Video Games: A $90 Billion Subculture

However you may feel personally about games, they play a large role in our world. Traditional games such as Chess and Checkers have been traced back thousands of years. Card games such as poker have never been more popular. The idea of ‘play’ is core to who we are as human beings. More recently, the industry that has been built around video gaming is huge, and it keeps growing every year: according to one study, it’s currently worth an estimated $90 billion worldwide. Even so, for all the financial power, historical importance and meaning it brings to our lives, the gaming industry still has many problems with its identity and is often filled with video game controversy.

Video Game Scandals

[caption id="attachment_37232" align="aligncenter" width="800"]GTA San An The so-called ‘Hot Coffee Mod’ for 2004’s ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ was a seminal moment in video game controversy history. IMAGE COPYRIGHT 2K GAMES/ROCKSTAR GAMES.[/caption] Grand Theft Auto is a franchise that seems to make the front page of the news with every installment. Why do scandals such as the 'hot-coffee mod' create such a buzz in the so-called 'mainstream' media? Even years after this seminal moment in gaming controversy, games still draw outrage for representations of sexuality, violence and other things that we see on broadcast television in arguably more extreme forms every day. Just look to any number of episodes of Grey’s Anatomy or Game of Thrones and you'll see and hear violent and sexual imagery. Why don’t games get that same artistic respect and treatment? Why do so many people think of games differently than TV and movies in this respect? Unlike poker, chess, and to a lesser degree, checkers, video games are largely still looked at as illegitimate. They're a plaything. A frivolity. They're entertainment for children. They are not taken seriously by a large portion of bipartisan gatekeepers for broadcast content. They're also not taken seriously by many people, both old and young, across all races, creeds and religions. Roger Ebert once famously said 'Games Can Never Be Art'. Which not surprisingly, a statement like that caused an uproar in the community and spawned new video game advocates to speak up. [caption id="attachment_37233" align="aligncenter" width="800"]CNBC Image Many popular news networks have questioned the connection between video game violence and real world violence. IMAGE COPYRIGHT NBC CORPORATION.[/caption]

Who is Trying to Change This?

Jane McGonigal, with talks such as 'Gaming can make a Better World’, and other pioneers like her who try to push the industry forward in their own ways, are interesting because implicitly they call attention to this illegitimacy. They say, "We game makers are serious. We have something to say. We offer more to our society than violent, anti-social behaviors that you see in so many ‘mature’ rated games. We can make a difference in the world." Although a seemingly benign argument, the need for this type of explanation and validation should interest anyone with a respect for games for another, deeper reason. [caption id="attachment_37235" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Jane Image Jane McGonigal speaks at a TED conference. IMAGE COPYRIGHT TED/JANE MCGONIGAL.[/caption]

The Video Game Battle

Painters do not need to explain the value of color and shape in their newest work to people who don’t wish to look at their paintings. Architects don't need to show how the lines of their new structure reference earlier important works. No news networks cover these stories. It's taken for granted by the vast majority of people. These artist's chosen work has been legitimized: the battles for their art to be taken ‘seriously’ have been fought over the centuries. Video games are currently fighting that battle. This is one of the reasons why McGonigal is so interesting, because she is at the forefront of this battle of video game controversy.  

Gaming Must Find Its Own Voice

The resistance to the idea of legitimacy is understandable, and in some ways, I agree with the critics. Interactive entertainment (at least in the sense of an individual or individuals interacting with a controller or screen) is a relatively new concept, especially if you compare it with the thousands of years that sculpture, painting, poetry, and architecture have had to develop and find their own unique voices. Even moving pictures have been around for over a hundred years. When Thomas Edison was experimenting with this new technology during the late 19th century, and created ‘The Sneeze’ in 1894, I doubt there was much consideration given to this type of media as an ‘art form’. I’m not saying that the best storytelling techniques and narratives that the industry can come up with aren’t more advanced and create more emotion than ‘The Sneeze’, but we're still, now, as an industry trying to fully realize our creative voice and create something unique, something that has not yet been seen before. We're still trying to create a game… with parts that look like a movie. The unique structure of narrative cinema was not developed until years after ‘The Sneeze’, so there’s hope for our industry. There are, however, many concrete reasons right now to take the industry and the games it produces seriously. The expansion of gaming into almost every country in the world, mobile gaming growth, the sheer permutation of different types of gamers, and the financial size of the industry are tangible reasons to take games seriously. Sadly, in contrast, the truth is that we need voices like McGonigal and her ilk if we wish to create games on our own terms with whatever content and themes we choose – just like the TV and film industries.  

The Irony of Legitimacy

Gaming will eventually be legitimized. This will happen through forward thinkers willing to speak out, games that take artistic risks and touch people with raw emotion, but also through the aging population and the claiming of gatekeeper positions in media corporations of people who were born during the Nintendo era (and beyond). All of these are important factors. In fact, in some ways, the transformation is already largely taking place: look to the number of people who don’t consider themselves ‘gamers’ yet who play Candy Crush Saga, or Angry Birds on their cellphones every day as a testament to this. There is an inherent irony to all of this controversy, however. Even after we solidify gaming as an ‘art form’ or at least a worthwhile, valuable endeavor, we will continue to make games similar to the big, 'dumb' action games of today. If the movie industry is any indication, the huge productions got even bigger, even after the ‘auteur’ era of American film in the 1960s and 1970s. [caption id="attachment_37238" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Roger Ebert Image Roger Ebert has said ‘Video Games Can Never be Art’. IMAGE COPYRIGHT ROGER EBERT.[/caption] The gaming industry will continue to develop games like 'Gears of War', and 'Call of Duty' that dominate the sales charts with themes of male power fantasy and mechanics based on aiming and timing. But why? Now that games have attained this ‘higher calling’, why wouldn’t we all want to explore those ideals? What this seems to say is that the freedom of expression, at least without heated public controversy, is earned through attaining ‘higher ideas’ in that domain.  


The video game industry is in the midst of big changes. As it grows to unprecedented heights, both financially (faster), and culturally (slower) there are, and will continue to be, growing pains. Developers and speakers who are willing to put themselves out there at the vanguard of video game legitimacy help speed up this process. Once we get there, however, we will all be able to decide which games we wish to make, and which games we wish to play, without a public outcry. Video games will be respected as what they are: incredible cities of organization, manpower, technical wizardry, marketing clout, and fun for millions of people. Do they need to be anything more?