What is a gamer? What is a game?

John Solak, rendered as a Nintendo Mii
John Solak, rendered as a Nintendo Mii (Submitted)
John Solak comes home with with two friends in tow. They’re loaded down with snacks and drinks from the convenience store around the corner. Energy to keep them alert well into the night. With a short ‘Hey’ to whoever’s sitting in the living room, he heads straight for the door to the basement, and towards his video games.

The room in the basement is built around entertainment. A 50 inch high-definition television sits at one end, a comfortable couch at the other. In between, thousands of dollars of video gaming equipment, neatly tucked away.

The XBox 360 takes center stage, right below the television. Beside the XBox, the Nintendo Wii pulses with a soft blue glow. On the other side sits the sleek Sony Playstation 3. Wireless and wired controllers are strewn about the room, wherever they were put down last. Electronic guitars from various games hang on the wall next to voice headsets for online games. The whole system is connected to a 5.1 surround sound stereo system. It’s never been turned up all the way, for good reason.

The Gamer Classes (courtesy Wikipedia)

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All photos courtesy creative commons

John is a Gamer. When he’s not at Dalhousie University studying computer science, or working part-time at the drug store down the street, or with his friends at the movie theaters, he can likely be found in the basement. He estimates that he is engaged in video games about 30 hours a week in some form or another.

John sees video games as just a way to spend his downtime, just as other would watch TV or read books. But instead of just following along and peaking into the main characters’ minds, good video games allow the player to be a real part of the story.

“The difference is that there are choices,” said John. “There are thousands of stories to be told from any one game.”

And don’t ask him what his favourite game is. There are too many different styles of video games for that question to make sense.

“It’s like, ‘PONG’ is a video game; ‘Scribblenauts’ is a video game; ‘Call of Duty’ is a video game. They are all so varied and different that you can’t really compare them. I can’t pick one and call it my favourite.”

The term ‘video game’ does encompass a wide variety of creations. Originally it meant a game that could be displayed on a television-like screen only, but it has since grown to include computer games, console games, arcade games, games played on handheld devices, and even applications on mobile phones or iPods.

But regardless of the class of video game, there’s a certain stigma attached to playing them.

“There’s this common idea that these ‘games’ are just for kids,” said John. “But with so many major titles being released rated M… how can you say they are only for children?”

Mass Effect (masseffect. bioware.com)

An ‘M-rated’ video game will not be sold to anyone under the age of 17. Many major titles in the last decade have been rated M or higher.

There has been a large discussion in the last few years about games like the popular ‘Mass Effect’, which included a love scene in one of the storylines. Critics complained about sexual content in a ‘children’s game,’ despite the fact it wasn’t rated for anyone under 17 to play.

John says it’s no different then having sexual content in any movie or book.

“These games have deep and engaging storylines and it [sexual content] happens to be part of that.”

These ain’t your dad’s video games.

The video game industry is a young one. The first successful commercial video game was PONG, released in 1972. It was a simple game by any standards. Move your electronic cursor up and down, bounce the animated ball back towards your opponent, rinse and repeat.

Pong: Humble beginnings (Creative Commons)

After its launch, Atari could barely keep up with demand for the product. People started coming to bars specifically to play PONG. A few years later Atari released the home version of the game, selling 150,000 in the first year. The video game industry as we know it was born.

These early video games were literally games. At the level of technology available to them, game designers could produce little beyond a few simple geometric patterns bouncing around on a coloured screen. There were basic objectives, a pinch of strategy, and some repetitive 8-bit music. Compared to other entertainment sources at the time it was simple and childish.

But in 40 years, video games have evolved. They’ve gone from an abstract version of ping-pong to 100+ hour, masterfully scripted, beautifully animated works of entertainment.

Each major title is now the result of hundreds of people, usually working for a few years on one product. The story lines played out are broad and deep. It’s often the same level of storycrafting you’d find in a primetime television series, except the video game is often funnier, edgier and willing to take more risks.

The story arcs are also much longer than in most other forms of entertainment. An average movie is around two hours. An average video game is 12 hours for the main story arc, with some reaching as long as 60 hours. MMO games (massively multi-player online) like World of Warcraft and Eve Online literally have no end. Some people have played them for years.

Crysis 2 is one of the best looking video games ever designed.  As a result, not many computers can ever run it.
Crysis 2 is one of the best looking video games ever designed. As a result, not many computers can ever run it. (EA Games)

Visually, games are approaching realism. As computers become more powerful, it should only take a few years for games to be released that are indistinguishable from reality. That is, when a game wants to look real. The ability to escape from reality for a short time remains one of the draws of video games.

All of this has come about in the last 40 years. Think of what the other entertainment mediums have accomplished in the same time period.

In the 70’s, Star Wars was released. It was an amazing success, partly due to its radical new technology with computer-generated images and animatronics. But when you watch the movie now, it still looks passable as a current movie.

Avatar: one of the first movies to properly use 3D. A 60 year old concept. (www.avatar movie.com)

There have been a few niche advances over the years. The Matrix had it’s ‘bullet-time’, and Avatar added a new type of 3D viewing experience (3D made its first appearance in the 1950’s, but we forgot about it for a while), and Pixar and Dreamworks make better cartoons (using technology borrowed from video games). Other than that, the industry is the same. It’s nothing like the revolutionary growth of video games.

Where movies, books, music and so on have had decades and even centuries since their inception, video games as an entertainment genre may have already surpassed them in just 40 short years.

Nothing exemplifies their success more than the story of Modern Warfare 2.

(Infinity Ward)

The game’s full name,  ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’, is actually the sixth game released in the “Call of Duty” franchise. It follows the very successful ‘Modern Warfare’.

The marketing campaign leading up to its release was massive. There were television commercials, press conferences, presentations at major video game events, and extensive use of online advertising. Gamers were worked up into a veritable frenzy by the release date.

In the first 24 hours, gamers in the U.S. and U.K. bought over 4.7 million copies of the game. The revenue from that one day was $310 million. It was the single largest entertainment launch in history. In five days, the game earned $550 million. In two months, it crossed the magical $1 billion mark. The only other game to make that much money is World of Warcraft, which is said to make around $1 billion a year in subscription fees.

When is the entertainment too good?

There’s a single game that has become the poster child for all gamers: World of Warcraft. Just its mention open a whole new series of questions. Are they addictive, and can they be detrimental to your health?

There is a common view of gamers held by those who aren’t involved, specifically, that they are mind-numbed zombies whose sole drive in life is to play more video games. In some cases, sadly, this is true.

Here are some horror stories that were sent in:

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Clearly some people don’t mix well with the siren call of video gaming. Some cases get so bad they may even qualify as a mental disorder.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recently recommended that so-called ‘video game addiction’ be added to the upcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is a manual commonly used by mental health professionals that categorizes psychiatric diagnoses for all mental illnesses. It’s like the bible of diagnosing mental problems. Video game addiction is not listed in the current edition.

The Current ESRB rating system for video games. Click for a larger image.
The Current ESRB rating system for video games. Click for a larger image.

Chair of AACAP’s TV and Media Committee, Dr. Michael Brody, said this in a press release:

“This is a type of media where players become a part of the game. However, there is not enough research on whether or not video games are addictive.

“For many children and adolescents, playing video games is integrated into their lives in a balanced, healthy manner. For others, it displaces physical activity and time spent on studies, with friends, and even with family.”

The AACAP warns that exposure to violent video games can elevate aggressive feelings and thoughts, especially in children and adolescents.

In addition, spending large amounts of time playing these games can create problems and lead to poor social skills, time away from family, school-work, and other hobbies, lower grades and reading less and, finally, lack of exercise and obesity.

“The world of gaming is Darwinian and lacking compassion as many games are violent with the players winning by killing. The games are often sexist and racist,” said Dr. Brody. “The AACAP recommends that the rating of these games be more reliable and the raters be independent of the gaming industry.”

But even if the rating system changes, it’s unlikely to change much. Even games that are currently rated as as ‘Mature’ or ‘Adults-Only’ often fall into the hands of younger people, just as they often have no problem getting into R-Rated movies. Just like smoking cigarettes, in the end, real change is more likely to come from social pressures, not legislation.

Challenging the Stigma

There’s a struggle going on today. Most people aren’t aware of it. It’s a struggle for legitimacy by the gaming industry, and the social class it created.

Most gamers, hard-core and otherwise, don’t like the title. It’s kind of like being a ‘hipster’. The stigma attached to the name has life of its own.

The common perception of a Gamer is a pale teenage male (there are no girl gamers right?), probably obese, living in their parent’s basement, and completely socially inept. It’s not a pretty picture. Luckily it’s also not very accurate.

A recent report by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (a creation of the Canadian video game industry), found that in our country, the average age for a gamer is 35. In fact 25% of gamers were over the age of 50.

Further more they aren’t all male. The male/female split is actually 60/40 respectively.

Another study found that more than half of adults play video games, and about one-fifth play daily or almost every day.

Eve: Online. A massive game with over 60,000 players all interacting in the same universe at once.
Eve: Online. A massive game with over 60,000 players all interacting in the same universe at once. (CCP Games)

And as for being anti-social, we’ve reached the point where over half of all gaming is done with (or against) other real people online. It may be in front of a digital screen, but there’s a living, thinking person on the other end of it that you are interacting with.

That’s something you can’t say about books, television, movies or listening to your canned music on your iPod. Yet, for some reason, no one will complain if you spend hours of your day doing those arguably less social activities.

At least you’re not ‘a Gamer’, right?

The Gamer Generation

For his part, John hasn’t experienced many detriments resulting from his life as a gamer. He has a group of friends he can rely on, many of whom are gamers themselves. He performs well enough at work to pay for his gaming equipment and to see country music concerts in the summer. And he’s excelling in university at Dalhousie’s computer science program.

He doesn’t feel that time spent gaming is particularly anti-social or lonely, particularly in this age of online gaming. Whether he’s playing Modern Warfare or Eve Online or League of Legends, he’s playing with a group of other people online.

Some people, older generations particularly, have a hard time seeing things that way. All they see is a teenager, eyes glazed over in front of a screen. It’s hard for gamers to shake that perception when the people around them just don’t seem to get what’s going on.

It’s no simple feat to just turn off the game at any random moment and walk away. For John, and other gamers, it would be the equivalent of playing a board game with a dozen people together in a room, and mid-game, deciding to get up and walk out the door, kicking the game over on the way out. Rude, right? It wouldn’t be acceptable in real-life, so why would it be acceptable online?

“These are people that have committed a half and hour to an hour of their day to get together and have fun doing something. To leave halfway through, especially if you’re an important member of the group, would just ruin it for them,” said John.

“Some people think that because you might not know the people in real life, it’s ok to waste their time like that. But these are real people we are playing with, and we should respect that.”

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