The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: PC’s

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Before we begin …

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide Podcast! The latest episode is has 411Mania’s own Sean Garmer. We talk raising girls in gaming, how far the industry has come for ladies, and how far it has yet to go.

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I was on a podcast about raising kids with ADHD. Give it a listen. It was good stuff, and Tina was a lovely host.

This week’s business.

Here in the USA, the states in the geographic middle of the continent are less-than-affectionately known as “fly-over states”. The Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, they’re known for being rural farmland, devoid of high-profile tourist attractions, diverse culture, or notable landscape. California has oceans and massive cities full of culture and things to see. New York has New York City, which sells itself one way or the other. Louisiana has New Orleans. Florida has humidity, gators and filing for a second mortgage to see where a large cartoon rat lives.

In Washington D.C., you can visit the American Museum of Assholes.

But to treat these states like Halloween III is unfair. They’ll never be sexy destinations like the coastal states, but they’re not Fallout-style desolate wastelands. Nebraska has a renowned zoo that ranks among the best in breeding endangered species back from the brink. South Dakota has amazing scenery in the hills and mountains, as well as Mt. Rushmore, a marvel of engineering and design by way of explosives, which is as American as you get. North Dakota turned an old Minuteman missile silo into a museum, which … is a choice. Not sure I’m thinking my next family vacation needs to include a staging site for a WMD, but hey, you do you, North Dakota. There’s something to be seen and done everywhere, if you look hard enough.

Like the PC gaming market.

Once upon a time, PC gaming (and arcades) led the way. Consoles has exclusives, but PC gaming was where you found prestige titles. It was the “adult” gaming platform. Nintendo had Mario jumping on turtles; PC’s had RPG’s like Ultima, and narrative-driven games like Loom. It’s been a while, though, since PC gaming set the tone. Consoles have gotten to the point where they’re producing frame rates and graphical effects on par with a PC. Keyboard-and-mouse support is now available, taking away that as an exclusive feature. That’s not to say PC’s don’t have some advantages, but the ensuing years have exposed some flaws. The gaps between the platforms have narrowed.

Yeah, the years sure have exposed some flaws, alright. Like “enjoying” a twelve-pack of PBR every three days.

Parents gots to know what the ups and downs are here when their kid asks for a PC, especially parents who aren’t familiar with the wild world of PC gaming. That’s what we’re doing today in the fourth and final edition of our platform deep-dives.

Hardware

PC gamers will swear their biggest advantage over consoles market is hardware flexibility. Components can be upgraded at will to give their PC more juice. This is an undeniable truth; beyond expanding storage space, consoles are a WYSIWYG proposition. With a PC, though, everything can get a boost; processing power, RAM, monitors, sound card, everything. You can adjust settings to your preferences in ways consoles can’t touch. Frankenstein’s Monster wasn’t as customizable.

That versatility extends to the hardware’s purpose. As much as Microsoft tried to convince you the the X-Box One could be your all-in-one entertainment hub, nobody buys a console to replace anything besides the previous generation’s console. If you don’t already have a Roku or streaming stick, your TV has internet connectivity. Using a console for browsing the internet is the worst idea since someone combined the words “starring” and “Tommy Wiseau”. A PC, meanwhile, can do multiple things because that’s its design. A PC can run Fortnite, but it can also be used for homework. It doesn’t guarantee the homework will turn out good, though.

Well, now you tell me.

Now here’s the other side of those points. Being DESIGNED to do multiple things, and being ABLE to do multiple things well are not the same. There’s a wide gulf between the specs needed to run Google Docs and what’s needed to play the latest Halo game. You can pick up a $300 laptop and it’ll perform basic functions without compromise. Try to run Far Cry 5 on it, and it’ll drag like a carriage pulled by a half-dozen asthmatic Chihuahuas. If you, as a parent, want to get your kids a PC that’ll do both, you aren’t getting away with the Wal-Mart special. You don’t have to go all out and get one of those $2000 machines with the motherboard cooled by mountain spring water and internal neon spelling out “Ninja>Pewdiepie” in Elvish script, but you will be spending more money than you want to.

And that brings us back to upgrading. PC enthusiasts swear it’s so easy, that updates aren’t all that common, and I know the comment section will fill up with statements to the same. And if you think I came here without receipts, you haven’t been reading me very long.

Let’s use graphics cards as an example. Between 2018 and 2019, Nvidia released NINE different PC graphics cards in the GeForce 20 line. That’s ONE LINE of their product. The GeForce 16 series had FIVE releases also in 2019. The GeForce 30 series will have released SEVEN between last year and the end of this. THAT’S TWENTY-FUCKING-ONE GRAPHICS CARDS IN THREE YEARS. I’m no PC pro, but I’m no idiot either, and my eyes want to leap out of my skull and roll under the bureau looking at all these options. That is too many options for Joe Averageparent. If you want to stay on the bleeding edge, you’re in a constant (and costly) state of buying new hardware. Even if you pare it down to one in each series, we’re still looking at annual releases to stay current. That may be fine for fetishists, but for your average parent, even ones with a modicum of tech savvy, this is an unwanted headache that doesn’t exist with a console.

Who knew they were training us since childhood for this onslaught of choices.

What’s worse is game devs know this and have, on occasion, exploited it. I’m not putting on the tinfoil hat here and declaring a conspiracy, but I will say that, in my tenure working for Software Etc. back in the late 90’s, I saw more than one occasion where a hardware-pushing game came out at the same time as hardware that fulfilled that game’s requirements. Quake and Crysis are just two examples of games developed to require the upper limits of available technology at the time, pushing people who wanted to play those games without issue to upgrade.

Now, you may be able to get away with cheapo hardware when a kid is younger. My littlest has a hand-me-down laptop from his grandparents. I’m pretty sure it’s old enough that it runs on steam. Its boot time is measured in epochs. But once it’s up, it plays Roblox good enough, and that’s all he cares about. My fifteen year olds? They know their laptops are slower than the sloth from Zootopia. They see top-of-the-line PC’s on YouTube and lust for them more than girls. I can’t pawn off the Sam’s Club $400 clearance special on them. That’d be a paperweight before it got out of the box.

Ever wanted to see Doom Eternal play like Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties?

Maintenance

This is one area where it is not arguable that PC’s are inferior to consoles. There is no argument. None. Maintaining a console is not a thing. They issue OS updates, they get downloaded and installed, the end. You don’t need malware programs or antivirus scanners, because that’s not how consoles work.

You ever watch a kid do something online like download a program? It’s like watching a desperate man agreeing to terms with a loan shark; it’s just “yes” to everything so they can get the hell out of there. They blow through the EULA and all the boxes, saying yes to everything without reading it. That PC is gonna have a bigger virus load than Earth did in The Stand. I installed malware and spyware sweepers, firewalls and antivirus programs on my kids’ laptops after they’d had them a few months. When I did the initial run, I got back so many hits on malware and garbage, I expected to get a message like Strong Bad telling me “COMPUTER OVER, VIRUS=VERY YES”. Unless you either pay for the subscriptions so they run automatically, or you’re personally on top of their laptops, your kids will NEVER take the time to maintain their PC. Ever. Trust me. Look at the condition of your kid’s room right now. Unless you have a Stepford child, it looks like it needs FEMA to step in. That’s how they’ll treat their computer.

Going online

Like hardware, this is a BIG plus/minus situation. Where you fall on the spectrum is driven by personal preference.

With the exception of a small number of open-access games, or very specific online options within a game (Nier: Automata‘s harvesting of the corpses of other players, wrestling games’ create-a-wrestler community downloads), console gaming online requires paying for an annual subscription. They all sweeten the pot with “free” access to a pool of games and other “benefits”, but in the end, you’re still paying on top of what you pay for your ISP and the game. It feels downright punitive. Never mind that what they offer as a bonus for subscribers can really push the boundaries of the word.

With premier titles like Eliminator Boat Duel, it’s a bargain at twice the price!

With PC gaming, the equation is reversed. MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft have a monthly fee, but your Call of Duty‘s and Valorant‘s only cost for the program itself (and sometimes, like Fortnite‘d battle royale mode, not even that). If I need to explain to you the cost savings benefit of free vs. not free, you’ve got bigger problems than child-rearing. Surviving basic daily functions, for instance.

But with a gated online community comes stricter oversight from a singular entity. I’m not going to try and sell you that the services governed by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are online Eden. That’s such a preposterous idea, I think I won’t stop laughing until I use up all our oxygen and Earth ends up like planet Spaceball. I documented my week playing Fortnite on PS4, and it was far from a G-rated experience. But with consoles, you know to whom you can report bad actors, and those features are baked into the console in an intuitive way. PC gaming’s decentralized structure turns the concept of reporting someone into a game of blindfolded whack-a-mole for the unfamiliar. If I got a game through Steam, and some eleven year old from Manitoba told me what y mother does with a watermelon, a nine iron, and a pitbull, do I report it to the dev or to Steam? What if you’re a die-hard physical media lover and get a PC game hard-copy (which I legit didn’t know was an option until I searched for a game on Amazon)? What if it’s an open-source gaming platform like Roblox, where the games are created by users? Again, I’m sure the comments section will light up with easy explanations, but the issue isn’t whether or not I know. This is about kids and parents, some of whom may be walking in blind. It’s just not as intuitive on PC as it is on a console.

The PC’s versatility also comes back to haunt us here in another way: any user has a LOT of ways to reach out and be a schmuck that don’t exist on a console. On a PS4/5, for example, there’s voice chat and the half-assed messaging system. On PC, you can have browsers or other clients open with Twitch, Facebook, Instagram, Discord, YouTube, Skype, Zoom, Twitter, and Snapchat, all exposing you or your youngster to the internet’s best and brightest. And not all of them have strict content guidelines that are monitored real-time, or take prompt action when an infraction is reported. They’re all sorts of open doors through which your kid can stumble into something you don’t want them to hear or see.

I’d rather my kids stumble onto Belle Delphine’s OnlyFans than see THIS.

And that brings us to our last part.

Games

In sheer volume, PC’s have consoles beat, hands down. Thanks to everybody but Microsoft treating their back catalog like a steak at a vegan cookout, playing old console games is problematic at best. Anything before the PS3/360 era isn’t designed for HDMI and hi-def TV’s, resulting in a muddy picture that gets stretched out to fill the screen that distorts the graphics. Light gun games are right out the window, as they require CRT televisions. And then there’s the cost; a Sega Saturn will run you anywhere from $120 to $300, depending on the model. Not all older systems are expensive – check between your couch cushions, you should find an NES or a Sega Genesis – but if they aren’t, games will be. Earthbound has gone for as much as $1000 LOOSE; a sealed-in-box copy once went for $4000. Even Contra, a game as ubiquitous as dirt when it came out, goes for over $30 loose.

Enjoying games from any era is not a problem on PC. Between Steam, Epic, and Microsoft’s store, you’ve got every major release you can think of and an ocean of indie titles. GOG has a breathtaking repository of old PC games, all the way back to DOS, and you don’t have to muck about with patches and compatibility modes. PS Now and Game Pass are available on PC, too, so even modern console gaming can be accessed. And that’s not mentioning the legal gray area of emulation, where you can go as far back as the Magnavox Odyssey, as obscure as the WonderSwan, or as who-the-hell-asked-for-this weird as the Virtual Boy.

It’s-a me, a cease-and-desist order!

When the worst thing you can say about a platform’s volume of games is the potential for paradox of choice, well, what a time to be alive, eh? Except that’s not entirely true. PC gaming DOES have its quibbles.

PC ports of console games have a hit-and-miss track record. And I’m not talking the hilarious garbage you’d see in the 80’s, like Mega Man on DOS, where they re-imagine the game after taking a whole page of blotter and program it with their feet. I’m talking modern stuff coming out as broken as Big Rigs. Nier: Automata had random freezing, frame rate and resolution issues. Watch underscore Dogs had frame rate drops into the single digits, and a corrupted save data bug that liked to make you start at the beginning. Resident Evil 4 was a port of the PS2 version, which was a port of the GameCube version. If you watched Multiplicity, you know the problem with copies of copies. And do I need to mention Batman: Arkham Knight?

Who among us hasn’t wanted to step into the branches of the Maple Crusader?

Then there’s the preferences within the PC market itself. Every platform has their more successful niches, and PC gaming is no different. That’s not to say there aren’t options for all kinds of games. But PC’s niche has been, and continues to be, games like first person shooters, RTS games, MOBA’s, MMORPG’s, and sim/management games like Football Manager. Arcade-style games, platformers, fighting games, sports, shmups, these just don’t have as big an audience on PC. If your kid is looking for them, they’ve got a deep, deep library to dig through, and they may not find some of the more well-known tent-poles of the genres.

And that brings me back to the massive library and its downside. Unlike a console, a PC isn’t a closed ecosystem with a one entity deciding what games get on the marketplace. Anybody with a concept, a dream, and several thousand dollars to waste can pick up Unity and a 3D modeler and a few other programs and begin to make their dream a reality. On a PC, there is little in the way of true gate-keeping to prevent shovelware or worse, A game called Abstractism got onto Steam and was available for four months before a YouTuber exposed it as a crypto-currency miner in disguise. Steam’s parent company, Valve, had no clue, and never would have without that gamer’s video. Hell, thanks to the modding community, even AAA titles aren’t immune to hijacking, as a cheating mod for Call Of Duty: Warzone was also a secret crypto-miner. This doesn’t happen with consoles, as there’s too many hoops to jump through; you need a dev kit, you need approval by the console manufacturer as an official developer, and so on. It isn’t a perfect system, but there’s enough hurdles to keep shady characters from shitting out something lousy to nab a quick buck from unsuspecting rubes.

Still more functional than Arkham Knight on PC.

Because of the lack of full (or any?) oversight, Steam and Epic are bursting at the seams with low-quality, low-cost shovelware at a horrifying volume. 2020 saw 10,263 games released on Steam. X-Box One and PS4 have had 5965 games released combined in their entire life-cycle. Anybody looking at that mountain of options is going to go insane; now think of the average kid, or a parent with minimal gaming knowledge. It’s an environment designed for an uneducated gamer to pour money down the toilet. And you can’t rely on user reviews to help you, not when users treat them like a joke and bomb reviews for personal reasons, or mark up bad games out of hipster irony.

Final thoughts

This series of columns was never meant to pass judgment, and I hope, in your eyes, dear reader, that I’ve maintained that neutrality. I wanted to closely examine the four major gaming platforms, highlighting their features and faults, for parents everywhere. Of the three, X-Box and PC’s were my least familiar, and I learned something in the course of my writing and research. I got a buddy who is a proud proclaimed member of the PC Master Race, and we jokingly jab at each other over what way of gaming is better.

What I learned doing this is that there is no “better”. PC gaming is like the three consoles; good for some, bad for others. I wouldn’t get a PC for gaming for a nine year old. That’d be sheer lunacy. I wouldn’t get a PC if the gaming preferences of the recipient favored certain genres that seem more prolific on console. But I also recognize that there are genres that don’t work on consoles. Online gaming feels like an island, and doesn’t require shelling out more money, although the potential exposure to jackasses is higher. I can play a game on PC and monopolize the TV. But a PC also has to be safeguarded against malcontents in ways consoles don’t.

It’s pros and cons and personal taste. I know that, beyond TIE Fighter and the occasional dabble in EWR, I’m not a PC gamer. Consoles fit my life better. But I can see draw of PC’s. There is no “better” way to game. There is no “best” platform for gaming. Just the best for you.

I stand corrected.

And in closing …

If you listen to the podcast, sound off below. I’d like to see what kind of listenership I’m getting from here. And if you haven’t, tell me why not, and what might get you to tune in or even subscribe.

No set plan on the next edition. Time will tell. See you in 2.





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