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Video Games

Don’t take video games seriously? You should. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that’s played by more people than you think

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-01-28


You probably think you can spot a video or computer game player a mile off.

He’s male, for one. He’s also probably not old enough to get into a bar yet. That woman in her early 30s who lives down the street from you? That family man with a responsible job? No way.

Well, you’re wrong. According to the Entertainment Software Association, an organization that tracks trends and sales in the video and computer game industry, the number of adults who play video and computer games is impressive, and growing steadily every year. For 2002, the last year that complete figures are available, the average age of a video and computer game player was 29. And nearly 40% of all video and computer gamers are women.

If you think about it, this should come as no big surprise. People have been plugging Pong into their TV sets since the mid 70s, and it has been more than 20 years since the first huge video game explosion, when millions of teens from every background and every interest packed the mall video arcades or crouched around the Atari at home playing Asteroids or Pac-Man. Those people are now well into their 30s or 40s, with kids and families of their own.

“At least two generations have grown up with computer technology as a very central part of their lives,” says Doug Lowenstein, President of the Entertainment Software Association.

But the perception with many people is that video games are made for, targeted at, and played by spotty, adolescent, pizza-stuffed boys between 10 – 17.

“I would say that’s the perception in certain segments of the population, particularly people over 50, “ says Lowenstein, who is in his 50s. “Certainly, if you look at mass media, cultural critics, many politicians, people who have grown up with more traditional forms of entertainment — that segment of the population has a very outdated view of the audience of video games, whereas if you talk to people in 20s and 30s, they are quite aware of the fact that many of their peers play video games.”

The explosive growth of the video and computer game industry has led some pundits to declare it bigger than the film industry. “The video game industry is growing at a faster rate than the movie industry, but it’s not bigger,“ says Lowenstein. “Let me tell you where you get those numbers. I don’t know exactly what the official motion picture box office is from 2003. Assume it’s around $9 billion, $9.5 billion. If you take total game sales this year, $7.5 billion, then add total hardware sales to that, you’re probably looking at another $2 or $3 billion. Add that to the software sales, and you’re around $10 – $11 billion.” But Lowenstein points out that those box office figures don’t take into account licensing, syndication, DVD sales and rentals, and all the other things that put the film industry well ahead. He does say, however, that it’s a useful number comparison for showing how huge the video game industry really is.

To some hard-core video game aficionados, the street date for certain popular titles is as anticipated — and preceded with as much hype — as any potential Hollywood blockbuster. The key to the appeal, and not just for the hard-core fans, is that video games are the only form of entertainment that allows you to interact and control the experience. To draw yet another parallel with the film industry, the authorial control of video games could be a reason that films based on video games have met with almost universal critical derision and, with the exception of the Tomb Raider movies, indifferent box office. What’s the fun of passively watching something you could be virtually living?

If you can’t imagine your child’s 30-something math teacher spending her evenings blasting a bloody path through hordes of zombie cannibals or offing rival mafia dons to establish herself as head of an international crime cartel, well, that’s because she’s probably not. The sometimes bloody first-person “shooters” get a lot of attention, mostly from cultural critics decrying their impact on impressionable youth, but in reality they make up a very small percentage of the games bought in the US. According to the ESA, sports games, racing games, and strategy games make up a far greater share of the video and computer game market. She could be playing Mario. She could be playing an electronic version of Jeopardy. She could be playing (PLEASE INSERT SOMETHING APPROPRIATE HERE) on her PDA or cellular telephone. Most people who play video games don’t play the first-person shooters and some of the action games that fuel a perception of the medium as violent and the industry itself as irresponsible. Far more of the top-selling games are rated “E” (suitable for Everyone) or “T” (suitable for Teens and up) than “M” (for Mature, meaning 17+).

The ESA seems to take the stance that, much like the film industry, some video and computer games have elements that simply aren’t suitable for every audience. “83% of the time, parents are involved in the purchase of games,” Lowenstein says. “Those are the people that should be doing the monitoring.” Lowenstein sees the perception of video games as violent as changing overtime. “There will always be games that push the boundaries,” says Lowenstein. “I think that as more and more of the opinion makers, news editors, television producers, members of Congress — as more of them emerge as people who grew up playing games, I think you’ll have a significant reduction of the hand-ringing that you tend to get today.”

But what about the perception of video games as essentially juvenile and self-indulgent activity? Rusel Demaria is the co-author of the comprehensive High Score: The illustrated history of electronic games. For anyone interested in the evolution of electronic gaming, the personalities behind groundbreaking games such as (SOMETHING APPROPRIATE), or just want to get some sort of perspective on the phenomenon, Demaria’s lavishly illustrated book is a feast for the brain and the eyes. While the “hand-wringing” over video games may gradually die away, Demaria doesn’t see that other type of video-game snobbery as changing anytime soon. “Basically, video games are a trivial pursuit,” he says. “They’re seen as trivial, violent, a waste of time. People don’t understand why someone would spend the time to play them. It’s non-productive.”

Demaria has written about the video and computer game industry since the early 80s, and has been playing video games since Spacewar in the 60s. He concedes that these days, adults may not be as embarrassed as they once were to be “caught” carrying around a computer gaming magazine. But still… “If I saw a game magazine in, say, a lawyer’s office, I’d be intrigued and interested, but I’d also kind of wonder about it. Don’t they have something better to do than playing these silly games?”

Silly games? From a guy who has been participating in and enjoying the electronic game industry practically since its inception, the description may seem a little dismissive — in fact, it may sound like the very video game snobbery that irks a lot of people. However, as Demaria describes it, video games have a long way to go before they’re considered the equal of the best movies, television, or fiction. “Storyline-wise, there are very few games that can cause me emotional response, that can absorb me in the character in the way that a good movie or good book can. They haven’t reached that standard for me.”

But do people want those kind of things in a game? “I don’t know. Games are great at hooking people in various ways — competition, role-playing, identifying with a character, puzzle-solving. But I think games tend to be simplistic morally, and I think they rely on violence a lot.”

When Demaria bemoans some video games’ reliance on violence, it’s not as one of the hand-wringers Lowenstein describes. Rather, Demaria sees it as creative stagnation among the developers of video games, the result of people being unwilling to take a chance. It’s another area in which the video game industry — in this case, unfortunately — resembles the film industry. The success of a certain kind of game breeds imitation, and that, combined with the staggering amount of money it takes to develop a game (as much as $20 - $25 million) means developers are less willing to take chances on a non-proven property. “I believe games can be made that have all the elements that make them successful and good, and still have more socially redeeming elements in them.”

Still, if Demaria seems a little hesitant about the state of the video game as an art form, he’s very clear on its appeal. The ability of some of the more advanced role-playing or action/adventure games to construct an entire world and totally immerse a player within it is unequalled by any other form of entertainment. “You become involved in the process while playing games,” says Demaria. “You become associated with that character. There’s a tremendous amount of focus. If a book is well written, you want to turn the next page or read the next chapter. A good game works the same way — it propels you forward to the next event, the next challenge.”

Lowenstein agrees, adding that video and computer games offer something that traditional, passive forms of entertainment can’t approach. “There is not a producer, director, or writer who is deciding how things will start and finish,” says Lowenstein. “You are the author, obviously within certain broad parameters. There is that level of authorial control that I think uniquely appeals to people who are growing up with technology and interactivity, who are comfortable with this technology and see it as their own.”

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