Not Child’s Play
Games do not occupy the bandwidth in popular consciousness that music or movies do, but when it comes to revenue, they give every other type of media business a run for its money. U.S. computer and video-game software sales reached $7 billion in 2005, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Games are also important because of their “multiple platforms” and cross-pollination imperatives for entertainment content. Almost every action film and children’s movie has a game version, and many games have inspired movies.
Computer games are mesmerizing. Like other popular fads (hula hoops, Rubik’s Cubes), they are simple to learn but difficult to master, with multiple levels of achievement. Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution, by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, describes how games have embedded themselves in the popular culture.
The Sims is a good example. Its appeal is global, with versions in 14 languages — from Thai to Italian. One of Smartbomb’s most significant revelations was that the game’s creators did not have to make changes to the characters or environments of the Sims games to make them feel familiar to players in different countries. Instead, they used U.S. television shows as their template. Sitcoms like Friends may not be an accurate depiction of life in America, but because these programs are shown all over the world, they have become a cultural touchstone that makes everyone feel at home. “The Sims takes place within a culture of Americana, a culture and society that never really existed, not even in America, but one with which people all over our media-saturated globe can identify,” write the authors.
They explain that games, like movies, are not “constrained by the narrowness of possibility space.” Movies have made us believe in aliens and modern-day dinosaurs. We’ve seen interplanetary travel, we’ve seen the Empire fight the Jedi, and we have seen the sinking of the Titanic. And yet, a significant portion of the audience wants more — they want to interact with and control those stories. The appeal of games is that they create a direct, highly personal connection to the consumer.
Some games have the ability to learn each player’s tastes and desires, the same way TiVo and Amazon can prompt users to choose TV shows or books that might suit them. Video games are where fractionalization and wikification intersect, and Smartbomb illuminates both phenomena. Games are highly individualized, but they are also strong community builders. And everyone helps to create the content. After only a few months of operation, Star Wars Galaxies, an online game, had more “citizens” than Birmingham, Ala., or Anaheim, Calif. If you do not think games are a subset of media, listen to this Xbox executive, who says he is trying to take consumers from movies and television: “We’re competing for leisure time here.”
Smartbomb delivers invaluable insights into the video-game industry’s astonishing appeal, breadth, and innovation. Further, the book illuminates the way that the industry, in appropriately viral form, is transcending its origins as a diversion for college kids and bar patrons. The U.S. Army, for example, is using video-game technology to develop training materials and is even drawing on games to develop the kinds of strategies and communication capabilities 21st-century soldiers need. Similarly, there is enormous potential for expanding the social networking and interaction that began with fantasy environments like EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies into online communities built around a range of ideas and characters as varied as those in movies or books.
The same two themes resonate through An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths, by University of Tennessee Law Professor Glenn Reynolds, founder of the popular blog Instapundit.com. Bloggers write about what matters to them, and topics range from the broadest issues of politics and policy to the narrowest personal experiences and preoccupations. The mainstream media (MSM), by contrast, seek out the lowest common denominator to interest as many people as possible. Professor Reynolds’s main insight is that “small is the new big,” but he tries to extrapolate too much from that point. His claims that individual-centered technology will dramatically improve counterterrorism efforts and extend the human life span are very rosy, to say the least. Still, as enthusiastic as Professor Reynolds is about the empowering aspect of blogs, he recognizes that technology helps the bad guys along with the good ones.