It’s hard to effectively pinpoint when gaming became a widely accepted social activity. Back in 1972, Atari studios made a game called “Pong”, which effectively simulated the activity of playing table tennis at an arcade. From there, video games, while still loosely associated with a mild tinge of social stigma, continued to evolve and progress. In 1985 however, two games were created that made such a huge cultural impact that even the most hardcore deniers of new media took note. Tetris and Super Mario Bros became such huge commodities in such a short period of time, that the concept and notions of video gaming no longer had to be construed as a hobby, or negatively implied “issue”. Gone were the days of people claiming video games were ruining children’s youth by letting them simulate a sport, instead of actively participating.
What I intend to investigate in this report is how the subculture of “Gamers” from the late 1970s/early 1980s has evolved into a widely accepted lifestyle, encompassing people from all walks of life. Initially, I will discuss how Nintendo have changed the way the market works in regards to creating and expanding their demographic. The advent of the internet and its impact upon online gaming will be examined after this, in specific reference to Massively Multiplayer Online games (henceforth referred to as MMO’s). Penultimately I will reflect upon the recent controversy in South Korea and their perception of gaming as a national sport. To conclude, I will attempt to reflect upon the potential impacts on our culture.
Nintendo haven’t always been the huge conglomerate they are perceived as today. Initially starting out as a distributor of trading cards, as early back as 1889 in Japan, it wasn’t until the release of “Donkey Kong” in 1981 and the aforementioned “Super Mario Bros” in 1985, that Nintendo were seen as a huge wave in the creation of their own specific cultural impact. Steven Poole writes “The two Japanese Giants…Nintendo and Sega…They inspired fanatical loyalty. They were the Beatles and the Stones of the late 1980s…the seemingly unassailable Nintendo, having seen enormous success with the launch of the Game Boy” (Poole 2000: 4-5). The introduction of these two consoles initiated what has been accepted as a “console war” in which fans of either side, much akin to rabid football fanatics, to defend their personal preference over the other “side”. One of the more interesting things Poole claims is that “ Over the past decade, video games have really grown up…which is an amazing, sense-battering, physically-thrilling trip…this acceleration of video game evolution would not be possible otherwise” (Poole 2000: 5).
As Poole stated, video games and the inherent culture have evolved since then. Video games have inevitably moved out of the dingy arcades and into modern homes. They’re no longer a strange obsession associated with 16 year old, acne ridden teenagers as they once were. In 2008, a study into the modern demographic of the kind of people who play games has vastly changed. It is stated that the average age is now 33 years old with a staggering 69% of houses in the USA who actively play games, and only 58% of gamers are male. (www.bizreport.com: 14/04/10). This could in part be attributed to Nintendo, the company which appeals most to a broader family audience. One of the key products behind this concept of changing the way gamers interact with their medium, is Wii Fit. The idea behind the ‘game’ is to accurately depict the users health, help them enhance their body and have fun at the same time. The creator of the game (Miyamoto) said that his idea was “I’m sure it would be fun for people to measure their weight in the living room with the whole family, take data every day and check the graphs, then maybe poke fun at Dad who’s put on a little weight, or congratulate Mum on her diet, etc” (www.nintendo.com: 14/04/10)
This key concept that Miyamoto is trying to push into a broader market is one that the Nintendo Wii uses as its strongest asset, and key marketing idea. Nintendo are trying to change the market, and evolve the way games are being thought about by forcing the player to actively participate in their games. He further goes on to say state his intentions for the product was to create an environment and state of game play in which the family can play together, and interact. Miyamoto makes a bold and incredibly powerful statement further into the interview in which he claims “I enjoy making things that are unlike anything anyone has ever made before. Everything you think of becomes a new idea, and even if it’s nothing big, it’s still a new idea.” (www.nintendo.com: 14/04/10). This epitomises the notions of evolving his medium by consistently trying out new ideas, and allowing the somewhat emergent outcomes to create a new way of thinking.
Jones states “The effect of the Wii has been based on the successful production of a charged atmosphere surrounding the platform-a cultural aura- to the extent that the platform is the cultural aura” (Jones 2008: 127). He then goes on to say that “The theory is telling that as a competitor, Nintendo has so far succeeded against its competitors in this generation by taking a fresh approach to its competition” (Jones 2008: 132). In relation to the earlier widening demographic he says “The Wii is dominating a hitherto uncrowded but extremely wide demographic niche in the game-market environment- the casual or first time gamer…older adult or female…just wants to provide her family with fun” (Jones 2008: 133). What this clearly states is that the evolution of gaming culture seems to come by attracting more first time, family, and casual people and giving them an active thing to do, as opposed to catering towards a more ‘Hardcore’ and ever increasingly niche market.
Massively Multi-player Online games are becoming ever more prevalent in shaping the way that games are seen socially. In a genre of game in which players are forcibly encouraged to interact with other real life people, it would appear that the very notion of a solitary, single person experience doesn’t exist within. However, MMO games don’t necessarily define the next step of evolution in defining games as a platform for social activity. Many inherent issues appear through the architecture of creating what is essentially, a virtual reality. Addiction is one that is often cited as a derogatory aspect of the genre, however Goggin claims that “To say video games are addictive is, to my mind, a truism of the lamest sort. Game developers measure the success and failure by the capacity of their products to hook gamers…however, everyone from parents to high school teachers loudly lament their insidious nature to draw and hold players” (Swalwell 2008: 33). This suggests that developers actively go out of their way to attract players to their MMO game, and keep them there, or as Goggin goes on to describe that “The designers, in fact, tally success by how effectively they manage to eradicate any hint of an inside/outside barrier that would distract the gamer…assisting the transition into the game world” (Swalwell 2008: 43). So far, this theory suggests that, in regards to the MMO genre, the change of the cultural appeal is that of complete player immersion in an alternate reality, albeit one with limited social interaction with other people. The resemblance between the current evolution of games culture mirrors that of Cronenbergs eXistenZ (1999), in which a futuristic world depicts players actively participating in virtual reality, and shows the dangers of becoming intrinsically linked with a fake reality.
As mentioned, a key innovation in MMO games is the notion of social based gameplay. The idea of forced anonymity in online gaming is one that helps players feel at more of an ease going in, as everyone is apparently equal. In Nick Yees “Daedalus project” (www.nickyee.com: 17/04/10), he investigates some of the ideas that confirm these concepts. He states that “About 40% of players feel that their online friends are comparable or even better than their real life friends. While it may seem strange that strong relationships can develop in these worlds where everyone is pretending to be someone else, the architecture of these environments actually facilitates these relationships.” (www.nickyee.com: 17/04/10). This infact, is a key selling point of the genre.
Taking into consideration the sub genres within the MMO , the very notion that they often project a world of fantasy, or ‘hyper realism’ is one which will attract a very specific group of people. Because of this niche demographic, it’s easy to see why people would claim they prefer their friends online to those in real life, just through the situational meeting point. Yee continues to suggest that because of the anonymity which is inherent in online gaming, players often tend to tell their online friends much more about themselves than they would in the real world. This however, perpetuates the stereotype of losing a sense of self, and simply becoming a mindless drone, performing repetitive tasks. In talking to people, he has been told that “You begin to lose a sense of gender identity. I stop for moments now, and have to think hard about what gender I am. It can be hard, and I’m not sure if the benefits of being able to express myself like this outweigh the hardships”. On the other hand, research suggests that MMO games are also a way of interacting with people previously known in the real world. “Our styles are totally different. For instance, I will rather play in a group just for company, even if the exp gain is minimal, whereas my partner tends to literally AVOID other players”. This in itself calls to mind even more questions. In a market in which the key concept behind the ever evolving game culture is that of social interaction, why do some people still shy away, even with the added bonus of anonymity? In a discussion on the “Hikiculture boards” (An online meeting point for reclusive people), and the Star Trek Online boards people shine light on this by claming that “They feel other people are watching them”, “It’s very stressful having to perform to those around me”, I’m worried that people in the game will noticed I messed up” and one of the most harrowing quotes “I can easily understand how games like these can take over some people lives. It was much better than anything reality has ever had to offer me.” (www.hikiculture.prophpbb.com: 18/04/10). One person even goes so far as to say “MMOS attract a large amount of people that have zero social skills.” (www.forums.startrekonline.com: 18/04/10).
Again, this raises the question: In the evolution of gaming, does it devalue the culture it creates by consistently forcing a stereotype?
As mentioned, the notion of addiction does not do well to perpetuate the social stereotype. While games are becoming increasingly more realistic, more users are becoming ever increasingly subject to addiction towards MMO games in particular. The Times recently did a damning article into the obssession of a young male, in which the extremities of the addiction manifested, with such things as the young man developing rage, putting on severe weight and even going so far as to make his mother “Quit her job to care for him. “I was an ambitious career woman,” she says. “But in the end I’ve had to give it all up and look after my son.” (www.timesonline.com: 19/04/10). The stereotype only continues to diminish in the public eye throughout the story. They detail the story of the recent tragedy in which a “South Korean couple, Kim Yoo-chul and his wife, Choi Mi-sun, spent up to 12 hours a day at their local internet cafe, glued to a monitor, raising a virtual child in an online game called Prius. Meanwhile, alone at home, their real-life three-month-old baby girl wasted away”(www.timesonline.com: 19/04/10). However, people seem to think the development of addiction in the modern gaming culture is not as big a problem as the Times may think. Tim Ingham suggests simply that “Maybe these parents should emulate my own mother-who perenially removed my Atari from my bedroom, and fed and me. Problem solved” (www.computerandvideogames.com: 19/04/10).Several websites suggest different ideas on how to overcome the so called addiction, such as “Uninstalling the game, finding new hobbies, define the borders of reality and realise it’s just a game” (www.wikihow.com: 18/04/10), whereas other websites infer more serious measures such as consideration as to how and why you became addicted, and to “Change the lifestyle in an attempt to improve self confidence and worth” (www.news.gotgame.com: 17/04/10). In considering the more immediately destructive points of the MMO gaming culture, it could help to investigate how people create themselves online: The abandonment of gender or any real sense of self, in the creation of an Avatar- “The users representative in the virtual world” (Wolf/Perron 2003 :89).
In a paper presented by Amy Bruckman, she claim ww.cc.gatech.edu: 19/04/10). A problem that seems to emerge within the ever changing culture in MMO gaming, and even gaming in general is the problem women are faced with. “We know that 85% of MMORPG players are male, so if you do the math, at any given moment, half of all female avatars are actually being played by men.” (www.nickyee.com: 14/04/10). There is the concept of male characters playing females, or what is becoming increasingly known as “Gender-bending” Users seem to becoming ever confused with their identity online, or how they project themselves with an air of unreality. In Filiciaks “Hyperidentity” essay, he comments that “Jung, Feud and Lacan all argue that the ego existence is an illusion” and that Bauman, the leading sociologist of postmodernism says “The postmodern lifestyle is featured by a lack of cohesion..his personality is not definite, its final form never reached, only manipulated”(Wolf/Perron 2003: 93-95). Once again, this encourages us to think about the changing landscape of a culture in which there, in essence, will never be an actual, definitive person, just a constantly changing avatar in relation to what pleases the users at that time.
Finally, there is one last thing to look at, in which the future of the evolution for gaming culture seems to stem from, is the idea of Starcraft (1998) becoming the national sport in Korea. Much like common sports stars in modern Western culture, the heroes in Korea are those who play Starcraft as an “Electronic sport” “In some nations gamers are looked down upon, but in South Korea professional gaming, or e-sports, is worth billions of dollars and players are seen as heroes.” (www.news.bbc.co.uk: 20/04/10). As much as this seems impossible, the degrees taken to become a serious sport is tremendous. One of the teams costs a reported £10million a year to manage, and comments from the manager state “They usually play about 13 or 14 hours. It’s a long time. They are just practising a lot to win. If they want to lose they don’t need to play that much.” Winning seems to be all that counts. The players stay in the training house all week and only have one month off a year.” (www.news.bbc.co.uk: 20/04/10). However serious this may seem however, it pales in comparison to the recent scandal in the game itself. It has recently been reported that “Various pro gamers” were involved in rigging their matches in coordination with illegal gambling groups, having some players intentionally lose their matches as well as leak replay files of their matches to said gambling groups…In fact, the cheating is so rampant and such a large story in South Korea that it’s even been likened to the 1919 Black Sox scandal…Yes, this is that serious in South Korea.” (www.1up.com: 19/04/10). To many people, the notion that a game being played online could be taken so seriously seems almost unbelievable. In the West, we are primarily shown games as something merely to pass time, to have fun with, and occasionally participate against friends and strangers alike. It is only with the recent change in which the internet works, allowing incredibly high speeds at cheap prices, that this avenue has opened up. This can be seen as gaming culture becoming so open to anyone, that it’s hard to discern what can be seen as credible.
In closing, it does appear that the evolution of gaming has gone beyond that of a secondary hobby to many people is a reality, however much that persona appears to diminish rapidly. It appears that many facets of modern media will jump at the idea of sensationalising a story to the extent of making derogatory comments about how contemporary games culture is ruining childrens lives, and how it encourages us to raise a generation of mindless drones. The opposite in fact, is much more accurate. As games develop as an industry and a market, it encourages more and more people to have a good time, and in regards to an older, more mature audience, it could help them become healthier, stay in touch with their kids, or simply just find a way to cope in a generation of androids and game addicted, malnourished zombies.
1) Filiciak, Miroslaw, Hyperidentities in The Video Game Theory Reader- Edited by Mark J.P Wolf and Bernard Perron, Taylor and Francis Books, Inc, 2003
2) Goggin, Joyce, Gaming/Gambling: Addiction and the Videogame experience in The Pleasures of Computer Gaming– Edited by Melanie Swalwell and Jason Wilson, McFarland and Company Inc, 2008
3) Jones, Steven E, The meaning of Video Games, Routledge Publishing, 2008
4) Poole, Steven, Trigger Happy, Arcade Publishing Inc, 2000
1)eXistenZ, 1999: Canada, David Cronenberg
1)Starcraft, 1998, USA, Blizzard Entertainment
2)World of Warcraft, 2004, USA, Blizzard Entertainment