Harvest House Publishers
The thing about video games that makes them so special is that we’re given
free rein to explore worlds, to interact with magnificent creatures of fantasy,
to travel through spaces that could only live in the imagination.
executive editor, Play
Hollywood, radio, and even MTV are all being pushed aside. Into their slot are moving video games, perhaps the most influential pop-culture force in recent memory. At your fingertips—literally—there now reside a host of other worlds, different dimensions of time, and alternate realities to explore. And their number continues to increase at a staggeringly rapid rate. Steve Schnur, worldwide music executive for EA Games, has suggested that video games “are what MTV used to be: being hip, being current, ushering in trends, and single-handedly created ‘cool.’ ”1
Video games can no longer be thought of as little more than meaningless distractions designed to fill the playtime of children. According to Benjamin Porcari—founder and president of IBC Digital (the company in charge of creating content for MTV2’s Video Mods program)— “More sophisticated games and exciting content have pushed games out into the mainstream of entertainment.”2
Porcari is not exaggerating. According to the most recent sales fi gures, the “overall worth of the video game industry worldwide is projected to grow from $25 billion in 2004 to $55 billion in 2009.” Some observers have suggested, with good reason, that “games currently represent, fi nancially, the highest-growth area in the entertainment business.” This holds especially true of adult male consumers who “prefer paying for video games over any form of music….Games are now second only to DVDs for men as a purchase category.”3
Signs of the growing prosperity and infl uence of the video-game industry are everywhere. For example, expos and competitions are now common (see sidebar)—as are video-game sporting events. Yes, I said sporting events. Playing video games has become so competitive that it has achieved legitimate sport status on an international level (complete with large monetary prizes). These “e-sports” might easily turn into Olympic events in the nottoo- distant future…with USA Rebels battling Korean Imperial Guards for the gold, but doing so on a distant fantasy world.
Video games have even crossed over into television, as evidenced by the MTV2 program Video Mods, which uses characters from popular video games to “create brand new music videos for today’s hits” by well-known bands, such as Evanescence. 6 (One such pairing resulted in a new music video version of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” that featured Jedi masters Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda—from the Star Wars: Episode III game—playing guitar and drums, respectively, and Anakin Skywalker singing lead vocals.)
The MTV2/Nesquick–sponsored Game Riot conference in 2005 included a video-game party, competition between amateurs, and for those brave enough, an opportunity to match skills with professional video-game player Matt Leto (a.k.a. Zyos), the undisputed reigning Halo champ.4 Consider, too, the annual GenCon in Indianapolis, which attracts some 50,000 international gaming enthusiasts, who show up at the city’s convention center to celebrate “just about every type of gaming and game-related activity you can imagine.”5
And then there is the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3)—the big kahuna of all such gatherings. (Finally, I must mention the October 2005 IGN Live convention and also BlizzCon—a conference dedicated to the wildly popular online game World of Warcraft. I had a spectacular time at both of these events.)
Like the 1980s Toyota commercials exclaimed, “Who could ask for anything more?” Well, the surprising answer is, a lot of people. The year 2005, for instance, saw the emergence of a concert tour that presented music from video games as performed by “top orchestras and choirs combined with video footage, lasers, lights, and live action to create an explosive and unique entertainment xperience.” This concert treated video game fans to the lush musical scores from top-selling video games such as Halo, Final Fantasy, Advent Rising, and Castlevania. Another concert tour featured music taken exclusively from Final Fantasy, performed by “prestigious local orchestras and choirs.”7
Given the innovation and creativity that now surround video games, it is no surprise that 2005 also saw “the world’s fi rst cable channel devoted entirely to video games” being launched. Not to be outdone, the Turner Broadcasting System has created GameTap (www.gametap.com)—a broadband entertainment network featuring “a wealth of classic and current console, arcade, and PC” video-game titles for $14.95 a month.8 This network has been set up for subscribers interested in accessing hundreds, eventually thousands, of family-friendly games (as opposed to “Mature”-rated games).
Countless bands and musicians are jumping on the video-game bandwagon as well. In the very near future there will undoubtedly be CD album soundtracks to video games just like there are now CD album soundtracks to fi lms and theatrical productions. Tim Riley, music supervisor at Activision, notes that for up-andcoming artists, “getting a spot on a soundtrack can be as powerful as being added to a radio station’s playlist.”9
But here’s the real pop-culture kicker—there are now even a number of Christian video games being created, such as Armageddon (a “shooter” game—see page 30) and Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a “real-time strategy game based on the bestselling books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.” According to Garland Wong, president of the company working on Armageddon, “There’s a huge potential for Christian content” in video games—even mature/violent games that include war, bloodshed, and frightening images. As Wong says, “We’re trying to approach it from a realistic perspective.”10
Troy Lyndon of Left Behind Games agrees that a realistic, contemporary, and provocative approach is the way to go: The only way Christian gaming will appeal to the mass market will be if we make quality games and create games with stimulating points that allow the gamers to think for themselves without insulting their intelligence or attempting to outright convert them.11
Clearly, video games have become big business. So big, in fact, that several corporations are now using in-game product placement to sell their wares. In 2003 this tactic (“advergaming”) garnered $79 million in revenue. By 2008 “these practices may generate $206 million or more.”12 But the success has not come without controversy.
Image-based video games (as opposed to text-based games) were controversial almost as soon as they hit the entertainment scene in the 1980s. What were these “games”? Why were kids so attracted to them? How might they benefi t—or harm—children? Some forward-thinking observers of pop culture expressed excitement, while others were less than kind. The renowned child behaviorist Dr. Benjamin Spock, for instance, snubbed video games by labeling them as nothing but a “colossal waste of time.”13
But Dr. Spock’s swipe at video games is nothing compared to what is happening today. The Chinese government, for example, has adopted tough video-game restrictions in recent years. At one point, it even attempted to control how much time Chinese citizens devoted to playing. This has all been in an effort to, as they indicate, “create a healthier environment for children, lumping games in with the more obvious vices of gambling and porn.”14
In the United States, too, some laws have been enacted to control the distribution of video games to minors. The reasoning in China bears a striking similarity to the reasoning in America. Consider the words of California Assemblyman Leland Yee (a Democrat from San Francisco), whose efforts to control videogame distribution led to the passage of a new law in his state that prohibits the sale of certain games to minors (see chapter 2):
As a child psychologist, I understand the harmful effects these games have on our children....Study after study of the most respected medical organizations has shown that these ultra-violent video games have negative effects on our kids....[It has been shown that] children who play these ultra-violent video games are more likely to view violence as an effective way of settling conflicts; that these games can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life; and that such children have a higher tendency for violent and aggressive behavior later in life.15
Yee’s arguments sound convincing, especially in light of some horrific crimes that investigators have loosely linked to videogame playing. For example, the Columbine High School killers (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold) enjoyed playing Doom, a “first-person shooter” game. And in Alabama a 20-year-old man “obsessed with the Grand Theft Auto game” (a game infamous for its violence) shot and killed two policemen and a police dispatcher.16 But did Grand Theft Auto really desensitize this man to murder and prompt his attacks? Did Doom actually train Harris and Klebold to kill fellow students?
Anti-video-game protestors, legislators, and parents would answer with a strong yes to both questions. Gamers, on the other hand, would say, “Certainly not!” Both camps, of course, are adamant. So adamant, in fact, that a kind of mini culture war has erupted, with nongamers pitted against gamers—and the sides are divided strikingly along generational lines, which is signifi cant.
Although a full 50 percent of Americans play video games, most of today’s gamers (around 75 percent) are under 40 years old. In other words, they are the generation raised on games. This translates into a new kind of generation gap between older nongamers and young-adult gamers (as well as teens and children). Confl ict and controversy has resulted.
But things are changing, especially as young gamers grow older and begin to slowly take the reins of social and cultural power and gain more infl uence in the media. So far, though, it has not been an easy transition. John Davison, editorial director for Ziff Davis’s Game Group, has rightly observed, “Like comic books and hip-hop music before them, video games are currently fueling a firestorm of media controversy.”17
And Davison is not alone in taking this view. His insightful article “Pop Culture Pariah” cites Patricia Vance—president of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB)— as another industry personality who “believes the mainstream media is cherry-picking facts about gaming to show the industry in a bad light. ‘Few games are M-rated [for Mature content],’ she points out, ‘but that’s the type of game the mainstream media always shows when they want to drive home any point about video games.’ ”18
For me, a week begins in a faraway galaxy where I am a member of the Gallente Federation. I pilot a variety of spaceships including a swift little frigate, a cargo hauler, a menacing destroyer known as a Thrasher, several high-level cruisers, and a battleship. My primary vessel takes me on a variety of missions during which I am invariably forced to combat smugglers, spies from rival federations (or factions), and all sorts of other nasties that inhabit the solar system that I call home (Angel Cartel space pirates, for example, immediately come to mind).
By Thursday or Friday, however, I am usually back on Earth as a medic, either in the midst of a World War II campaign or in the thick of a modern military confl ict (usually around the Middle East). While in these situations I am a dedicated soldier whose heart and mind are intently focused on saving as many lives as possible in spite of sniper attacks, airstrikes, and barrages of heavy artillery.
Then comes the weekend, which invariably finds me stuck in a place known only as “City #17.” I am a man confused, dazed, worried…and running for his life. I have no idea exactly how I got to City #17, nor do I understand very much about what is happening around me. But what I do know is that very little of it is good. My adventure leads me day after day on a path of discovery. What happened to me? Why am I here?
Where am I supposed to go next? How am I to survive another 24 hours? Through it all I am a man being hunted for some as yet undiscovered reason.
There are many more options available to me than these few characters I have briefl y described. I’m not the best videogame player—not by any means. I fall somewhere in the middle of the pack with millions of other gamers who, like me, just love to play. We are part of a growing segment of society and culture that sees video games as a hobby, a sport, a route to relaxation, and even a livelihood (for example, gaming journalists and game story writers).
As one gamer eloquently expressed it, video games “are a great escape from a bland reality, a way to stimulate your mind and relax your soul in colorful, distant worlds that the talented minds of the creators have conceived.”19
There is no doubt that the infl uence and appeal of the electronic gaming industry will only grow as video and computer games are seen more and more as important forms of art and entertainment. The sheer money factor is enough to ensure the future of electronic games. But there are now other important aspects to video games.
For example, a new entertainment genre called machinima (from the words “machine cinema” or “machine animation”) has emerged. It consists of taking recorded video footage from a game and adding original dialogue to the player-controlled movements of the characters. The new art form has became so popular so quickly that infl uential game industry movers and shakers have not only formed the Academy of Machinima Art and Science, but also have launched a yearly machinima fi lm festival (in New York).
A new kind of photography/art is now emerging as well— screen shots* of in-game scenes (for example, landscapes, battles, character interaction) that a player can actually orchestrate via playing: “There is light and shadow, lines, curves, patterns, balance, close-ups, architecture, nature and many other elements of photography….Players can actually have a chance to ‘compose’ photos and even capture moments of emotion, decay, ruin, humanity, etc.”20
As for actual game play, we will soon be able to play with onscreen characters that have very “realistic emotions.” One nearfuture reality, for instance, might be a Finding Nemo video game that could “look just like the movie.”21 This means hyperrealistic scenery; movie-quality action; and characters that will not only look truly alive, but will also behave in ways that mirror the unpredictability of humans—via highly advanced artifi cial intelligence (AI).
And in a push toward making Star Trek’s “holodeck” a reality, a Finnish company has produced a life-sized room wherein a player’s fi ght moves are interpreted by cameras and transferred on screen to their virtual reality characters, through whom players can battle an assortment of foes using various weapons.22 Sony has even patented a new technology “that would beam sensory info such as smells, tastes, and images straight to the brain,” which could forever change the video-game playing experience.23
All of this is happening as the generation that grew up on video games is assuming its rightful place in the world. But with the emergence of today’s young adults, some important questions about video games are beginning to surface. What makes a “good” video game? Does there exist any way of determining if the degree of aggression in a game is too much aggression? How should right and wrong be portrayed in a game? Where is the line between valid artistic expression through video games and an irresponsible abuse of America’s freedoms of speech? Do videogame developers and publishers have any social, moral, or cultural responsibilities at all? Do video games actually affect the children, teens, and adults who play them? If so, how?
These are just some of the issues I explore in the following pages. My intention is for this volume to be a small, yet significant, contribution to what promises to someday be a vast collection of video-game-related literature. Clearly, the era of video games has arrived—and all of us are already a part of it.