A critical look at the American gamer: easily entertained, easily amused

As years go by and the video game industry continues to thrive, I often wonder when the day will come when video games stop being treated like second-rate children’s entertainment. You know what I mean, of course. The stares and looks you might receive once you’ve told someone what you like to do in your spare time: “You still play video games?” might be the common occurrence you hear. I nod my head, usually saying something of equal bastard-respite like, “Yes, I am still involved in a forty-billion dollar industry. How about you, are still masturbating to porn? Because video games are bigger than porn.”

In fact, video games are expected to swell to a $68 billion dollar industry world-wide by 2012. Even at its current statistics already, however, video games are the third-largest entertainment market in the world. In the world, friends. Who would’ve ever thought Pong would have brought us so far? Instead, video games are now starting to out-perform movie budgets and revenue intake. So why the hell is America so far behind in the times with G4 showing twenty-three hours of smut and one hour of video game-related air time and SyFy believing we all want to watch a bunch of whiny pretty boys and girls yelling at each other Real World-style?

Strike one

It’s difficult where to start with what’s wrong with this picture, considering there’s so many angles to critique it from. For starters, however, the most obvious culprit might have to begin with peer pressure and America’s number two spot for leading entertainment. Yes sports fans, I am talking about the sports industry. Estimated at a $414 billion dollar industry, sports has a lot invested in advertising and the shaping of young minds to create future generations of sports fans. The advertising has gone to such great lengths that even our politicians never pass up the opportunity to shoot some hoops (or some people quail) and proclaim baseball as “America’s pastime.” Hell, the Superbowl takes home the most-watched event on television in America every year (I even watch the damn thing and I don’t even like football).

We follow these facts with what genre sells the most in North America and, not all that surprising, it’s sports games. A sad fact to consider, but a true one nonetheless. And while the video game industry is a $40 billion dollar industry world-wide, the ESA puts North America’s chunk in at $10.5 billion (still an industry to be reckoned with, but not bigger than the music, film, and sports industries in America). People in marketing know best, which is probably why G4, which originally started out as the gamer’s channel with tons of fun shows like Arena, Cinematech, Cheat!, and Pulse, now has devolved to Spike-like showings of Cheaters and Cops for the majority of the station’s air time.

The second trouble seems to go hand-in-hand with the first, which is the gamer dilemma; what classifies us to be called a gamer? Because sports is born of peer pressure, it would seem that anyone who plays anything but a sports game (or Halo) in America is a “nerd” and thus a negative connotation to the gamer culture is spun. I can’t really much disagree–I will gladly fly that flag just as I will gladly throw up the middle finger to any person who only plays sports games and tell them that they are most certainly NOT a gamer. This extends as well to people on Facebook or on their iPhones playing some Zynga game. And they happen to agree for the most part, and since they do, the actual video game culture doesn’t seem to evolve much in America.

Back in my day we didn’t have fancy tanks!

This all leads to the original question regarding video games, however, and that’s the stigma surrounding the ageist argument. There appears to be a unilateral agreement that, at a certain age, boys become men and girls become women. This transition is usually seen traditionally by forgoing the past of toys or simple entertainment. Somewhere along the way, however, video games became mixed up with the sentiment of simple entertainment because it was caught in the confusion of the mighty fear of change, or in this case, the arrival of computers.

It’s only natural that we fear that which we do not understand—cultures have been doing it for eons. Americans, however, have a cultural ancestry oozing with the fear of change, as evident by its numerous religious roots in upbringings. This is usually coupled with old religious ideas that suggested we should set things we couldn’t explain on fire just to be sure it wasn’t bad. A stigma that was born of propaganda in the 1940s and 1950s, where people were deathly frightened of toasters and microwaves. And since the emergence of science fiction dealt with the rise of computers, a lot of folks put the two together and considered them both to be rubbish nonsense (given how bad science fiction cinema was back then, I can’t really blame them).

These ideologies are sadly passed through the family, thus invoking the expression “born of ignorance” something to find truthfully in American families. Slowly, but surely, the change is happening, and grandpa’s old cane-shakes to yell at you to get out of the house and run around are starting to fall on deaf ears. Some of these ideologies have not faded, however, in particular sports, which is why this topic directly ties to the last.

I’m a big kid now

With this in mind, I come to my last point and it simply has to do with us gamers in general. If change is found only be example, then the example we set is the only one we can make to convince people that we are otherwise not a child industry. In regards to specifics in culture, however, we are not making an ever-lasting or great impression on the minds of the learned. This is often where politicians and would-be hacks of social psychology would be quick to deem video games as “harmful.” On the other side of this fence the wine-sipping connoisseurs of refined culture scoff at claiming video games to be anything but a child’s play-thing.

In fact, this rings completely true in our culture and hit home when mega film critic Roger Ebert went as far as to say that “video games can never be art.” We, as a group, were troubled by the sentiments of a sixty-eight-year-old man who had barely touched a video game could be in any position to criticize something he has no experience of. He apologized later for it, but I can’t help but think that he brought up a good point in our culture: can we really claim to be as sophisticated as art?

I’ve been to dozens of art galleries. I’ve seen live theater. I was once even dragged along to an opera. These may perhaps be the highlights to high societal art, but they also play in hand with something we don’t have–the concept to strive for excellence. While the film industry might produce some terrible tv shows and movies from time to time, there are those that still try to shoot for the stars, aiming so high that it becomes a powerful drama that shakes the very fiber of your being. Couple this with the critic communities of these mediums and you will see that even the people in those groups are calling for more effort, greater work, and more originality.

There’s a party and we’re not invited

We don’t see that in video games. Whereas it’s rare to find a good movie review in the movie industry, it’s the complete opposite in the video game industry—you have to retroactively search for a panned review to a video game. In fact it seems the only time a game does receive bad reviews is unless it’s an obviously-terrible game. Games with obvious flaws, such as Dragon Age, Portal, and Zelda: Twilight Princess, are held in such shining light that the reflection blinds everyone of anything beyond its splendor.

This goes hand-in-hand with our very community, which so readily accepts anything from an established series and proclaims it to be fantastic, wonderful, and the best thing since last year’s slice of bread. And, sure enough, if anyone does bring any such legitimate complaints of suggestion for improvement to a game, they are immediately drowned out in a lunacy of fanboyism. And people wonder why games don’t change their formulas that much or why they are considered to be child’s play. You want to know what has been replicated in a production line in flashy colors for the past thirty years? Gamers would say: Mario. Parents would say: a child’s toy. Perhaps that is why few make the distinction between the two, because we as a gamer culture in America certainly don’t strive to set the bar much higher from where video game developers have sat for a decade now.

Sadly I do not think that will change much in American culture for gaming. No doubt the video game industry will continue to grow in America, but at the expense of being intellectual and thought-provoking. What I see on the horizon is a lineup of Zynga-like kitsch games that will dominate American cellphones and Facebook apps, whereas consoles eventually integrate into advertising agreements with sports venues to make the NBiiA or the MLBox or the PlayNFL. Maybe not so sardonically, of course, but if we continue down the path we’re one we’re likely to be dominated by the Halo generation of video gaming.

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About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

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