How video games have shifted the culture

By Harold Goldberg
April 6, 2011

By Harold Goldberg
The opinions expressed are his own.

Angry birdYou may not have deigned to touch a videogame since Pong and Space Invaders. But the culture, technology and business of games have filtered down into your living room, your mobile phones and your very lives.

Today, Angry Birds is being played in the home and on the commute to work, so much that there’s now an app that claims to help you stave off your addiction. There’s an undeniable, adorable cartoon cuteness to Angry Birds. You just can’t quit it. More, it’s a salient example of the grail for all game designers: Make a game that’s simple to play but difficult to master and there’s gold at the end of the rainbow. Such was Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s golden rule when he mass-produced Pong at Atari in the 1970s. And it’s still true today.

But indulging in a popular game like Angry Birds, Red Dead Redemption or Super Mario Galaxy 2 means more than play. Selling these games is really about trickle-down technology and pop culture that has roots in the century-old Thorstein Veblen theory of conspicuous consumption. You’ll hear, “You haven’t played Angry Birds? Well, you should. Everyone else is.”

The designers of videogames may be nerds. But they’re supremely creative tantalizers, as self-aware and world-aware as Steven Spielberg or Stephen King. Listen to The Sims creator Will Wright speak, and you’ll hear weighty theories of urban planning — along with analogies to every form of popular culture from Godzilla to Star Trek to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sam Houser, who heads up the company that makes the Grand Theft Auto series, spins insightful stories of gamemaking, hip hop culture and life itself, full of hypotheses, introspection, and great passion.

If you haven’t played videogames since the 70s or 80s, you’re in for a surprise. Not only has the technology made games movie-like — the technology can do better than movies with the Nintendo 3DS which immerses you in a world of awe-inspiring depth — without the glasses (albeit with some vertigo). It’s indeed an agile industry that still takes chances.

Just as relevant to those who haven’t played games in some time is the fact that narrative, plot and dialog aren’t necessarily cliche anymore. Story in a game can be as alluring as almost any plot in a best-selling book. When the visionary Trip Hawkins started Electronic Arts in the early-80s, he said he wanted to design a game that made people cry. He couldn’t. The smart designers were too inexperienced, the technology too primitive. But nearly three decades later, it’s happened. You become choked up at the end of the western-themed Red Dead Redemption.

You even tear up in Red Dead’s adjunct downloadable game, Undead Nightmare. And it comes during a most unusual meeting — with a Sasquatch. For almost an hour, you’ve been told to hunt down and kill five Bigfoot beasts. When you track down the fifth, he’s sitting under a tree near a rushing river, ensconced in a sunlit, pastoral setting. The hairy monster is crying, tearfully explaining that someone has killed the very last of his kind. “You may as well kill me,” he cries. “My family has been murdered. I have nothing to live for. Kill me,” he urges again. How could one mist up over an animated beast that has no real-life counterpart? Because the makers of the game have become masters of pacing, mood and dialog.

And with “Apocalypse Now” writer John Milius penning the script for the hit Homefront shooter in which North Korea is a controlling superpower, an even more far-fetched plot becomes fairly believable. Milius said to the developers, this story isn’t Halo. It’s not always about war. It’s The Grapes of Wrath. It’s about the struggle of people, a human struggle. So now, videogames have become influenced by Nobel Prize-winning literature.

But all this creativity and technology comes at a high financial cost. High profile games can cost more than $100 million today when you include marketing costs. The payoff, however, can be more than tenfold if the game hits. When a big console game fails, however, good studios close and genius developers are fired. That’s occurred a fair bit lately during the recession. The slack has picked up, however, with iPad and Facebook games. These niches have grown quickly into multi-billion dollar industries.

Games have steathily invaded familiar pop culture. You see it when Jon Stewart references Pac-Man during an interview with Beyond Boundaries author, Dr. Miguel Nicolelis. You watch it in a Coke commercial with a Grand Theft Auto theme. You suffer through it in game-inspired movies (like Prince of Persia) that Hollywood never gets right because its focus is on action, not nuanced story, and on licensing and branding more than on taut scripts.

Yet some do understand the wide swath games can cut in society. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Democratic marketing types purchased a billboard in the racing game Burnout Paradise which read, “Vote for Change.” As you drove, you saw it again and again.

Then there’s the growing niche of serious games and studies of games that make a difference in the worlds of medicine and science. Just recently at the 2011 Game Developers Conference, Nina H. Fefferman, an epidemiologist from Rutgers, talked energetically about how tracking a potent computer virus in World of Warcraft helped her in her research for real-life answers to disease.

Videogames affect your life even when you think they are just toys that kids and nerds play. It’s no accident that videogames often pummel the music, movie and DVD industries in terms of sales. It would be wise indeed for the leaders of wounded entertainment juggernauts to wake up and understand precisely how and why videogames have conquered popular culture — to revitalize their wounded enterprises before they become extinct.

Harold Goldberg is the author of the just-released “All Your Base Are Belong to Us, How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture” (Crown/Three Rivers Press).

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