Videogames have officially taken over the world. Over the last four decades the steady rise to dominance has seen us move from dots on a screen, through the cacophony of the arcades, to portable super-computers that rest in our pockets. Throughout this long journey there’s always been a sense that gaming was a peripheral market targeting a relatively narrow demographic – important, yes, but don’t let us get distracted from where the real money is to be made.
With the release of Grand Theft Auto V a month ago the rise to the top has been completed. Bringing in over $1 billion in sales in its first three days ($800 million in the first 24hrs), a videogame rests easily as the most successful entertainment launch in history. To put that into perspective, the top 10 new release movies this week in the US can’t scrape together an even $100 million combined.
Amongst this, it’s disappointing to see that many journalists and politicians continue to deride videogames as a cultural backwater that provides its thrills through the use of titillation and violence. For these prominent voices videogames are at best entertaining distractions, but are often viewed as having far more sinister undertones and visions of sociopathic behaviour that gamers are all too familiar with hearing.
If it isn’t being lambasted in the press the industry is consistently viewed as a consumerist commodity for corporate profit, forgoing any sense of importance as a cultural medium of expression. Indeed the only reason the mainstream press is really paying attention right now is because of the sheer amounts of dosh being raked in by the juggernauts of the industry. ‘Geeks’ may rule the new, tech-based social order but the chosen pastime of millions is still looked down upon as frivolous and culturally irrelevant – certainly not something that would ever be considered ‘high culture’.
Not being taken seriously is an experience that most hardcore gamers have faced at some point, and even in a world dominated by Angry Birds there’s still a feeling of isolation if you speak openly about a passion for gaming. Who hasn’t felt that subtle tone in the words ‘oh, you’re into games?’ that hits home because you can feel the ebbing away of social cachet that accompanies the question. Videogames are simultaneously cool and not cool, an industry seen as highly creative but still a poster child for conceptions of juvenile time-wasting. Unfortunately many within the community reinforce such stereotypes, and the tendency towards ultra-offensive verbal abuse and an almost pathological sexism needs to be more effectively marginalised – a missed opportunity for GTA V itself which noticeably lacked any strong, multi-faceted female characters.
You don’t have to look far, however, to spot the sea change on the horizon. The rise of casual, mobile formats is one signifier; another is the ubiquity of handhelds in the grubby mits of almost every child you see under the age of 10; but perhaps the most significant change is the burgeoning recognition that the medium is producing works of literary and artistic merit. It’s important that a short experience like Journey was one of the most widely discussed games of 2012, and even more important that mechanics-light The Walking Dead is discussed in hallowed, spoiler-free tones and action-packed games such as Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us deliver complicated narrative with such cinematic style that they are seen as many people’s choice for Game of the Year.
Independent releases that focus more on presenting an experience of exploration and narrative over reflexive challenge – such as Gone Home and The Stanley Parable – are increasingly finding themselves in the spotlight of gamers around the world. The Stanley Parable directly references and subverts many of the tropes of genre gaming, highlighting that videogames have truly embraced a capacity for postmodern deconstruction of the narrative form (quickly selling 100,000+ copies in the process). Such recognition of a broadening scope for videogames from within the hardcore audience is rapidly spreading outwards and finding a wider social context to engage with. There’s a palpable realisation that we’re witnessing the birth of a new mode of cultural communication, one where our sense of identity comes directly into contact with those of our peers as well as the talented developers of the industry in a dynamic cultural formation with infinite possibility.
The level of attachment to these creations now goes beyond the language used when describing film or music. There is an emotional phrasing that speaks directly to the experience of the end-user and how it relates to a greater collective whole. The best experiences forged through gaming are unforgettable moments in people’s lives, images that remain embedded in our identity and often correlate closely with the creation of social bonds and deep-seated loyalties. A masterful piece of cinematography or literature can be gut-wrenching, heart breaking, or inspiringly hopeful – but they aren’t often discussed in terms of visceral, personal identity or shared experience. Even when gaming as a solitary activity, there is a reduced sense of distance between the protagonist character and the player precisely because of the interactive element of control that the medium offers. This projection of identity has an impact in the world of online gaming, allowing genuine bonds of friendship to form quickly regardless of geographic proximity or even linguistic barriers.
With a proven audience, growing technological capacity, and distribution channels for a wide variety of experiences, the medium will blossom into new areas of cultural flow. We’re used to being challenged or excited by literature and acting; to being inspired by the symbolic landscapes of music or art that speak directly to our psyches. These things have been the foundation of human cultural activity since time immemorial. What we’re not used to is being able to take control of that process, to explore the boundaries of our sense of self; to play with narrative spaces in ways that can be absurdly humorous or chillingly poignant; to co-create a space in which the imagination is allowed free reign of possibilities previously thought outside of the human capacity for experience.
In less than half a century the digital age has broken us free from traditionally understood methods of how culture is created, disseminated and absorbed. Videogames have come incredibly far in this time, evolving more quickly than all other narrative mediums combined. Indeed, this interactive format might prove to be one of the few avenues that opens us up to new forms of identity both personal and collective. If so, then we are seeing the rise of a videogame culture. Not an identifiable subculture that exists on its own, as an activity to partake in, but a core feature of how we distinguish ourselves as human beings through the use of interactive narrative platforms.
Gaming as we currently know and love it won’t be constrained to the tropes and genres we’re used to, but will continue to flourish in a creative melting-pot that surprises even the most insightful of forward thinkers with the way it changes how we work, socialise, and organise our lives. We can’t accurately predict how this is going to pan out over the coming decades as many of the previously static foundations of human culture become malleable for the first time; but what we can be sure about is that this hyper-interactive, emergent format that has come to be called ‘gaming’ will form the cornerstone of a new cultural revolution.
Just think about how far we could go, and what we might find waiting for us, when the world of forms that blossoms inside our minds is allowed to expand around us in a way that promotes joyful, fundamentally interactive expression that brings us together far more readily than it promotes pushing us apart. Call me an idealist if you want, but I for one am looking forward to the rise of a videogame culture.