Last Saturday morning, Channel Seven’s Weekend Sunrise ran a story about video games. Perhaps weekend breakfast television is not the place to look for deep insight, and mostly this syndicated story from NBC about the video game company Zynga didn’t break the mould. There was the usual hyperbole preceding the story, the contextless statistics that are often used to polish the dull handling of video games in mainstream contexts (“you heard it right, 150 million players!”). There was also the expected low-level banter from the hosts (“Oh, I don’t do any of that stuff …”).
But there was also something different, something unusual about this story. This wasn’t another story about children and young adults doing strange things in front of television sets. The “curious stat”, according to Sunrise presenter Tony Squires, is that the biggest market for Zynga’s games isn’t kids, but “mums”. This was about adults.
The world of video games in 2012 is a weird one, and in a way the Sunrise story tells you all you need to know about it. Mostly, things are just plain confusing. Old people and young people alike play video games, while many at both ends of the spectrum would go to all sorts of lengths to avoid admitting it. Some wouldn’t even recognise what they do as playing a video game, despite Bond University’s finding that 92% of Australian households have at least one device used for playing games.
Videogames are everywhere and nowhere. They are visible — in sales catalogues, in advertisements on the side of buses — and yet still absent from important conversations of culture, education, and policy. Films like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World seem to reverentially worship video games, but barely make mention of anything resembling a video game post-1995. Under the same sway of ’80s nostalgia, people can buy video game-themed t-shirts from clothing chains without ever playing the game depicted, or even realising what it is.
The contradictions extend to the media, also. Open any newspaper and towards the front you’re likely to find an article linking video games to obesity, time-wasting and violence. Open the same newspaper closer to the back and you’ll find a buyer’s guide. Very occasionally, you might even see some criticism, too.
A certain mystery surrounds the perception of how video games are made, as well. For many, an amorphous “they” are the only creators of video games (“you know what they should do next …”). Yet the Sundance premiere last weekend of Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary about three indie video game designers, received strong critical praise and the purchase of an option by HBO for a fictional TV series.
And yes, 150 million people play Zynga’s games through Facebook, such as FarmVille and CityVille, and their in-game exploits are posted to Facebook’s timeline as if they’re as uncontroversial as Steve’s latest training run or your neice’s Instagram photos.
You almost want to join in when Sunrise‘s Squires complains that Zynga games don’t “involve shooting or driving or hitting a golf ball”. Things would certainly be easier to grasp if they did.
In 2012, video games are utterly, quintessentially part of mainstream culture. And yet they are also fundamentally outside of, and excluded from, the mainstream. Everyone is part of video game culture, and everyone is outside of video game culture.
As I said, things are weird.