Video Games and Society’s Hesitant Embrace

A feature I wrote for GamingExcellence.com, it even scored 130-degrees on the very popular N4G website!

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Video games and their consoles have progressed considerably since they first appeared as main-stream games in the 70s. Today, they’ve become so successful that they’re making more than enough money to compete with sales figures of the movie industry, yet they’re usually ignored in the general media unless there’s a big issue or an amazing new game achieves high sales and hype. With a perpetual increase in popularity to boot, why is society seemingly hesitant to embrace the video game industry?

There are some signs that acceptance has already happened, if not begun, through the existence of video game sections in stores like Wal-Mart and Toys R Us, as well as regular news outlets like the Globe and Mail incorporating game reviews in their written works. It’d be hard to avoid when you consider that, as GamingExcellence’s own Liana Kerzner (affectionately known as Liana K) states, “the kids of the Nintendo generation are now grown-ups, and the industry has grown with them.”

“There hasn’t been a real crash in the industry since 1983,” Kerzner continues, “which means a lengthy collective memory. Established franchises like Mortal Kombat have benefitted from this as well.”

Despite this long-term relationship with video games in the public eye, video game news continues to be mostly ignored by the general media and are left for online sites like our own GamingExcellence (GE) to take on the task.

“Games are still not seen as an accessible form of entertainment for a lot of people,” says Shawn Snider, owner of GE. “That’s still the fundamental thing that’s blocking them which has actually sprung up its own subculture of media, the gaming media.”

To reflect on that statement, a quick Google search of articles from the past year for “video games” will result with an extra 190-million hits/articles when compared to the same search for “movies.” Print-wise, when using world-newspapers.com, an annotated directory of world newspapers, magazines and news sites in English, “movies” had 29 publications versus a mere eight for “video games.” Even when searching the online database for our local paper, The Ottawa Citizen, “movies” had 437 results versus 73 for “video games.” Both searches include duplicates of the occasional article.

So what does this tell us? Regular media doesn’t necessarily care about video game news, but it’s not ignored altogether. Chris Moore, contributor to GE, believes it’s this way because, “In ‘regular’ media, it is not a general topic that people really care about. Working for a newspaper, I see what people really care about, and it’s not really about what new title is coming out and how good it will be. They care about local issues.”

Snider believes profitability can also be a part of the media outlet’s decision to include or omit a story. “The traditional media,” says Snider, “they don’t know who they are, they don’t care who they are because in the end it’s not going to sell papers for them. It’s not interesting to the general media or to the general interest of people; those are very niche topics that a small group of people are very interested in.”

This rings true when you consider regular media tends to focus on the extreme negative and positive sides of the effect of a game, rather than the game itself. This is why people will know that games like Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, a game where players embark on a journey as a Portal Master by controlling over 30 different characters including Spyro the dragon, have been hugely successful without knowing what the game is all about.

For those who don’t already know, Skylanders was one of the best-selling titles of the last holiday season, a unique title that allows players to collect various figurines in the real world and import them into the game, utilizing an included accessory known as the portal of power. While the ability to turn action figures into characters that you can interact with in a video game is quite amazing, surprisingly that wasn’t the focus of the media’s attention.

“The fascination is not on the game, it’s on the toy,” says Snider. “It’s on the collector’s edition of the toys and the fan-base that surrounds that. The same with stuff like Tamagotchis back in the day, the most popular thing. I think that if those toys were selling without the video game they’d still get the same amount of coverage.”

Because regular media tend to focus on results of a game, the industry itself has developed a “reputation” that may also contribute to the absence of media attention. Many have claimed over the years that games promote violence in kids and adults, blaming the games they play as influencers of their actions. This negative connotation has gone so far that several US congressmen are now considering a law requiring all video games to have a warning label, similar to cigarette packs, stating, “WARNING: Exposure to violent video games has been linked to aggressive behaviour.”

“I think that there is a misconception of video game violence for sure,” says Snider. “There are some games that are particularly violent but I’ve seen a lot of movies which are much much more graphic than anything I’ve ever seen in a video game, so I don’t really buy that. The thing is, video games still have not crossed the threshold into reality yet. There’s still not a video game out there that I said, ‘Wow, that looks absolutely real,’ with maybe the exception of Forza Motorsport (a driving game featuring realistically rendered cars). None of the games that do human interaction look real yet. When we get to that point, then that’s a totally different fate.”

Kerzner had similar thoughts on the subject, saying, “Concerns about violence are not limited to video games. If someone is going to be concerned about violent content, that will happen whether it’s in movies, TV, or games. When I was a kid, the wallpaper in my bedroom was a Cowboys and Indians theme. Now the idea of a girl’s room having wallpaper featuring cute little first nations people tied to cacti… Yeah, it just doesn’t happen. If violence were enough to keep gaming on the fringe, the doomsayers wouldn’t need these other bogeymen.”

So if it isn’t the video-games-equal-violence stigma, what else could be holding them back from mainstream acceptance?

“I think what’s holding back acceptance more is the idea that games ‘rot your brain’ the way TV or anything else that involves moving pictures is accused of doing,” says Kerzner. “There’s also the idea that video games make people fat.”

Yet with that argument, it makes one wonder, once again, why movies and those associated with them are featured more prominently than video games as a whole. You’ll hear about a supposed surgery a star underwent, or that Spielberg accomplished something extraordinary, yet you won’t necessarily know the lifestyles of the people involved in producing a game like Mass Effect 3 (a popular, sci-fi action role-playing video game trilogy developed by Edmonton’s Bioware studio.)

“Most high-profile names, with a few exceptions in the industry, are very introverted,” says Snider. “I think people know video game characters more than they do the people behind the scenes and I believe that to be true of pretty much any industry.”

“It isn’t anybody’s fault,” adds Moore, “there is no blame to toss around. There is plenty of information about it online for people to see and read, but only a few people perhaps actively keep up with the industry.”

But not everyone is inclined to proactively look for that information. Instead of having curious gamers research it themselves, why aren’t the names behind the creation of game titles featured in publicity and ads in the first place? “When you market something, you only have room for one message,” says Kerzner. “With gaming, however, you have to sell systems and games. Because there is so much information to convey in ads, creator names get lost.”

Judging from the global video game market value of $65-billion US from January through June
2011, compared to the $64.2-billion US in the movie industry covering all of 2011 (including online streaming and actual disc purchases), selling is definitely not the problem. Even with those comparable figures you won’t see a lot of gaming news in regular media, yet the numbers aren’t that surprising when you consider how much the industry has evolved.

“I personally think that’s the way it should be,” says Kerzner. “The video game industry, on the whole, has put out better products, has greater free market diversity and competition (for now), and takes more risks. However, those numbers, depending on the methodology behind them, can be misleading.”

Snider adds, “For every time somebody goes out and sees a movie, assuming the studio gets about $8, assume Activision takes home $50, or $54 to make it a more rounded number for what we’re trying to do, that essentially means that between 5 & 8 people have to see a movie for every person that plays a game.

“There are also genres within the video game industry, like the MMO genre, where there’s recurring revenue. You’ve got $10 a month times 10-million players, well that’s every month that you’re making large sums of money [that the movies don’t have]. Everything in a movie is effectively a one-off.”

Even as one-offs, movies still are more prominently featured than anything video game-related. A large part could be people’s willingness to re-watch a movie versus replaying a video game; both require a different level of commitment and movies tend to require a lot less.

“As a movie-goer,” says Snider, “I can sit down and watch a movie in two hours or less, typically, and that’s it, be done with it, never have to worry about it again. Games are much more committal; typically, in terms of time, it takes 6-8 hours to complete an average game. For me to play an eight-hour game twice that’s 16 hours potentially, or it could be 14 if you go through it a lot faster the second time. For me to watch a movie three times, that’s only six hours.”

Even with that commitment, however, Kerzner believes that “whether it’s Pac-Man or Angry Birds or Casablanca, a property has to capture the imagination to be replayable.” And with the calibre of games that have been emerging in the last few years, it’s hard for ones imagination to resist.

“With games like Mass Effect and Kingdoms of Amalur,” says Moore, “people will have different experiences by playing a different way and that is due highly in part to the choices the games offer you. At one point Commander Shepard (the player character in the Mass Effect series) can doom an entire race to extinction, or he can save it, and going further into the series it has a huge impact to the story. Movies don’t have that.”

Considering that more video games are incorporating into their gameplay cinematic scenes that you actively participate in, also known as QTEs (Quick-Time Events), one would wonder why they haven’t become equal, let alone surpassed the level of media attention movies achieve.

“I think they hit different audiences or different mental states,” says Snider. “When I want to sit and do something and I’m tired, I just sit down and watch a movie. Video games tend to require more focus, they require much more engagement. They’re a different mind-set, that’s really what it is. I can multi-task while watching movies, especially if I’ve seen it before. I’m not going to be able to do that while I’m playing a game.”

Since society is forever changing and upgrading itself, it makes it more difficult to consider whether video games will ever become more prevalent in all media. Many media outlets are migrating to online platforms as it is, causing traditional print media, such as the once-popular PC Gamer Magazine, to stop printing altogether so they can focus their efforts online. This move seems unavoidable,” Moore points out, since “the key age demographic perhaps isn’t picking up newspapers so the online industry should be the main thing for them to focus on.”

Even so, the sheer growth of coverage for video games by way of online sites like GE, and the popularity of the industry as a whole, is nothing to scoff at. With the help of current portable, internet-enabled technology like iPads and Android devices, the industry is leading to what Snider says is “a huge explosion in those markets.” There’s no denying that, while they may not be featured in the general media as often as you’d expect, video games are a definite part of today’s society.

“The video game industry is growing significantly and I’d say it has hit mainstream because of the amount of popularity,” says Snider. “Just from games like Call of Duty and the amount of money they pull in and the number of people that buy them. But in the same token, general print media is not interested in video games.”

“However,” adds Kerzner, “with maturation comes saturation, and some series, like Call of Duty, are starting to experience this.

“There is a lot of creative destruction going on underneath the surface of the industry’s successes, and that is going to have to be carefully managed to maintain ongoing industry health. We’re approaching a new console cycle in a wonky economy, and I think it’s important to keep some humility, and some of the ‘rock and roll’ of the industry that has led to its rise. If everyone gets too comfortable, we’re going to catch the rot from the movie and TV industries.”

When an entertainment industry has evolved to the point that they’re starting to “rot” like the TV and movie industries, there’s no doubt that there will come a time when gaming, as Moore puts it, “will generally become a ‘water cooler’ topic on everyone’s mind like how ‘Did you see the latest episode of Lost?’ was.”

Video games are quite prevalent in today’s society, regardless of what the regular media outlets choose to report. The “lack” of media attention is more than made up for through online video game sites like GE, and with the way society is turning to online media as a primary source of information, the video game industry may already have the edge for if and when media puts all their focus toward online content.

“As newspapers and magazines become more reliant on their online portion,” adds Kerzner, “they’re going to have to open up to the idea of including games in a more meaningful way.”

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to improve when it comes to gaming companies promoting themselves and their work.

“Those of us that do a weekly gaming segment are overburdened,” says Kerzner, “and we need information delivered to us in a way we can rapidly turn around. Video games are a very closed loop. If game companies became more open and more active, there would be mainstream reporting. We need those press releases!”

At the same time, realistic expectations are necessary for companies who issue out those press releases and review copies of video games.

“The industry is shooting itself in the foot by expecting that mainstream outlets will review gaming content 100% of the time a review copy is sent out,” continues Kerzner, “when the reality is that space is at a premium, and that’s a completely unfair expectation. The average mainstream journalist has at least two levels of management above them.”

In the end, society isn’t necessarily hesitant to embrace gaming culture; rather, the culture is emerging in a society that is rapidly evolving into one that focuses more toward online information. Considering that it’s the norm for people to own cell phones that access the internet, this comes as no surprise. What may be surprising, then, is that with the way media is going, video games may actually have a better advantage than anyone could’ve realized.

Ultimately, though the video game industry isn’t featured as prominently as one would expect in the general media, it’s undeniably a high contender in the entertainment world. With their large online presence and a perpetually growing fan-base, it seems that general media, though helpful to have coverage in, isn’t all that necessary for the industry to prevail. It’s already gotten this far without their help, who’s to say they need it now?

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