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PC Gaming Is Only Hard If You Let It Be

When I sat down to write this column, I was angry. Angry at Emanuel Maiberg for writing his Motherboard story “PC Gaming Is Still Way Too Hard,” angry at ExtremeTech’s Joel Hruska for taking it more seriously than I felt it deserved in his response yesterday, angry at myself for wasting my valuable time on what read to me as, at best, a rabid, whining screed.

As I thought about it more, however, my rage was replaced by something else: pity. Because, in his attempt to address what he perceives as problems with the PC gaming industry, Maiberg revealed just how little he cares about—and, in fact, understands—a hobby I’ve long held dear.

To the extent it’s discernible beneath his faux indignation, Maiberg’s point seems to be that PC gaming is too hard because it calls for some work. Unless you don’t want to do any work, in which case then it becomes too hard because it’s too expensive. In other words, Maiberg wants to game on a PC but do so without lifting a finger or laying out any money—which would make it unlike practically any other pastime that exists.

Having been building computers partially or totally since 1987, and having built all of my personal computers exclusively for the last 20 years, I believe I can say with some authority (and thus agreeing with both Maiberg and Joel) that PC building is easier than it’s ever been. Aside from what Joel mentioned in his story, these days you don’t even need a screwdriver to do most things—you can use thumb screws to open the case, and install nearly every part (except the motherboard) using a variety of increasingly clever and capable tool-free systems. You still need to connect the various cables and wires, but spending a few seconds looking at the manual will give you all the necessary guidance. What you don’t need to do is start sweating geysers because you hear something you don’t expect while installing your Intel processor—a procedure that’s next to impossible to botch. (It’s infinitely easier to bend the pins on an AMD chip, but it takes only a couple of minutes of work to bend them back if it happens. Which it won’t if you pay the slightest attention.)

The “most difficult” part of building a system is indeed shopping for the parts, because of the wide variety that ensures there is something to appeal to everyone, with every kind of budget, who may be looking. But sorting through this is as straightforward as zipping over to Newegg, plugging in a couple of preferences and specifications, and discovering exactly the hardware that’s best for you. You will need to compare a few names and numbers, and make sure some key elements coordinate (such as the processor and the motherboard socket, the motherboard’s and the case’s form factors, the strength of the power supply relative to the other pieces), but—and this is the key—if you’re sufficiently enterprising, it is, at best, a trivial matter.

That’s what this is ultimately about. Building your own computer is not the passive activity for which Maiberg apparently yearns. It requires that you ask yourself questions about what you’re doing (how much money you can spend, how much power you want, how long you intend to keep the computer, and so on), and then adjust your purchases based on your answers. But this is not tough. This is the same procedure you should follow when you’re buying anything, from a new car to clothes to groceries. Remember, you are tailoring a product to your unique tastes, not trusting other people to do it for you.

The idea that this process should demand no thought, no consideration, no choice-making at all isn’t just absurd—it’s offensive. This is the very ethos on which the entire computer industry was founded and which, for much of its first three decades, underlay even the home PC segment. You were getting a device that could solve your problems, educate your children, entertain you in myriad ways, and be everything else you wanted—if you would take a minimum of ownership over the journey to the destination.

Apple has almost always offered the alternative of wonderful things if only you give up that control and submit to the will of someone who would never meet you, know you, or care about you. Is it a viable option? Sure. But to pretend, as Maiberg does, that it’s instantly preferable is missing the point more than a blind seamstress sifting through a haystack for her lost chenille: There’s a reason essentially no one thinks of Apples as serious gaming computers, and this is it. When someone wants to own a portion of your soul, whether you want the best, second-best, or third-best video card—to say nothing of memory, sound, and (ha!) expandability—is immaterial. It’s not Apple’s goal, and the company assumes (not without some justification) that it’s not its customers’ goal, either.

Many vendors, whether of the boutique (Maingear, Digital Storm, Falcon Northwest) or mainstream (Dell, HP) variety, offer premade PCs that can get around these problems—except, yes, you do have to pay, and yes, more than if you buy a console. These computers can do much more than a console, of course, and can game with much better-looking graphics and dazzlingly higher resolutions, something that serious players will appreciate. If you have the money but not the patience, these are good ways to go—and, if you explore the boutique route, chances are you’re getting a system built by real, flesh-and-blood enthusiasts who live and breathe this stuff the way some people do movies or baseball. To my mind, that’s worth paying for.

What you lose, though, is the soul-kissing sense of satisfaction that really makes building your own PC worthwhile. If you dedicate yourself, if you take the time, and if you proceed carefully and cautiously, building your own PC won’t just be survivable, it will be joyful. Maybe it will take a few hours, but it will be worth it. And when you’re finished, your computer will do everything you want, in exactly the way you want it, for precisely the price you’re willing to pay—something that can never be said about a machine from Apple or any other manufacturer. And it will deliver an unmatchable thrill every time you turn it on, because it exists because of you and you can upgrade it, downgrade it, or change it in any way, at your merest whim.

For true PC builders, this is what’s important, and why they’re willing to spend more time and more money: They want their investment to mean something, and that promise, that significance, is renewed with every new component and every new game in a way simply cannot occur with a PlayStation or Xbox (both of which are afflicted with inferior graphics compared with what you’ll get from the better PC video cards, by the way).

That’s the key, though: You have to do it for the right reasons, whether because you love games and want them to be the best they can be, because you want to create something from a pile of metal, because you just want to take control over your life, or because of anything else real. But if you think none of this matters—as Maiberg, judging from his writing, does not—then sure, immersing yourself in it is going to be hard. But if you approach it as an activity worthy of respect rather than grunting derision, and something with an outcome that’s capable of transcending mere numbers, then it will be a snap.

Perhaps someday Maiberg will realize this and give this storied, productive, and valuable pursuit the due it deserves. I sincerely hope he is able to open his eyes and his heart and see it as I do. Maybe PC gaming and PC building require a little more patience than doing nothing, but what you must expend is but a fraction of the bounty you get in return. But sitting back and letting others make my computer and gaming decisions for me, when complete control is forever just inches away from my grasp? Now that’s hard.

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