Archive for April 14th, 2011

If you had told a teenager playing PONG back in 1972 that one day computer games would be the most profitable entertainment industry on the planet, they might just have believed you – but few others would. That computer games could become so completely entrenched in society, that we should find ourselves discussing the game-ification of life itself, might also have been difficult to fathom some forty years ago. The evidence is clear however. Not only do people love games, and computer games in particular, but they have embraced them on an utterly breathtaking scale.

Computer game and console revenues have continued to show steady growth globally since the 1970s, with the market showing periods of accelerated growth in the mid to late 80s, mid 90s and again from 2006. Initially a very expensive luxury item, the speed of technological development, steady advance of miniaturisation and the vast up-scaling of production has made computers and consoles both easily affordable and ubiquitous.

Much of the growth has been driven in recent years both by emerging markets and the further expansion of already established markets in Asia, Europe and the United States. Even in the developed world, where the inevitable maturation of the market saw a levelling of revenues in the first half of the previous decade, there were strong forecasts for growth and the industry was tipped not only to outstrip both music and movie revenues, but to double them by 2011. Sure enough, in 2006/07 revenues in the United States grew by a staggering 28.4%. Indeed in that year, on average, according to Entertainment & Software Association (ESA) CEO and president Michael D. Gallagher, “an astonishing 9 games were sold every second of every day of the year.”

In 2007 total global sales for consoles and games hit $41.9 billion. Compare this with roughly 30 to 40 billion for music sales, 27 billion for movies and around 35 billion for books in that same year. Also consider that in 1994, the entire gaming industry generated just $7 billion in revenues, and in 1982, a mere $1.5 billion.

In 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV became the most successful entertainment release in history. In the space of 24 hours, the game had grossed $310 million US in sales, compared to the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and the film Spiderman 3 which grossed $220 million and $117 million respectively in their first 24 hours. In 2008, video games revenue smashed all predictions, with the industry selling more than $54 billion. In 2009, Guitar Hero 3 became the first single computer game to generate more than 1 billion dollars in sales. Total global computer game revenues, despite the economic downturn and an 8% correction in 2009, are projected to reach as high as $68 billion in 2012. Should the rapid expansion of the middle class in India and East Asia continue for some time as many predict it will, then this will almost certainly ensure further significant growth in this industry.

Even if these projections are not met, the computer games industry is already, far and away the fastest growing entertainment industry in history. In both the United States and the UK, video games revenue is already considerably larger than music or movie sales. In the UK, gaming revenues are now greater than music and DVD sales combined and four times greater than cinema box office takings, with further expansion predicted. The above statistics take into account many different formats and platforms, including different gaming consoles, mobile phone and PC games, games rentals and online gaming subscription fees, so it is arguably not a single phenomenon in itself. Yet, what unifies them all is, inarguably, a single phenomenon – gaming.

These figures might perhaps give a skewed conception of the industry’s scale, and it must be remembered that much of the income derives from the sale of expensive consoles and hardware accessories. It is necessary to look at the scale of participation to get a clearer idea of the industry’s penetration. For online gaming alone, not including gambling, there are an estimated 500 million gamers; a number predicted to grow to 1.5 billion in the next decade. Zynga, the company responsible for social games such as Farmville and Mafia Wars, boasts a total of 266 million active monthly accounts, with Farmville alone having 62 million players at last count.

In the developed world, the average age for video game players is roughly 35, a number which is slowly increasing. This trend is less surprising when one considers the age and maturity of the industry; those who grew up playing arcade, console and PC games in the 80s have largely stayed in touch with newer formats and continue to do so. Globally the average age ranges from mid to late 20s. Just over 20% of gamers in the US are over the age of 50. This is a very cross-generational phenomenon.

The gender distribution of gamers is also now approaching parity. A 2009 study showed that 60% of gamers were male and 40% female, though the distribution varies considerably by format, with almost 80% of female gamers preferring the Sony Wii compared to only 41% of males. It is estimated that female gamers now constitute a majority of online social gamers. Gaming has also increasingly become a family activity, especially with the introduction of consoles such as the Wii and Microsoft’s new Kinect controller for the Xbox 360. In the developed world, over 70% of children aged between 8 and 18 have a video game console, not including other platforms such as personal computers and mobile phones.

In the US, where an estimated 67% of households play video games, depending on whose statistics you accept, the average amount of time spent by players is between 8 and 18 hours per week. A 2007 study in the US found that 97% of boys and 94% of girls aged 12 to 17 played video games regularly, with little variation according to ethnic or economic background.

Not only is the video games industry the fastest growing entertainment industry in history, it is also one of the fastest growing cultural phenomena in history – a phenomenon that has been subject to a great deal of stigma, condescension and negativity. Computer gaming has long been derided for the prevalence of violent themes, with all manner of claims being made about its social and personal impact. Yet, social research has repeatedly exploded myths about the influence of computer games on people’s lives, particularly with regard to violent behaviour.

In the United States, a country where almost the entire youth cohort has been exposed to computer gaming, often with violent themes, juvenile crime-rates are now at an all-time low. Indeed, violent criminals have been shown to consume less popular media before offending, with causes of crime being more closely linked to parenting, mental illness and economic status. Psychological studies indicate that violent computer games do not turn otherwise non-violent people into violent criminals. Indeed, gaming has been shown to be a highly effective outlet for aggression. Considering that roughly 90% of males play video games, it is dubious at best to cite this as a cause without examining broader crime trends, which indicate a reduction in criminal behaviour.

This is all perhaps less surprising when we take into account that studies of primate behaviour suggest that apes are capable of making clear distinctions between play fighting and actual fighting. Just as children who stage mock sword fights with sticks know the limits of contact and engagement, and almost all such play will end with first blood. Again, both with apes and children, those who fail to make the distinctions between play and combat tend to be those who have a psychological predisposition to violence, either through mental illness or traumatic socialisation. As with many such influences, violent movies being paramount, we must ask – do we legislate for the norm, or for those rare exceptions?

The games industry has been notorious for its stereotyping of women and there has been much valid criticism on this front. Traditionally a pre-occupation of young men, computer game designers made often very unsophisticated appeals to their pre-occupation with sex and sexual imagery. Gender typing in games tended to reflect chauvinistic attitudes with two-dimensional characters with exaggerated proportions presented as subservient objects of titillation. This trend has, however, shifted significantly in recent years with the introduction of far more well-developed, powerful and independent female characters. The Tomb Raider series marked an interesting turning point, wherein a strong, intelligent and capable female character not only allowed female gamers to feel empowered, but also provided the requisite titillation to keep male gamers interested. Increasingly computer games have catered to women and also to men who preferred more interesting and intellectually appealing female characters. Indeed, in the 2005 release, Tomb Raider: Legend, Lara Croft’s breasts were reduced from a DD cup to a C cup. Bioware has long been leading the way on this front with its more deeply-drawn female characters in games such as Baldurs Gate 2, Mass Effect 1 & 2, Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2, and Dragon Age Origins. Many girls who play computer games now cite a sense of empowerment through their online avatars, an empowerment which extends into their everyday lives. Games designers have also recently begun to introduce sympathetic homosexual characters, such as Zevran in Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins.

Gaming has also been derided as a mindless pre-occupation with little personal or social benefit, yet increasingly research indicates that games are extremely effective educational tools. Gamers have improved hand-eye co-ordination, are better at multi-tasking and have considerably increased ability to process information from their peripheral vision compared to non-gamers. In his book Everything bad is good for you, Steven Johnson argues that computer games both demand and reward more than traditional games like Monopoly. Many games serve as a sort of ethical testing ground, with genuine choices and consequences. We can feel deeply guilty about the actions of our avatars, or our treatment of other characters, be they the avatars of other players, or computer-controlled bots. The way gamers play often mirrors the way in which they interact with people in real life, and games where actions and choices have moral consequences offer a chance to learn about social interaction.

There are many different genres of games such as shooters, simulators, adventure, action adventure, Role-playing, action role-playing and strategy, to name a few. There are also a wide variety of goals within games. Some games merely hone our skills at a particular, often meaningless reflex task. Others engage with stories, sometimes linear, sometimes open ended. Some games are merely about acquisition, a sort of “cumulomania”; others have more noble goals, such as saving lives, helping the disadvantaged or slaying monsters. Some games have a difficult learning curve, others a simple, easy learning-curve. Some games are especially literary with seemingly endless detail about the game world; its history, culture, politics and landscape; other games simply require shooting as many things as possible. What is almost always present in every game, however, is some form of competition and some form of goal, quest, outcome or reward. This can be played out as either PvP (Player vs Player), PvE (Player vs. Environment), or a player competing against their own standards. It can be a race against time, or a strategic, tactical battle against sophisticated AI. The pace will vary significantly, as will the pressure, but most successful games present challenges to players that are not beyond them, but might, ultimately, be difficult to achieve.

Jane McGonigal, a games designer, researcher and author of the book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World, has made many strong arguments in favour of computer gaming. She cites four positive factors associated with gaming: Urgent Optimism, Social Fabric, Blissful Productivity and Epic Meaning. She states that gaming involves the desire to tackle difficult obstacles, the willingness to create communities, the joy of working hard to achieve goals, and the sense of a great story or meta-narrative.

She cites the example of World of Warcraft (hereafter WoW), where over twelve million players have, since its beginning in 2004, spent a grand total of more than 6 million years playing the game. In WoW, complete strangers from across the globe team up in groups of up to six (with larger groups for raids), and co-operate in solving quests and achieving particular goals and outcomes. Knowing their role, according to the class or profession of their avatar, players will join together and help each other in a common cause, often communicating through speaking, or simply typing in often very basic English, the lingua franca of online gaming. The enjoyment of the exercise and the need to co-operate makes it not only a fun experience – although of course, things can go horribly wrong – but also a very social, diplomatic experience.

This type of co-operation is significant when we consider just how much people in the developed world and beyond are gaming, especially in MMORPGs (hereafter MMOs). In a 2010 TED talk, Jane McGonigal stated that: “The average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10000 hours playing online gaming by the age of 21… the same time spent in school from fifth grade to high school graduation with perfect attendance… what we’re looking at, is an entire generation of young people who are virtuoso gamers.”

She sees this as a parallel education creating a virtually unprecedented human resource, and asks the question “what exactly are gamers getting so good at?”

Principally, it seems, energetic and willing co-operation in solving problems in teams with complete strangers from different cultural and geographical backgrounds. If such skills can be harnessed to solving legitimate social, economic and logistical problems, she argues, then this would be of immense benefit to global society as a whole. With this idea in mind, McGonigal has been a driving force behind the development of games designed to mirror global problems and find solutions, such as World Without Oil, a sort of participatory economic and environmental simulation set in a time of peak oil. This type of grand narrative is a commonly recurring theme in computer games and is potentially compelling for all gamers, but particularly so for those engaged more by stories than mere action or accumulation.

In his book, The Study of Games, Brian Sutton-Smith writes, “Each person defines games in his own way — the anthropologists and folklorists in terms of historical origins; the military men, businessmen, and educators in terms of usages; the social scientists in terms of psychological and social functions. There is overwhelming evidence in all this that the meaning of games is, in part, a function of the ideas of those who think about them…”

Games can make us feel proud of ourselves, they can make us feel more capable and more determined. They can also leave us with as intense a recollection of story and experience as any film or book. Already games have become one of the dominant modes for conveying narratives to people of all ages. Their storylines are often old myths and narratives rehashed, but by making the player the protagonist, they achieve a unique level of emotional investment in the story. Just as some books are un-put-downable, or as a movie keeps us glued to the screen, games can be equally mesmerising, often over considerably longer time spans.

There are of course many problems that derive from gaming, largely on account of them being so compelling. This is particularly the case with MMOs such as WoW, though it manifests itself in many ways – be it obsessive playing of Patience, Bejewelled Blitz or Farmville, or the infamous “just one more move” syndrome associated with Sid Meier’s Civilization series.

Whilst not actually certified as a psychological disorder, video game addiction displays many of the symptoms of compulsive disorders and impulse control disorder. Players of MMOs are considerably more likely to suffer from addiction or overuse, playing on average two hours a day more than regular gamers. A 2006 poll suggested that roughly 12% of online gamers displayed addictive behaviour. A 2009 survey in Toronto of 9000 students from grades 7 to 12 showed that roughly 10% spent 7 or more hours day in front of a screen. Other studies have indicated that problematic gaming behaviour effects roughly 4% of regular computer gamers, and this often corresponded with other underlying mental health issues.

There have been notable cases of addictive gaming leading to death, either indirectly through neglect or directly through derived health problems. In 2009, in an ironically tragic incident, a three-month old baby died of malnutrition whilst her Korean parents spent hours in an internet café raising a virtual baby in the online game Prius. In 2005 a Korean man suffered a cardiac arrest and died after spending 50 hours playing Starcraft in an internet café.

The reasons for the addictive nature of MMOs are many and complex. The term “grinding” refers to playing continuously, often without pause, and often repeating the same process to achieve a result as quickly as possible or to harvest loot or other items. There are so many possible goals in MMOs, such as levelling, crafting or making money, that players can easily become obsessive about achieving these outcomes at the eclipse of other concerns. Owing to the need to co-operate and participate in parties of players to succeed in quests, many players also see playing as a social obligation to their fellow gamers, particularly those players who are closely involved with a guild. There is also pressure to continue playing in order to stay in touch with other players, some of whom advance very rapidly on account of devoting so much of their spare time to playing. Once a significant level-gap has opened between two characters, it is no longer worthwhile teaming up on quests.

There are also many players who enjoy acting in a deliberately anti-social manner within MMO gameworlds. Different situations can develop different attitudes. There is often a stark contrast between PvP servers and PvE servers, with the former attracting people who can only, based on their in-game behaviour, be classified as psychopaths. The much vaunted but ill-received and poorly populated Age of Conan MMO became infamous for the behaviour on its PvP servers. It was common for players to camp near area transitions and, in effect, to assassinate travelling players who were unable to defend themselves while they loaded into the new zone. Thankfully, for every “troll” there are usually three or four community-minded gamers, and PvP servers can also bring out the best in people, with powerful characters seeking to defend the weak from the ravages of more bloodthirsty players.

The sheer proliferation of MMOs has created hundreds if not thousands of often tight-knit global communities. Recent statistics indicated up to 12 million registered accounts at World of Warcraft, and roughly 3.5 million for Aion, a game mostly popular in Korea and east Asia. The server populations can vary dramatically, with the science fiction space-trading game EVE Online holding the record of 54,446 players simultaneously active on a single server in 2010.

Players on the same server will often band together to assist each other, and many develop a very community-minded spirit. Educating new players can also be a real pleasure; not only in the technical aspects of the game and various styles of gameplay, but also in the social mores and ethics of the gaming world or particular server. Experienced players will often make the effort to advise players about what will be required in particular scenarios, for it is foolish to assume, when going into an instance, that what one has learned through hard experience is common knowledge. Such assumptions will often result in disappointment and embarrassment. The more investment experienced players make in new players, the more one might expect such things in return. It also helps to ensure a better crop of players, especially in PUGs (Pick-up Groups), which can otherwise be a very hit and miss experience.

MMOs also benefit those who are shy or who have socio-phobic tendencies. Whether they are uncomfortable with their appearance or some form of disability, the internet can provide a suitably anonymous means through which to interact with others successfully. Avatars are more often than not an approximation of how we wish to look, realistically or otherwise, and few people will look as good, or, for that matter, as ugly and formidable in real life as they might in the context of a game.

Video games are also a wonderful vehicle for a sort of “identity tourism”. In video games, players often assume another race or gender. Terry Flew, associate professor of Media and Communications in the Creative Industries at QUT, in Brisbane, suggests that much of the appeal of MMOs lies in the ability to assume the role of someone or something that is not possible in real life, and then to step into a virtual social context. In many cases, the online identity may become more acceptable to the player than their real-life identity. This can even lead to tensions between gamers and the game-creators, the former considering their avatars to be theirs, with the latter considering all content to be the property of the manufacturer. Male and female gamers regularly gender-bend and most experience excitement rather than discomfort at doing so. Negative responses to men playing female characters are generally frowned upon and considered out of step with the game-world’s mores. In games which originate from an Asian context, strongly influenced by Anime styles, male characters often have a feminised appearance, with large, round eyes, soft, pale skin and delicate features.

Another fascinating internal dynamic of MMOs is their economies. Much has been made of players selling virtual goods and services for real money: levelling characters, the sale of rare items, or indeed, the sale of established characters and whole accounts to other players. Such actions are, in almost all cases, a breach of contract and are punished heavily by account suspensions or character deletion. Yet far more fascinating is the workings of the virtual economies in-game, most significantly through the auction houses. Here players can choose to set a starting bid and a buy-out price for literally anything they find or craft in game. It takes some time for economies to get started, but once an MMO has been up and running for some time, market forces take over. Rare items, weapons, armour, clothing, crafting materials, reagents, components, minerals, decorative attire, anything and everything has a potential buyer and prices will fluctuate accordingly. Learning what sells well adds a whole extra dimension to obtaining loot, herbs, minerals, components and what have you. In most MMOs there is a surge of players logged on over weekends – a convenient time for crafting in particular, and the more savvy players will list items required for these processes in anticipation of a buying spree.

The in-game economy is a real economy and mastering it is no mere adjunct to gameplay – it is a practical necessity. To put it bluntly, players who don’t know how to generate income are an underclass. Their inferior weapons and armour, lack of accessories such as mana potions, salves and healing wands, can often prove costly when a party is stretched to the limit. In Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) a cleric who cannot heal is a grave liability. Similarly, tanks and DPS (Damage per second) toons in DDO fronting up against, for example, a clay golem, without appropriate weaponry to beat its resistances and damage reduction will be of next to no use. Learning to make money in game ensures a better playing experience for all involved, and discerning players will blacklist those who are not well enough equipped to perform their role. The learning-curve of an in-game economy is often a significant educational experience in financial management.

Other virtual phenomena have startling parallels in reality. Take for instance the proliferation of psychologists in Second Life. Here one can talk to an accredited analyst, whilst sitting on a virtual couch. And outside, in the real world, psychologists are now using virtual simulations to help with phobias by putting people in the virtual presence of situations they fear, whilst providing structured reassurance. Consider also the “Corrupted Blood” plague incident in WoW, possibly the most fascinating glitch in the history of gaming. The Corrupted Blood plague, a debilitating, and potentially fatal debuff which was supposed only to affect players in a raid instance, made its way into the game-world through player pets and minions. It was then transmitted from pets and minions to players, who transmitted it to other players and so on. Within hours of the first outbreak, major cities in game were heavily affected because of strong player concentrations, with lower level characters being killed almost instantly. The reactions of players and the rapidity of the spread of the disease has since been studied by epidemiologists.

The debate continues about whether or not computer games can ever be considered to be “art”. One objection is that, on the grounds of player involvement, a sort of co-authorship is taking place. Yet are not installations often an interactive experience requiring the presence and, occasionally, the participation of an audience? If we are to judge games on the basis of artistic merit, then we must ask does all cinema, music and painting automatically achieve the standard by which we define art from commercial product, or just plain junk? Computer games are another genre, another medium, with many different levels of design and expression. One could focus on the components, such as the art of story-telling, the art of design of both the engine and the skins that clad it, the art of writing, both dialogue and in-game descriptions, or one could focus on the package as a whole.

Computer games have also generated a vast amount of creativity amongst their devotees. Many games that can be customised have large communities of highly skilled, literate and artistic modders. Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights games encouraged people to use the toolset to create adventures. Using the the same virtual components – landscapes, buildings, trees, monsters, character models, etc –  used in making the original game, players constructed their own complete game-settings and plots. In one collaboration, a Hungarian science-fiction author wrote a module entitled Tortured Hearts, with over 400,000 words of dialogue, and a complex array of possible role-playing interactions in an extensive world. Playing it in its entirety required almost 150 hours of game-time. This was one of many thousands of modules, several of such exceptional quality they were rated by community members as superior to the original game. These hobbyists are not only giving pleasure to themselves and others, but also honing their skills, and in some cases, finding subsequent employment as game designers.

Whether we like it or not, computer games are already deeply embedded in modern society and will likely become even more so in the future. Theorists, noting the readiness of people to engage with gaming in so many different contexts, have began to postulate on the game-ification of life, where people are encouraged to do public good or improve themselves by game-like reward systems, or via game-like mechanisms. Just what the long-term social implications will be are difficult to predict, but the initial scare of a grossly negative impact appears not to have materialised, and the appeal of gaming has increased dramatically.

The long antiquated idea that video-gaming is essentially an anti-social pursuit is no longer supportable in the era of MMOs and social network-based games. It was always something of a misconception when one considers the nature of console-gaming – gamers have been competing and cooperating with their friends and family since the the days of the first consoles. On a smaller scale, the LAN party, in which players bring their computers to a friend’s house and connect via a local router, is another example of socialising both physically and via an interface.

Perhaps in the not-too distant future, more affluent houses will contain a room, let’s call it the “iRoom,” where the entire space is utilised for the sake of gaming. A central, ceiling-mounted, 360 degree projector turns the space into a completely immersive environment of interiors & exteriors; speakers embedded flush with the walls provide surround sound, whilst receptors collect both movement and voice data from the player or players who stand in the midst of this space. Such a space will ultimately be a luxury product, but ever since consoles provided steering wheels and handguns, we have been moving towards this level of immersion.

People who treat games lightly and dismiss them as an ugly, crass, superficial and violent form of popular culture, will be disappointed to learn that not only are they not going to go away, but they are on target to become the supreme entertainment format and a dominant cultural phenomenon in the developed and developing worlds. Artists need not fear them, but instead, they should get on board. This vast gravy train is steaming ahead and writers, composers, painters, designers, voice artists and actors will find many opportunities for gainful and satisfying employment in this unstoppable industry of the future. It seems that for video games, the only way is up, and with the diversity of the market, there is, quite literally, something for everyone.

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