Video Games Are Still for Kids

Electronic games haven’t reached a level of sophistication commensurate with adult intellect. Pro or con?

Pro: Hardly Masterpiece Theater

There’s no denying video games and video gamers have become more sophisticated over the last decade. In the 1990s calling yourself a gamer meant two things: You were 12, and you lived with your parents. Today, the average gamer is 33, part of a $7 billion national industry, and, well, possibly still living with his parents.

Just because the gamers grew up doesn’t mean video games are tailored for thirtysomethings. The most successful games sell because, like a great animated movie, they work on a simpler level that both younger and older audiences can appreciate. That’s why the top-selling game on Amazon (AMZN) in January was not Halo 3, or any similar strategy-based shooter; it was Super Mario Galaxy for Nintendo Wii.

Wii’s audience spans generations—from pimpled middle schoolers to primped yuppies—because many consumers aren’t looking for adult sophistication in a video game. They’re looking for an escape. Look at the plot description for last year’s breakout game, Gears of War from Epic Games: “Humankind’s epic battle for survival against the Locust Horde, a nightmarish race of creatures that surface from the bowels of the planet.” However stellar the game play, that’s basically the 1990 movie Tremors minus Kevin Bacon.

It’s hard to find a popular game we can truly call “adult.” Mario is still Mario. The mega-hit Rock Band Special Edition by MTV Games is essentially millennial karaoke. In Monster Hunter: Freedom 2, warriors do battle with Akantor, which Capcom defines as “a rather large quadrupedal magma wyvern.” Challenging? Perhaps. Addictive? You bet. But Shakespeare it ain’t. Let me know when Microsoft (MSFT) comes out with Mortgage Hunter: Freedom to Refinance, then we can talk about adult sophistication.

According to Entertainment Software Assn. statistics, only 14% of video games sold in 2006 were rated “M” for Mature Audiences Only. Certainly, 1990s gamers might have mistaken today’s stunningly lifelike shooter games for war footage. But the vast majority of games still appeal to a very un-adult audience. The technology is rapidly maturing, but the industry is still rated “E” for Everyone.

Con: Higher and Higher Concept

From a commercial perspective, 2007 was likely the biggest year ever for games writ large, from button-mashing console titles to highly immersing virtual worlds. A freshly minted set of consoles from Microsoft, Nintendo (NTDOY), and Sony (SNE) drove sales, and blockbuster titles such as Halo 3 (BusinessWeek.com, 9/24/07) dwarfed the returns of big-budget Hollywood films. But some of the biggest games of the year were as notable for rich narratives and emotionally engaging game play as for financial returns.

Take for instance, last year’s sleeper hit, BioShock from 2K Games, a first-person shooter. The game’s narrative and dystopian setting wove an argument about the relationship between power and freedom, ultimately building to a rejection of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. Not exactly Mario territory.

Up and coming game designers and developers, meanwhile, have managed to create a compelling set of so-called art or creative games that attempt to elicit emotional responses from players without complex narratives or game mechanics. These titles leave behind tired old memes such as levels, points, and extra lives. Think of these designers as counterparts to young Spielberg and Lucas who grew up with a new medium, experimented, and ultimately changed it.

Indeed, as the tools used to create computer-generated film graphics and video games bleed into one another, the medium has attracted the interest of Hollywood heavyweights such as Peter Jackson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Both recently signed on to projects that propose to bring their styles of storytelling to new games.

Finally, the scope and number of people who play games is expanding. These new gamers aren’t stereotypical, aloof teens. According to figures published by the Entertainment Software Assn., 69% of U.S. heads of households play games. What’s more, the majority of adult gamers appear to be socially engaged, intelligent individuals: 94% follow news and current events, and 78% vote.

One late-breaking additional bit of evidence: On Feb. 9, the Writers Guild of America will award its first honor for video game writing—confirmation that the craft and literary quality of game design is catching up.

Note: Please also visit BusinessWeek.com’s new Games, Inc. blog, for analysis of emerging business trends in video games and interactive entertainment.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Ryo

In my opinion, video games are for everyone. There is more to a game than just a story. That's the beauty of different media; you experience it in different ways.

Not to mention that people need to open their horizons. Stories in games can go as far back as the 1980s. Also there are different markets, like the Japanese market. Plenty of RPG games with plenty of stories with many adult-theme games.

If you only stick with what's "popular," you're not going to find many of the excellent games you are looking for.

There's more to a game than a story, as in game play like Katamari Damacy or Loco Roco. You must keep this in mind when you play a game--you are the star, and it's interactive. That sets it apart from other media immediately.

In this day and age, I really hope more mainstream media and other people will realize that with the Internet, there is no excuse. You can look up many games and find one that you might like. There are game trailers for you to see if you like the game play, and there are story descriptions if you're looking for one and many more. Like many others say, go to Wiki. You can get a lot of game info there.

I hear people say that video games are for children, but I continue to find that silly. It's your job to find what you would like and get to know more about it. Don't just follow the sheep with the popular game if you don't like it. Info is out there, so use it.

edward

The year 2007 was definitely a major year in video games. The industry is definitely taking a turn in the right direction, but I am afraid about Rockstar with its new Grand Theft Auto game coming out soon. The industry might take a turn for the worse since its last game was not a big favorite of parents and the media. This game can really screw everything everyone else is trying to put back in the right direction. I really hope Rockstar knows what it's doing and won't ruin it for everyone.

Chris

You only need to look at games like Ico or Shadow of the colossus that are challenging the traditional way in which video games are made. These are great games that are fun to play but have something that makes them distinctly adult--probably the emotional challenge each brings out in the gamer. In Ico, you really care for Yorda as you hold her hand to help her over obstacles, and when you feel sad for killing a giant colossus, you know something unusual is going on. There are great things coming, and it's only going to get better.

Dr. Serendipitous

"Electronic games haven't reached a level of sophistication commensurate with adult intellect"--a curious statement in view of the fact that such relatively simple games as chess and Japanese Go have been around in electronic versions for many years and are sophisticated enough to challenge and stimulate adult intellect.

If the statement is referring to graphic and other sensory sophistication, I am not so certain electronic games should reach the point where the players cannot tell the difference between virtual reality and physical reality, for at that point the electronic games will have become physically deadly.

Javier

We need to define what we call art. Philosophers have been debating this for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

In terms of matching up with other media, games do well. Graphics are very life-like--in fact, more so that a lot of older films' special effects.

Stories can be very complicated and evoke every emotion. Some games have stories that need to be read (rather than using voice acting). I have seen many books with fewer words to read.

We could look at the allure of some games. The allure of World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online is just as rich and varied as that created by Tolkien.

Games have a certain stigma attached simply because they are a new medium compared to other forms of art. It was once (in its early days) solely a playground for children where adults had no place. This was due to both technical restrictions and the fact that the industry was in its infancy.

Just because it is interactive doesn't mean that a computer-generated piece of art (a game) is any different from a static piece of computer-generated art that a graphic or Web designer creates.

ACE

I'm an adult, and play video games frequently.

random

If we go by the logic of the pro argument, we can reduce anything to a simplistic, unsophisticated effort in escapism. American Beauty? It's a guy having a midlife crisis. Romeo and Juliet? A Harlequin novel with a heavy-handed ending. Name of the Rose? An Italian semanticist's description of the boring lives of monks in an abbey with gratuitous, anonymous sex thrown in as a crowd pleaser while an insane ancient is going after a rare book for a nonsensical reason. We can go on and on.

There's a reason no one will ever make Mortgage Hunter: Freedom to Refinance. Because it's mind numbingly boring, and 98% of the game would be spent waiting for calls back from banks. Where's the sophistication? Where is the challenge? Figuring out your budget? One would hope you do that anyway. But game makers will create games that test your ability to multitask and create.

Just look at Spore and tell me that overseeing the evolution of an organism from amino acid to a God-like master of space, time, and galaxies isn't a high-concept game. I dare you.

Andy

This story fails.

Joel Rigby

Top 10 Industry Facts

http://www.theesa.com/facts/top_10_facts.php

1. US computer and video game software sales grew 6% in 2006 to $7.4 billion--almost tripling industry software sales since 1996.

2. Sixty-seven percent of American heads of households play computer and video games.

3. The average game player is 33 years old and has been playing games for 12 years.

4. The average age of the most frequent game buyer is 38 years old. In 2007, 92% of computer game buyers and 80% of console game buyers were over the age of 18.

7. Thirty-six percent of U.S. parents say they play computer and video games. Further, 80% of gamer parents say they play video games with their kids. Sixty-six percent feel that playing games has brought their families closer together.

8. Thirty-eight percent of all game players are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (31%) than boys age 17 or younger (20%).

9. In 2007, 24% of Americans over the age of 50 played video games, an increase from 9% in 1999.

Adam

That's funny, all this time I thought I was a perfectly (read:mostly) normal 24 year old. Now I have come to find out I have the maturity level of a child. Way to go, BusinessWeek.

Your argument is pointless and stupid. Saying video games are only for kids because the top selling game was Super Mario Galaxy is like saying movies are only for kids because a Disney/Pixar flick was No. 1 at the box office.

The fact is, video games, like all forms of mass media, are designed for people of every age. Just look at all the reports of how the elderly have taken to playing Brain Age on the Nintendo DS.

Most of the best-selling games lately have been M-rated. If video games are only for kids, then the ESRB is not only way off on their ratings system, but also the video game developers are being incredibly irresponsible in their designing of these ultra-violent shooter games for 12 year olds. Not to mention the terrible job parents are doing of keeping their kids away from these games.

But in reality, the developers are making these (violent shooter) games for people like me. Males aged 18 to 30. The ESRB is doing a damn good job at rating these games, and in fact, parents are solely to blame for their children playing such violent games. Especially with so many retailers refusing to sell M-rated material to children.

CoNcEpT 09

I think you don't know what you're talking about.

Andrew

As an adult player of video games, I find the medium much more emotionally and intellectually involving than, for example, an evening watching network TV. In general though, video games are a different medium from movies and books and are better in some areas but worse in others. You don't know action-horror unless you have been there and played it in a Doom-like game. The same can be said for sci-fi. Video games developers are pushing the envelope to encompass more, but for me this is the core of the video game experience.

Jon

The "pro" argument fails, because he only picks out the games that support his argument while ignoring the multitudes of games that do not. It would be like if I said movies are only a kids' medium, citing only Harry Potter and Shrek as examples.

Jon

This article is a piece of bull. My brother is 25, and he plays video games about five hours a week.

Will

Interesting take. However, the only reason Mario was No. 1 in January is that there had already been four million copies of Halo 3 sold since it was released four months prior.

Michael

Obviously, this editor is not a gamer because he has no clue what he is talking about. I am with you, Adam.

Jordan Lund

I guess it depends on what you mean by "commensurate with adult intellect."

Compared to a film industry that produces fare such as Good Luck Chuck or The Bucket List, games like Bioshock, the Orange Box, and Mass Effect compare really, really well.

Compared to a TV industry where the No. 1 show is American Idol? No contest, titles like Rock Band and Guitar Hero 3 are more interactive and superior in just about every way.

There will always be a place for kids' games like Mario--on Nintendo platforms. But to say that kids' games define the industry as a whole would be like judging all of literature based on the Harry Potter books just because they dominated the NYT bestsellers list.

I'll make a challenge right here. Games can be just as cinematic as film and as plot-driven as a novel. Anyone who doubts these statements needs to sit down with three games:

1) Syberia (original Xbox)
2) Syberia II (original Xbox, playable on the Xbox 360)
3) Mass Effect (Xbox 360)

Jordan Lund

@Will:
The NPD sales numbers just came out for December, and the No. 1 selling game was actually Call of Duty 4 on the Xbox 360, not Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii.

Aarrgh

Where are you hiding the political debates?

ben

A few issues with the pro argument.

Describing Gears of War as "like Tremors" shows that the debater hasn't played it--or even watched a video of it.

Saying millennial karaoke is not truly "adult" would be an affront to the millions of East Asians who sing their hearts out every night.

Suggesting that dealing with mortgages in a game would involve adult sophistication implies that there is something sophisticated about choosing or changing your mortgage. A choice that only adults make it may be, but hardly one that a bright 15-year-old couldn't make equally well. Perhaps the phrase adult banality would have been more apt and would have shown why most adults don't play games--they just ain't dull enough.

Jordan Lund

@ben
My guess is the adult video games the "Pro" argument is looking for have already been created--they're called "Excel" and "Quicken."

sue

Grand Theft Auto is a scary game. Nothing like letting your kid be a thug for a day. On the other hand, what was cowboys and Indians if not organized mayhem on a make-believe scale? When the gamers figure out an electronic version of Rocky and Bullwinkle, they'll pull in the over-50 crowd.

mattydread

Video games are still for kids? Yeah, all of them that aren't rated Mature or Adult by the ESRB.

Larry

I think the article title is misleading based on the content. It seems the author is informed on the gaming community (47% of gamers are 18 to 49) but still resigns himself to the conventional belief. I'm confused about this article's purpose.

bryan ruiz

Kids need more video games!

leathan

Yeah, games are still for kids, but I like this link about ps2 that needs to come out with some more, though they don't need to come out with DOS Xbox360.

nyaha

Hail Final Fantasy! By the way, I'm 14 and a girl, so yeah, I'm immature.

Bryan

Saying that video games are for the immature because the most popular game was Super Mario Galaxy is like saying that all movies are for children because children's movies do best in the box office. Last time I checked, "popularity" and "maturity level" were not synonymous.

blake

I think you guys are missing the point about the "pro" argument. He compares them with animated movies in that they both appeal to everyone. I don't agree that all video games don't engage the adult mind, but most don't. But most forms of entertainment don't. In fact, they are supposed to let you turn your mental faculties down a bit. Derek is saying that games still appeal to the simpler side of all of us, but notice he never says other forms of entertainment aren't the same way.

I agree that games can be art, but I think we miss the point when we try to fight those we think are belittling video games. We shouldn't have to justify games as art for them to be fully accepted. No other form of entertainment has that burden of proof. Just wait till all the video game haters die of natural causes, like the radio and TV haters did.

Aosar

Personally, I feel that the truly great games pieces of truly inspired interactive art are on a level that transcend age and conventional art, at least to me.

Here is a good definition of art I found on wikitionary: "The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colours, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty"

Another one is: "Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature."

While some may argue that games do not fully create a beauty of form, to their players, they do give the beauty of action and the beauty of presence.

And now someone will say that games aren't art because they are interactive, but isn't all art interactive, requiring you to appreciate it? What art is in Mona Lisa to the blind?

And since all art is interactive and tries to create an environment of sorts, can it not be said that games have the potential to be the greatest art form of all?

gillies

Go, videogames go--for hand eye coordination.

Crafty

Last time I checked most good games came with an "18 and over" rating, and 18 is adult right? So how can a statement like that be true? I'm an adult and I play frequently as well as about 60% of the people I know. Plus, games actually give lots of people. including me, a chance to wind down away from daily routine and work. Have some fun in a virtual setting that you control. I think games are more for adults than for kids. Kids should be outside climbing trees and chasing the dog around. Cyber-kids that spend all day on the PC and gaming lose social skills, they don't develop normally, and they turn out to be anti-social later in life. Plus they get this vampire tan. A cross between a zombie and a white sheet. Make a law that kids can only start playing at 16.

Dharmesta

Adults don't play games because of social norms and worry about the stigma of being childish. Adults need games that justify them playing it.

van anderson

Many adults who haven't played video games don't really know what a true gamer feels when they play video games. It is like their happy time to get away from the many stresses in life; it is no different from watching TV or listening to music on the radio. Games are considered an art through their beautiful music or the astounding realistic graphics and story lines. I am 23 and graduated from high school with honors and love playing video games and I still managed a house and bills. Now does that make me a kid and immature for liking games? This person must be on crack if he thinks so.

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