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.