Video Games as Serious Entertainment

Dr John Wills is a Reader in American History and Culture at the University of Kent. Follow him at @drjonw on twitter.

The most successful entertainment product of all time is not a book, not a film, but an 18-certificate video game depicting criminal life in a fictional version of Los Angeles.  Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V (2013) reached $6 billion in revenue in 2018, and has now sold over 130 million copies. Video games matter, and they matter on a mass scale. Current estimates suggest around 2.5 billion people regularly play games worldwide (with the average player in their thirties). Meanwhile, the global video game industry continues to grow, with its value expected to surpass $180 billion by 2021.

As a games researcher, this data reinforces the need to take video games seriously. My own interest lies in how video games depict (and reframe) the world around us.  Back in the early 2000s (and at the beginning of Games Studies as a discipline), I became interested in how programmers simulate ‘nature’ in their game worlds, sometimes using it as barrier to progress, at other times as a resource to develop (think Sid Meier’s Civilization), or equally, and more intriguingly, allowing you as a player to assume control of an animal (at its most cartoon and obvious, Sonic the Hedgehog). I realized that collectively games had begun to fashion a ‘digital’ form of nature.

My most recent book, Gamer Nation: Video Games and American Culture for Johns Hopkins University Press, looks at how video games depict the United States of America.  The USA is arguably the ‘home’ of gaming.  Early sports game Tennis for Two (1958) was invented at Brookhaven National Laboratory by a nuclear physicist (who also worked on the Manhattan Project tasked with creating the world’s first atomic bomb), while students from MIT designed

Spacewar! (1962).  In the late 1970s, the Atari VCS console revolutionized the entertainment industry, and anyone over 40 likely remembers one of the machines in their front room (complete with its ‘tasteful’ wooden facade), and playing games like Space Invaders or Missile Command on the TV.  What I found interesting is how each new ‘wave’ of consoles and games commented (sometimes subtly, and at other times, quite brazenly) on the politics, culture and society surrounding them.  As cultural products, they naturally reflected the real world of their creators, but also, in their ‘digital worlds’ offered some intriguing commentary, imagery, and ideas.  An obvious example is how far military first-person shooters in the 2000s preached post-9/11 patriotism and allowed the player-at-home to enact ‘virtual vengeance’ on terrorists.  Or how during the 2016 US Election, a range of free, downloadable games emerged both attacking and celebrating then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.  A more ‘hidden’ example might be how games typically re-enforce cultures of consumption by their mechanics of ‘collecting’ and avatar personalization.

So video games can offer serious cultural commentary.  As the games industry continues to grow, there remain exciting opportunities for new collaboration between artistic, creative, academic and corporate sectors.  Greater digital realism demands greater expertise; a historical consultant, say, might prove vital to the accurate replication of past settings.  Equally, an ethics professor might advise on socially responsible scripting. Games have always had the capability to deliver messages alongside the adrenalin and action. The greater the collaboration, the greater the potential to make play positively matter in the future.

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