of the different kinds of game players out there, and that makes it difficult to establish a conversational framework. I don't want to just slap labels on people or pigeonhole them, but I think it's important that we make an attempt to better understand the people we're talking and playing with -- and ourselves, too. Because when we talk about games, we're really talking about the people who play them.
Next: Hardcore? Casual? Hardcasual?