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Editorial - 'It’s A Funny Old Game'

by Ben Parfitt on July 5, 2004 @ 2:06 a.m. PDT

It seems that at the moment the video games industry is desperate to be accepted as mainstream. Not that all gamers want gaming to become mainstream, not at all; the industry has grown phenomenally in last two decades and is worth untold amounts of money. But that’s why the industry craves recognition. It’s run by moneymen, and the money men realise that if they can get gaming as accepted as say movies or music, then every household in the developed world becomes a potential customer.

Yet despite craving this transformation, the video games industry boasts many anomalies that you won’t find in other industries. Whenever a relatively new technology emerges it’s always greeted with a certain level of resistance. When the moving image arrived people’s immediate reaction was to say that it would never replace the theatre. Of course, in time it did but not without a whole lot of resistance from those whose interest it was to preserve the theatre.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that in time gaming will become totally mainstream. One day I’m sure it will be as common for your average punter to play a game as it is for them to watch a movie or read a book. Yet as always happens, gaming has been fraught with controversy since the day it grew beyond the confines of research labs and began making its way into homes. It’s been widely publicised that the lads responsible for the Columbine tragedy were avid players of Doom. Grand Theft Auto has been blamed for all matter of murders over there in the States. It’s all nonsense of course. People have been killing people since the dawn of mankind, way before gaming or horror films or whatever else you care to make scapegoat.

If there is one reason why gaming could in theory be more logically linked to violent acts it’s this; reading a book or watching a film is a passive experience. You can sit on your sofa and watch Norman Bates knife that girl in the shower, but you’re not in any way involved. Norman will murder no matter what you do and there’s nothing to stop you disapproving (or indeed condoning) his actions. In gaming, however, Tommy Vercetti won’t shoot that prostitute or run over that policeman unless you want him to, unless you tell him to. If you so chose you could wonder the streets of Vice City and stop at red lights, obey the speed limits and keep your guns holstered. Does the fact that everyone that plays GTA tends to deliberately maim and slaughter reflect upon the mentality of the players? Of course not. The reason we do that is because that’s how GTA was designed to be played, and to play it differently crucially restricts the game. The blame, if there is any, therefore falls at the feet of the developers. Should they in fact be more responsible? There’s definitely a case for that, but that’s for another time.

One advantage that the film industry has over us is the prominence of the star. Brad Pitt could star in a total shambles of a film, something totally obscure, yet millions of people would still go and see it. Only now is the games industry developing to an extent where reputation alone can sell. Hardcore players may well buy a game on the strength of those behind it; Miyamoto, Molyneux, or Gard may sell a few thousand copies on reputation alone, but the overwhelming majority of gamers are totally unaware of the minds responsible for the games they play. It’s only recently that companies such as Sony and EA have become brands in their own sense. Before them only Nintendo were really able to sell games on name alone. This phenomenon is at least in part due to the reliance on licensing that gaming demonstrates today. With no big name stars to splash on your front cover companies have latched onto brands synonymous with other forms of entertainment. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about the problems with licensed games!

Then of course there’s corruption. Again, this is something that the mainstream is probably quite unaware of. It’s also one thing that gaming has in common with other industries. The launch of Driv3r here in the UK has met with a whole wave of corruption charges relating to exclusive reviews published by two magazines weeks before release. The two publications in question were the only magazines with permission to print pre-release reviews and funnily enough they were the only two sources to award the game 9/10. It seems fairly obvious what price was paid for such exclusivity. All other magazines and websites were subject to a review embargo preventing the publication of any scores prior to release. This is utterly scandalous – imagine going into a store to buy a DVD player but being told that you weren’t allowed to read any information about the system you want. Instead you had to wait until you’ve got it home to find out if it does the things you want it to do. Add to this some aggressive marketing ploys such as the infiltration of many UK gaming forums by undercover PR representatives posing as gamers and the whole situation becomes very ugly indeed.

Another huge problem is the price of gaming. You can pick up a book dirt-cheap, the cinema costs $5 and even a DVD only costs around $20. Currently a PS2 will set you back over $150 and games retail at around $50 – gaming certainly isn’t cheap. Bare in mind that the price of gaming has dropped dramatically over the years. Games on the 16 bit systems were retailing at the same price 15 years ago, so if they stay at this level for another 15 years then progress will definitely be made. Although the cost is annoying, it’s always worth remembering what you get for your money. Can you possibly imagine the amount of work that goes into creating a game like Vice City or Knights of the Old Republic? If a game like FFVII takes nearly 100 hours for the player to complete imagine how much work the programmers must have done.

The price of games then is maybe understandable, if not excusable, but what is more bizarre is the issue of redundancy. If you go and buy yourself a Britney Spears CD you know that it will work on any CD player, no matter which company built it. Walk into any game shop and you’re potential purchases will be limited by the hardware sitting under your TV at home. Even more amazing, when you think about it, is that whenever you buy a console you know that within a few years it will be totally redundant. Buy a CD player and you know that CD’s will be around for a long time. Buy an Xbox tomorrow and you’ll be lucky to get another two years out of it. After that you’re left to plough through the back catalogue.

So whilst companies fight maniacally to get video games mainstream acceptance, they have to realise that there are fundamental factors at work that marketing alone cannot overcome. Microsoft’s push to start the war of the next generation early by releasing their next console as early as 2005 demonstrates that the industry as a whole is still very immature. Surely the best way to drive gaming forwards is to improve the games, to keep on challenging the boundaries and the norms, to explore what else can be done with the medium? Gaming is fundamentally different to other industries, and perhaps we should accept that rather than fight it. There’s enough money floating about as it is, and whilst capitalist financial models necessitate growth, do we really need to rush it? Gaming may still be a somewhat alternative hobby, but why not celebrate this? Surely this just serves to remind us how much better we are!

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