[1 May 2008]
Whether you think they’re art or not, whether you think they’re dangerous or not, there is no mistaking the growing momentum of games in the entertainment industry. From 2006 to 2007, the amount of money spent on games and the machines with which to play those games increased a whopping 28 percent, even as the revenue brought in from films remained relatively static (with overall growth of 1.8 percent) and music sales continue to crumble (down 10 percent).
This is not meant, by any means, to be any sort of reflection on the overall quality of any of the aforementioned mediums—not to mention that a good portion of the uptick in gaming related dollars is likely due to the mass promotional push that comes with the release of new consoles like the PS3 and Wii (both released in ‘06, making ‘07 the first full year on shelves for both of them)—it’s just to say that games are, quite obviously, on our minds of late. Despite the lack of decent game-related breakfast cereals on modern supermarket shelves, games are shaping our society in ways that may once have seemed unimaginable.
Of particular note is the way in which modern games have sought to reach out to constituencies beyond young children. Of note is the Entertainment Software Association’s finding that the average age of the game buyer is 38, while the average age of the game player is 33. One could argue that games have been doing this for a long time; Mortal Kombat‘s bloody splash of an introduction into the marketplace was certainly an example of gaming beyond the “kiddie” market, and unauthorized sex-related games have been around for game consoles far longer than that. Still, even those games were ones which, despite their “mature” label, appealed to the more juvenile inclinations of older, quite specifically male, gamers. What we are seeing now is a series of honest attempts at “mature” gaming that actually attempt to live up to such a label, resulting in a tremendous expansion of the gamer constituency.
At Moving Pixels, PopMatters’ newly-established gaming and multimedia blog, we constantly have an eye on this expanded audience for gaming and what it means for gaming’s perception in society. There is still a tremendous tug-of-war between those who believe that gaming is a realm dedicated to children, whether literally or metaphorically, and those who see it as a cultural form with an audience whose diversity is continually expanding. In some instances, even game publishing companies, with all of their focus groups and market research at hand, are at a loss as to what to do about appeasing and attracting people outside the ever-vocal demographic of teenage boys. Interfacing is Moving Pixels’ way of taking a look at the tenuous relationship between the gaming world and the real world, and the awkwardness and enlightenment that the intersections between the two can achieve. What you see below are a few of examples of such that we found in our first month of publishing at PopMatters.
Wii for Women and the Gaming Gender Divide
“Wii for Women” really wasn’t much of an event, although based on coverage of other Best Buy locations’ takes on the whole thing, the experience probably varied from place to place. There were two tables set up in the back of the store for the event, not the most ideal of locations but probably understandable given that a) it forces people who show up for the thing to walk through aisles of CDs and games, and b) the home theater demo center is back there. Walking up to the first table, I was assaulted by a collection of pretty much every game thus far that has caused the so-called hardcore gaming community to come to the conclusion that Nintendo is utterly abandoning it. Mario Party 8, Carnival Games, Guitar Hero 3 (itself perhaps the most stereotypically “male” product on display), Super Mario Galaxy, and, of course, Cooking Mama: Cook Off (you know, because women can relate to cooking) were all there, backed by a (very friendly) Best Buy employee whose sole job was to corrall people to the display and explain the games to people who asked.
The second table was where the good stuff was: A whole pile of Lindor truffles (white chocolate Lindor truffles are truly one of life’s great pleasures), a vase full of carnations for all the boyfriends dragging their significant others along, some Wii Fit paraphernalia like green and white Wii Fit pins and green Livestrong-style Wii Fit bracelets, with the raffle tickets and a brochure explaining the ESRB completing the grab bag o’ stuff. After downing a truffle and being politely informed that I could not enter the raffle because, well, this was a “Wii for Women” event, I checked out the media room.
There were two big screen TVs. On the first, a happy couple was playing a spirited round of Wii Sports’ bowling, with a small audience watching. On the other was a lonely, abandoned game of Carnival Games. Seriously, people, which of you bought Carnival Games? They’ve shipped a cool million copies of that thing, and I still haven’t met anyone who says “Ooooh, Carnival Games? Awesome game.” They’ve announced a sequel.
A Look at State of Massachusetts House Bill 1423
Looking at the text of Massachusetts House Bill 1423, one might take some issue with the ways it has been represented in the media. For one, it is constantly referred to as the “games-as-porn” bill, which seems a bit disingenuous, since such a label seems to imply that those behind the bill are chomping at the bit to call games porn, to get them out of stores and ruin the day of the developers and publishers behind the filth. I don’t necessarily see it that way—to me, it looks a little bit like a “games-can-be-porn” bill, which actually makes a little bit of sense, to a point.
Bear with me here. The way that the obscenity/pornography laws of Massachusetts are currently written, some retailer could sell a 10-year-old a game called Misty’s Masochistic Ménage à Trois, and there’s a chance that they wouldn’t be held responsible, given that “interactive media”, as Section 2 of the proposed bill puts it, is not currently covered by the law. Putting aside the highly subjective topics of what exactly constitutes obscenity or pornography, it seems safe to say that if you are going to hold people responsible for selling “filth” to minors, video game “filth” should be part of that. The addition of “interactive media” to the definition of “Visual Material” would seem to be more a matter of times changing than any sort of video game witch hunt.
It’s the other part of the bill that seems a touch…underdeveloped. The definition of “Harmful to Minors” proposed by Bill 1423 is actually identical to the one that already exists, except for the insertion of clause #2, the wording describing violence. The problem here is that the definition of “violence” as it applies to media is even more difficult to nail down than the already subjective topic of what exactly constitutes “sexual conduct”. Besides even that, the way the Bill is worded, the “violence” clause is not specific to games (as implied by most of the coverage of the bill)—the sale of any media considered too “violent” to minors becomes subject to the pornography laws. You could just as easily call this the “violence-as-porn” bill, which may well mean that it applies to the genre of movies that spawned Saw and Hostel. Still, there is a tremendous genre of movies whose entire point is mindless violence, with no truly redeeming artistic value to be found. They’re called action movies. The governor of California even starred in a couple of them. Are they going to enforce the sale of Commando the same way they do, say, Condemned?
A Bucket of Chicken with a Side of Guilt
Super Chick Sisters has actually been around for almost a year now, as it turns out, and it’s easy to see why it continues to draw visitors: For a piddly little Flash game, its production values are quite high, and its presentation pretty slick. Pamela Anderson has been kidnapped, you see (just before she was about to break the story that KFC’s methods are, um, unsavory, to put it lightly), and it’s up to Mario & Luigi Nugget & Chickette to save the day from the evil corporate KFC warlords who have kidnapped her! As is told in a variety of cute little cutscenes between levels, Mario & Luigi have been afflicted with “Wiitis”, which I think roughly translates to Wii Sports: Tennis elbow.
It’s not just the cutscenes that are “cute”, either; the entire game has a gloss and a happy feel to it that’s entirely at odds with the information being presented. It’s classic let-down-your-guard kind of stuff, presenting a Mario-esque functionality and power-up system with a Sonic the Hedgehog Green Hill Zone sort of happy shinyness to it (the first level is most reminiscent of the latter, but the happy shinyness never really lets up). As you run around stomping on Colonel-bots and whatnot, you also get information from randomly scattered people as to the specifics regarding KFC’s cruelty. Example: They cut off the beaks while the chickens are still alive. It’s a terribly gruesome thought, and the juxtaposition of this sort of education with the primary-colored glare that comes off of the game is difficult to resolve.
The difficult thing about Super Chick Sisters is that it’s actually sort of fun as far as Flash games go. Not only that, but the presence of actual unlockables (in a Flash game!) and an ever-changing landscape is enough to keep you going. The thing is, the propaganda never, ever lets up. You see tale after tale about the overcrowded, crippling conditions, and you become either an activist or an accomplice; there’s really no in between once the game beats you over the head with its message long enough.
To think light of the gamer’s impact in modern society is to walk on dangerous ground, as anyone with a book to peddle on Amazon.com should know by now. The three examples above are but a small sample of the ways that the expanding cultural footprint of gaming is being addressed, in constructive, destructive, and just plain awkward ways.
As publishers and production companies struggle to keep game consoles in stores sometimes years after their initial release, it becomes plainly clear that the momentum of the medium is still building. We are plainly looking forward to seeing where that momentum is headed.
Mike Schiller is a software engineer in Buffalo, NY who enjoys filling the free time he finds with media of any sort -- music, movies, and lately, video games. Stepping into the role of PopMatters Multimedia editor in 2006 after having written music and game reviews for two years previous, he has renewed his passion for gaming to levels not seen since his fondly-remembered college days of ethernet-enabled dorm rooms and all-night Goldeneye marathons. His three children unconditionally approve of their father's most recent set of obsessions.