The Gaming Club
To hear Chris Suellentrop, Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner discuss whether video games can be art on Slate's Culture Gabfest, click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 26:04 mark:
Mitch and Leigh have asked me to address what makes a video game "mainstream," and in the Gaming Club, as in the grand tradition of improvisational comedy, I'm not allowed to reject their suggestions.
The best analysis of the cultural relevance of video games that I've seen was delivered last month by Chris Hecker, an independent video-game designer, in a keynote lecture at the International Game Developers Leadership Forum. (I should state that I haven't seen the lecture; what I know of it comes from coverage at Gamasutra and elsewhere. If anyone knows of a video of Hecker's address, please post the link in the Fray!) To quote from Chris Remo's Gamasutra report: "Hecker proposes four metrics on which to judge the success of popular entertainment forms. In approximate order of increasing importance, they are revenue, units sold, cultural impact, and diversity of content."
Hecker argues that the game industry cares too much about revenue and not enough about diversity of content, which he sees as the most important measurement. As he put it, "You get the impression that the game industry wouldn't care if some prince in Dubai bought a single copy of a game that costs $24 billion—Call of Madden Duty Halo—as long as we're the ones he's buying it from."
Even on the basis of unit sales and cultural impact, games aren't doing as well as we might think. The data is not in from 2009 yet, so let's take a look at last year instead. Here's the list of the top-selling games from 2008 as revealed by Stephen Totilo in January. Wii Play, Madden NFL, and Grand Theft Auto IV led the way, each with a little more than 5 million copies sold across all systems. Compare that to, say, the almost 100 million people who watched last year's Super Bowl. Or let's do some back-of-the-envelope math and say that the average person pays $10 to go to a movie. That would mean that the No. 10 movie of 2008, Quantum of Solace, which grossed more than $150 million, was seen by 15 million people, three times the number that purchased the No. 1 video game. And that's only theatrical box office—it doesn't count pay-per-view, or cable TV, or DVD rentals, etc. To be fair, "units sold" and "tickets sold" do not directly translate into "number of people who have played or watched," but you get my point.
So, no, I'm not sure that video games are "mainstream." I'm certain they are very large and very important and that they have a lot of potential as an art form. To say more than that is to oversell the case. As Chris Hecker says, "Celine Dion is beating every game we've ever made."
The most important measure, of course, as with Celine Dion, is the subjective judgment of artistic quality. Right now, I don't think video games, even the very best video games, belong in the same conversation with the very best books, movies and even, these days, TV shows. The sign of hope for the medium is that only a decade ago, a medium like television was considered an idiot box and a vast wasteland. Ten years later, shows like Mad Men and The Wire are thought by many to be superior to all but the very best movies. So in 2019, video games, as a cultural touchstone and as an art form, could be in a much better place than they are today. But let's not pretend that they're already there.
And can ambitious video games of the kind that all four of us like to play be mainstream if so few women play them? Leigh, as the one female gamer in the short history of the Slate Gaming Club, are you sympathetic to the complaints by some gamers that there are too few games that appeal to women? Or, as someone who says she enjoys video games for the opportunity to be someone she is not, would you rather spend your gaming time imagining yourself as a hulking space marine? Are Jamin, Mitch, and I the ones who would get more out of a game that in some hypothetically engaging way explored the daily life of a young American woman?
Thanks for a great conversation this week. I want to say one more thing, before I return to playing Assassin's Creed 2 despite its execrable "It's-a-me, Mario!" voice acting. I hope that all of my mentions of Monday Night Football have not let any of you to believe, as this Fray poster might, that I think Monday Night Football is a Swansburgian waste of your time. I think no such thing. I also like sports video games, though I don't play them as much as I once did. The exuberant affection this summer for MLB 09: The Show led me to think about buying a baseball video game for the first time since the era of Baseball Stars, R.B.I. Baseball and Bases Loaded. But the sad state of my Kansas City Royals led me to reconsider.
So let me leave you with this: Leigh, don't compare Farmville to Monday Night Football. I like Monday Night Football.Monday Night Football is a friend of mine. You, Farmville, are no Monday Night Football.
Until next year,
Leigh Alexander is the news director of the game industry site Gamasutra and authors the blog Sexy Videogameland.Formerly an arts and entertainment reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Jamin Brophy-Warren is a columnist for GOOD magazine and founder of the forthcoming video-game magazineKill Screen.Mitch Krpata is a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix and Paste magazine, and blogs about games at Insult Swordfighting.Chris Suellentrop reviews games for Slate.