I Love Age of Empires II

Kaavya Jha on the evolution of gaming and identifying as a “gamer”

I Love Age of Empires II

28 May 2018

Confessing my guilty pleasure—the 1999 video game Age of Empires II—always elicits one of two distinct responses. Mild confusion from those who haven’t heard of the computer game, or nostalgic enthusiasm from those who have. However, even the latter group becomes lost as I elaborate: rather than playing myself, I prefer to watch professionals stream their gameplay.

Regardless of my friends’ reaction, I always backtrack with a defensive, “Haha, it’s not like I’m not a gamer or anything though!” Perhaps this rather unusual preference for watching video games rather than participating myself is the reason I am so hesitant to define myself as a gamer, despite checking into the online AOEII community several times a week. The term “gamer” feels loaded, conjuring stereotypes of dude teens hunched over consoles in basements, covered in hot Cheetos dust and hurling insults at strangers through headsets. Definitely not in line with my turtleneck-wearing, G&T-sipping, Instagram-feed-filled-with-brunch-pics self.

The word “gamer” acts as more than a label for a person who plays video games. Self-identification as a gamer means taking on a shared identity with other members of the gaming community. (Let’s not even start on the terrible creature otherwise known as the “gamer girl”.) Sometimes, it might not be up to an individual to decide whether they are allowed to use this self-definition, as it often feels as if there are a set of unspoken prerequisites needed in order to earn the title. My reluctance to call myself a gamer is based on these two things: that I don’t match the perceived stereotype, and that my interest in Age of Empires II is too casual, or too unspoken-about in my social life for me to qualify to join the gaming community.

Like all industries based on forms of media and entertainment, the gaming industry is subject to trends and fads which typically arise from technological advancements. Age of Empires II is classified as an RTS (real-time strategy) game, in which players build up a civilisation and army, focusing on both economic and military advancements to win. The golden days of the RTS genre were the late ‘90s and early 2000s, a period in which low-waisted jeans and Gwen Stefani reigned supreme—and, perhaps more relevantly, the computer was the premiere platform for gaming. PC games were most popular because, at the time, they were technologically supreme. Before that, the popular games were from the era of arcades and Street Fighter. As the internet became a thing, people were attracted to the potential to play against others across the world, or at least across their regional servers with the rise of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). Nowadays, first-person shooter games are the most popular genre across all consoles, such as Xbox, PlayStation, and even mobile with the rise of global sensation Fortnite. The free-to-play game, in which 100 players are pitted against each other in a battle royale, has broken out of gaming subculture and into mainstream popular culture. Now, when I hear mentions of Fortnite, it is no longer limited to discussions among serious gamers, but referenced casually in dating profiles (shout-out to ‘UniMelb Love Letters’) and witty Instagram captions.

Even celebrities like Drake and Post Malone are getting on board the Fortnite hype, sharing their gameplay alongside full-time gamers like Ninja. Even as the individual players and games gain widespread popularity, their platform for doing so, Twitch, remains relatively unmentioned in pop-culture discourse, despite the site attracting over 100 million monthly unique users.

But I digress. Let’s get back to my love, Age of Empires II.

Twitch has enabled a new wave of interaction with video games by allowing you to easily watch other people play your favourite games. In my case, this goes a step further, as, due to the complexity of competitive Age of Empires strategy, I prefer to watch professional commentators, with a handful of people across the world able to make a full-time living off casting AOEII. Like a soccer match being shown on a TV channel, these accounts switch between the player’s multiple perspectives and angles, blurring the line between the nature of sports and esports. AOEII casters also offer post-tournament interviews with players as well as professional insights into the significance of seemingly minor decisions—for instance, at eight minutes into the game, having two lumber camps for cutting wood instead of one can indicate that the player will attack with scout cavalry instead of archers in the Feudal Age.

While the most popular esports such as Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends—the tournaments of which had a combined prize pool of almost $70 million in 2017—require lightning-fast reflexes and manual dexterity, the often-slow pace of Age of Empires II is what engages its wide range of casual players who come back again and again years after their introduction to the game.

Nonetheless, professional AOEII players can reach an APM (actions per minute) of over 400 (which is very speedy). My confused play-style is much slower, most likely due to the fact that playing requires a lot of clicks and I don’t own a computer mouse.

When attempting to quantify figures about gaming and gamers, frequency measures are the most factor for distinguishing a gamer. “How often do you play games?” is a much better suited for statistics than “How does gaming influence your social identity?” or “How do you engage with the broader gaming community?” The first question ultimately creates a self-prescribed label that is too one-dimensional and doesn’t incorporate the rise in the popularity of streaming. The term “gamer” should be allowed to encapsulate nuanced and multidimensional bonds between an individual and a game.

Despite not currently filling stadiums like other competitive video games, the Age of Empires II scene is growing as people reconnect with their nostalgic memories of the game from their childhood. Videos of matches between experts and community members often garner hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

The 19-year history of AOEII is littered with many monumental moments, from selling over two million copies within a month of its original release—and then its high-definition re-release on Steam selling almost five million copies—to the $140,000 prize pool for a tournament in 2014.

Age of Empires has been there to capture some of my favourite moments of my 19 years, too.

Like many people my age, I was introduced to the game by older family members and I spent countless summer afternoons in my childhood playing against my dad, sitting at the dining room table, with him in the study. When I was losing, which was practically every game, I’d sneak behind him and spy on his screen to see what he was up to.

In grade 12, someone passed the game around on a USB, leading to my entire economics class playing AOEII in the library during revision lessons. We’d brush past people in younger grades on account of “being seniors with important study to do”, and then laugh as we loaded up the game screen, nestled together secretly between the looming shelves of textbooks.

We didn’t care about who won or who lost, the novelty of being able to reconnect with a less stressful time was enough.

I remember stopping by a friend’s apartment after a night out to drunkenly play (sorry for lowering your multiplayer rating).

In a few years, Microsoft will be out with Age of Empires IV, hopefully bringing the RTS genre back into the spotlight in the gaming community. In a few years, the label of “gamer” will probably (hopefully?) lose its stigma as gaming merges into popular culture.

Until then, catch me procrastinating on my pre-tutorial worksheets by watching some random Norwegian dudes battle it out in a game of medieval siege at 2am. Yikes.

Art by Rebecca Fowler

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