Off the Map: The future of game content

As I have the chance to travel extensively and speak at game industry events around the world, I continue to hear from many people that games are cool and fun, but they’re not on the same level as literature or film or fine art. That doesn’t necessarily diminish their love of the medium but on a one-to-one comparison, they wouldn’t take the art from a game series like Halo or Assassin’s Creed and view it on the same level as perhaps a Rembrandt painting or one of Ernest Hemingway’s novels.

This attitude is typically magnified when I have discussions with government officials and representatives of other cultural institutions. Many (but not all) seem to have great difficulty in drawing any kind of equivalence between the artistic value of a video game and the works that are traditionally considered “art” — you know, the kind of things that have massive installations in famous museums like the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London.

And frankly, even on the game industry side, I’m still surprised when I see some game creators seemingly missing the point of the work that they’re doing. They enjoy building new worlds and sharing them with the eager public, but even those who make games sometimes lose sight of what we’re really doing, which is contributing a whole new medium to the human experience. Is that too bold of an assertion? I think not, and let’s explore why from a few key angles.

First and foremost, it’s important to take a step back and look at games in the broader sociohistorical context of other forms of media and entertainment that have emerged. One of the core activities in which people have been engaged since the beginning of history has been the conveyance of stories; we create stories and we transmit them to those around us and most critically, to the next generation. This is an anthropological dynamic that is consistent across all cultures and geographies. We started with simple linguistic methods as well as basic art (such as cave paintings) and developed more advanced and diverse means to both record and then communicate our narratives.

And as these new forms of medium emerged — such as writing, music, printed books, the telegraph, radio, film, television and so on — each one was met with ample skepticism. Plato is supposed to have declared in 370 BCE that “writing is a step backward for truth.” Printed books were initially considered a threat to the authorities and establishments because if the general populace had access to new philosophies and concepts, they might decide it was time to change the order of things. Trains were initially feared because people believed that riding up to 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour) could be deadly. In the early 20th century, “radiophobia” was a common occurrence where people feared radiation side effects from the radio waves as well as the receiving equipment — a fear that would carry over to television as well. In 1916, the famous actor Charlie Chaplin said “the cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.”

And on the list goes; virtually any new form of media and its associated technology has been initially feared, then tolerated and then eventually embraced. Games are no different, and sadly we seem to be slowly crawling out of an era where games are still blamed for many ills of society, from violence to obesity to laziness to lower brain functions and so on. And yet, games represent that current evolution of human narrative. Just as all the other media that have come before, games are the current state of how human beings convey stories and experiences from one generation to another. And because games have now been around for a few decades, we are seeing the generational effect of the medium, where the earliest adopters (like myself) have introduced games to our children, and their children. Among the young demographic, games are a normal part of existence, not an anomaly to be feared.

We are seeing games influencing mainstream culture more and more, and this is continued evidence of the broader role they play. Sports stars and movie stars often reference games like Fortnite (for example) and are open about the positive role games play.

Beyond the role of advancing the art of human narrative, games as an economic powerhouse is another key piece of evidence in how they’ve quickly become an integral part of our culture. Within the industry, we often quote the common fact that “games make more money than film and music combined.” This has been the case for at least a decade now, and yet I still encounter people in the public who simply refuse to believe this reality.

In 2017, it is estimated that 2.2 billion people on the globe were gamers and, in that year, global video game revenue easily surpassed $100 billion. By comparison, global film revenue was $40.6 billion that year and global music revenue was $17.3 billion. Despite hearing about a film making over $1 billion in its theatrical run, and this getting ample media attention, there are several cases of a large game making that much revenue in a single week (major releases such as Grand Theft Auto V). What’s even more staggering is that if you take the global live sports market and combine them all (FIFA, NFL, MLB), in 2017 their total revenue of $90.9 billion still falls short of video games.

And who are playing all these games? In short, everyone. Games are now a ubiquitous form of entertainment played across virtually all demographics, cultures, languages and geographies. For most developed gaming markets, there is gender parity between men and women playing games. In fact, there are more women in their 30s and 40s playing games than teen males; another dose of reality that often receives a quick knee-jerk denial from much of the public.

If games are the latest form of art and technology being leveraged to forward our ability to convey experiences, and if they have clearly established themselves as a major economic force in the media and technology sector, and if they are being played by a tremendous, wide range of people — why does the perception often persist that games are still an alien, harmful presence in our lives?

Clearly, part of that is due to my earlier point that games are still in the technological adoption phase, and that’s typically a generational effect. We still see pushback from politicians, but within another 15-20 years, every politician on earth will have grown up with video games and as a result it will be unlikely to see such ongoing paranoia. Also, the mainstream media has a problem with embracing games as part of what could be called “high culture.” We see newspapers and magazines with film and book reviews all the time, but it’s rare to find game reviews as prevalently. This is changing, but it’s been slow, lagging behind public adoption. And the media’s portrayal of games as less than the true art they represent does affect the public’s perception. In 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a study which found that despite so many people playing games across all ages and genders, 40% of US adults believe that games cause violence in society, 26% think games are a waste of time; 60% believe that games are mostly played by men; and 23% perceive games as not promoting teamwork and communication (which, if you have played any online games in the past decade, the majority require teamwork and communication in order to succeed).

Certainly, there remains a distinct gap between the everyday reality of games as a cultural force and the perception of games as such, but that negative perception doesn’t negate the fact that games are now part of our culture. And as I’ve had the privilege to visit many emerging markets around the world, it’s been enlightening to hear government officials view video games as a key, positive driver of their emergent technology sectors and as a medium to be embraced and advanced.

My hope is that those of us who work in the game industry, from localization to culturalization and all other functions, will stand tall and embrace our role. Instead of being defensive of our art, we can help the public understand what we do and why we do it, thereby accelerating ourselves out of this cultural adoption phase and into full acceptance.