John Solak comes home with with two friends in tow. They’re loaded down with snacks and drinks from the convenience store around the corner. Energy to keep them alert well into the night. With a short ‘Hey’ to whoever’s sitting in the living room, he heads straight for the door to the basement, and towards his video games.
The room in the basement was built around entertainment. A 50 inch high-definition television sits at one end, a comfortable couch at the other. In between, thousands of dollars of video gaming equipment is tucked neatly away.
The XBox 360 takes center stage, right below the television. Beside the XBox, the Nintendo Wii pulses with a soft blue glow. On the other side sits the sleek Sony Playstation 3. Wireless and wired controllers are strewn about the room, wherever they were put down last. Electronic guitars from various games hang on the wall next to voice headsets for online games. The whole system is connected to a 5.1 surround sound stereo system. It’s never been turned up all the way, for good reason.
SIDEBAR: The Gamer Classes (courtesy Wikipedia)
Casual gamer: Someone who plays games designed for ease of game play (such as Tetris) and doesn’t spend much time playing more involved games. The genres that casual gamers play vary, and they might not own a specific video game console to play their games.
Hardcore gamer: The hardcore gamer plays more often than the casual gamer and tends to play more difficult games. They are also usually marked by participation in gaming culture. They tend to play games that require larger amounts of time to complete or master. There are many subtypes of hardcore gamers based on the style of game, gameplay preference, hardware platform, and other preferences.
Pro gamer: A Professional gamer plays video games for money. (The term electronic sports is used to describe the play of video games as a professional sport.) Whether a professional gamer is a subtype of the hardcore gamer largely depends on the degree to which a professional gamer is financially dependent upon the income derived from gaming. So far as a professional gamer is financially dependent upon gaming, the time spent playing is no longer “leisure” time. In countries of Asia, particularly South Korea and Japan, professional gamers are sponsored by large companies and can earn more than $100,000USD a year, in addition to the cult following that some obtain.
Newbie: This is gamer slang for a player who is new or inexperienced. Two derived terms are “newb”, a beginner who is willing to learn; and “noob”, a very derogatory name.
John is a Gamer. There’s little question of that. When he’s not at Dalhousie University studying computer science, or working part-time at the drug store down the street, or with his friends at the movie theaters, he can likely be found in the basement. He estimates that he is engaged in video games about 30 hours a week in some form or another.
John sees video games as just a way to spend his downtime, just as other would watch TV or read books. But instead of just following along and peaking into the main characters’ minds, good video games allow the player to be a real part of the story.
“The difference is that there are choices,” said John. “There are thousands of stories to be told from any one game.”
Just don’t ask him what his favourite game is. There are too many different styles of video games for that question to make sense.
“It’s like, ‘PONG’ is a video game; ‘Scribblenauts’ is a video game; ‘Call of Duty’ is a video game. They are all so varied and different that you can’t really compare them. I can’t pick one and call it my favourite.”
The name ‘video game’ does encompass a wide variety of creations. Where originally it meant a game that could be displayed on a television-like screen only, it has since grown to include computer games, console games, arcade games, games played on handheld devices, and even applications on mobile phones or iPods.
But regardless of the class of video game, there’s a certain stigma attached to playing them.
“There’s this common idea that these ‘games’ are just for kids,” said John. “But with so many major titles being released rated M… how can you say they are only for children?”
An ‘M-rated’ video game will not be sold to anyone under the age of 17. Many major titles in the last decade have been rated M or higher.
There has been a large discussion in the last few years about games like the popular ‘Mass Effect’, which included a love scene in one of the storylines. Critics complained about sexual content in a ‘children’s game,’ despite the fact it wasn’t rated for anyone under 17 to play.
John says it’s no different then having sexual content in any movie or book.
“These games have deep and engaging storylines and [sexual content] happens to be part of that.”
These ain’t your dad’s video games.
The video game industry is a young one. The first successful commercial video game was PONG, released in 1972. It was a simple game by any standards. Move your electronic cursor up and down, bounce the animated ball back towards your opponent, rinse and repeat. It was released first as an arcade game, to sit beside pinball machines and the like in bars.
After its launch, Atari could barely keep up with demand for the product. People started coming to bars specifically to play PONG. A few years later Atari released the home version of the game. They sold 150,000 in the first year. The video game industry as we know it was born.
These early video games were literally games. At the level of technology available to them, game designers could produce little beyond a few simple geometric patterns bouncing around on a coloured screen. There were basic objectives, a pinch of strategy, and some repetitive 8-bit music. Compared to other entertainment sources at the time it was simple and childish.
But in 40 years, video games have evolved at a frightening pace. They’ve gone from an abstract version of ping-pong to 100+ hour, masterfully scripted, beautifully animated works of entertainment.
Each major title is now the result of hundreds of people, usually working for a few years on one product. The story lines played out are broad and deep. It’s often the same level of storycrafting you’d find in a primetime television series, except the video game is often funnier, edgier and willing to take more risks. The story arcs are also much longer than in most other forms of entertainment. An average movie is around two hours. An average video game is 12 hours for the main story arc, with some reaching as long as 60 hours. MMO games (massively multi-player online) like World of Warcraft and Eve Online literally have no end. Some people have played them for years.
Visually, games are approaching realism. As computers get more powerful, it should only take a few years for games to be released that are indistinguishable from reality. That is, when a game wants to look real. The ability to escape from reality for a short time remains one of the draws of video games.
All of this has come about in the last 40 years. Think of what the other entertainment mediums have accomplished in the same time period.
In the 70′s, Star Wars was released. It was an amazing success, partly due to its radical new technology with computer-generated images and animatronics. But when you watch the movie now, it still looks passable as a current movie.
There have been a few niche advances over the years. The Matrix had it’s ‘bullet-time’, and Avatar added a new type of 3D viewing experience (3D made its first appearance in the 1950′s, but we forgot about it for a while), and Pixar and Dreamworks make better cartoons (using technology borrowed from video games). But other than that, the industry is the same. It’s nothing like the revolutionary growth of video games.
Where movies, books, music and so on have had decades and even centuries since their inception, video games as an entertainment genre may have already surpassed them in just 40 short years.
Nothing exemplifies their success more than the story of Modern Warfare 2.
The game’s full name is ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2′, and is actually the sixth game released in the “Call of Duty” franchise. It follows the very successful ‘Modern Warfare’.
The marketing campaign leading up to its release was massive. There were television commercials, press conferences, presentations at major video game events, and extensive use of online advertising. Gamers were worked up into a veritable frenzy by the release date.
In the first 24 hours, gamers in the U.S. and U.K. bought over 4.7 million copies of the game. The revenue from that one day was $310 million. It was the single largest entertainment launch in history. In five days, the game earned $550 million. In two months, it crossed the magical $1 billion mark. The only other game to make that much money is World of Warcraft, which is said to make around $1 billion a year in subscription fees.
When is the entertainment too good?
Any mention of the game World of Warcraft opens an entirely new discussion about video games. Are they addictive and can they be detrimental to your health?
There is a common view of gamers held by those who aren’t involved, specifically, that they are mind-numbed zombies whose sole drive in life is to play more video games. In some cases, there is no doubt that this is true.
Here are some horror stories that were sent in:
I used to play Everquest 2 like religiously. I got into it because of an ex-boyfriend and played for like 3 years. In second year of university I just had a freak out and quit the game. I even sold my account for $400 to make sure I wouldn’t go back to it.
(My boyfriend) started playing WoW in our second year. He never really turned into a zombie, but he did play it a lot.
The reason he had the second monitor was so that he could MSN/write essays and play WoW at the same time. I never really found it to be a huge issue. Most of the time it was just to pass time, for something to do, blow off some steam. He never really took it all too seriously.
He even got me to play for a couple of months, but it was mostly for that class I was taking.
It was all good until he decided to start raiding with guys from the West Coast at 11 our time and was up until 1 or 2 am or even later. It was at that time he said that I gave him ‘the smackdown’ haha. I was not going to have his WoW time interfere with our sleep time.
Truth be told though, it gave him an outlet to blow off steam after a long day, and I didn’t mind that part so much haha.
Bill (pseudonym) was dating my best friend at the time. He was an outgoing young man who played guitar, sang in his own band, went to university and loved to party with friends. He was your typical smooth-talking country boy, and we generally enjoyed his company when he visited.
After two years, he dropped out of university (I don’t attribute this to gaming, because I don’t think he had really started then). It was after that, though, that we began to notice a difference in Bill. When he came to visit my friend, he would spend all of his time conversing with his brother over the internet while involved in a game of WoW. Rarely did he want to spend time with us anymore, and preferred to closet himself away in my friend’s room to play his “game.”
He was a completely changed person from the one we had known even just the year before. It certainly had a toll on their relationship, and his brief visits (he lived six hours away) became rather strained. Between gaming and other important differences, they broke up within a few months.
Clearly some people don’t mix well with the siren call of video gaming. Some cases get so bad they may even qualify as a mental disorder.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recently recommended that so-called ‘video game addiction’ be added to the upcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is a manual commonly used by mental health professionals that categorizes psychiatric diagnoses for all mental illnesses. It’s like the bible of diagnosing mental problems. Video game addiction is not listed in the current edition.
Chair of AACAP’s TV and Media Committee, Dr. Michael Brody, said, “This is a type of media where players become a part of the game. However, there is not enough research on whether or not video games are addictive. For many children and adolescents, playing video games is integrated into their lives in a balanced, healthy manner. For others, it displaces physical activity and time spent on studies, with friends, and even with family.”
The AACAP warns that exposure to violent video games can elevate aggressive feelings and thoughts, especially in children and adolescents.
In addition, spending large amounts of time playing these games can create problems and lead to poor social skills, time away from family, school-work, and other hobbies, lower grades and reading less and, finally, lack of exercise and obesity.
“The world of gaming is Darwinian and lacking compassion as many games are violent with the players winning by killing. The games are often sexist and racist,” said Dr. Brody. “The AACAP recommends that the rating of these games be more reliable and the raters be independent of the gaming industry.”
But even if the rating system changes, it’s unlikely to change much. Even games that are currently rated as as ‘Mature’ or ‘Adults-Only’ often fall into the hands of younger people, just as they often have no problem getting into R-Rated movies. Just like smoking cigarettes, in the end, real change is more likely to come from social pressures, not legislation.
The Gamer Generation
For his part, John hasn’t experienced many detriments resulting from his life as a gamer. He has a group of friends he can rely on, many of whom are gamers themselves. He performs well enough at work to pay for his gaming equipment and to see country music concerts in the summer. And he’s excelling in university at Dalhousie’s computer science program.
He doesn’t feel that time spent gaming is particularly anti-social or lonely, particularly in this age of online gaming. Whether he’s playing Modern Warfare or Eve Online or League of Legends, he’s playing with a group of other people online.
It’s not so easy to just turn off the game at any random moment. For John, and other gamers, it would be the equivalent of playing a board game with a dozen people together in a room, and mid-game, deciding to get up and walk away. It wouldn’t be acceptable in real-life, so why would it be acceptable online?
“These are people that have committed a half and hour to an hour of their day to get together and have fun doing something. To leave halfway through, especially if you’re an important member of the group, would just ruin it for them,” said John. “Some people think that because you might not know the people in real life, it’s ok to waste their time like that. But these are real people we are playing with, and we should respect that.”
With this technology so young, John is part of the very first generation with access to well-crafted video games throughout their whole lives. It may be possible that video games will lose the stigma of “children’s plaything” that they still hold, and be accepted as the art form they have become.