Games are becoming more mainstream - apparently. But if that's the case, why does mainstream media continue to take potshots at gaming as a medium? I nutted out the issue with Mark from Kotaku.
MARK: Alright Alex – here’s where my flabby jet-lagged brain is at. Yesterday I was watching Sunrise, which featured a segment on that old chestnut: video game violence. It was exactly the kind of segment you’d expect – two experts on either side duking it out. Who wins? You decide. For some reason I had a bit of an epiphany – singling out the medium of video games for this kind of treatment is completely indicative of the fact that video games are nowhere near a mainstream thing. For all the posturing of publishers and platform holders, we’re still at the tail end of games being the main target of the moral panic.
ALEX: Well, your first mistake there was taking what Sunrise says seriously, but I'll let that pass on the grounds of jetlag. I can't say I saw the segment, but the thought strikes me that perhaps Sunrise is aiming a little older than its ideal audience. Gaming — at least casual gaming and a handful of particular series titles — is a mainstream activity — but it makes for some easy television for an older-skewing audience to decry the violence in videogames no matter what. It's an old and well-hashed tale, after all.
I think there's a pretty obvious distinction here, though, between folks who'd identify themselves as gamers — that'd be both of us — and folks who play games. Sitting next to me as I type this is a wall of around 600 odd games (I'm either a terrible hoarder or I hate the stupid prices offered at trade-in; take your pick). That's not mainstream. But on every single train, plane and bus trip I've taken over the past few months, I've spotted folks playing games, be they on a smartphone or DS or what have you. That's a huge audience, and as I say, I reckon Sunrise may have underestimated its wider audience in favour of a niche viewpoint.
MARK: You make some interesting points, especially with regards to the distinction between those who identify as gamers and those who simply play games. My argument is that in a world where video games were truly mainstream that distinction would barely exist, or at the very least be a minimal one.
We exist in a world where video games are almost ubiquitous, yet there are still huge groups of people who are ignorant of their purpose, and continue to make senseless assaults on gaming despite the fact they most likely play them in some shape or form. Take Hip Hop, for example, a previously niche art form which has almost completely crossed over to the mainstream. The US President is a fan of Hip Hop and you have a whole generation of folks who have grown up with that music - to the extent that the moral panic surrounding that music has all but evaporated. For some reason that still hasn't happened in the video game sphere. We still have these discussions, they still get traction in mainstream media.
As a culture we still haven't accepted video games.
ALEX: Hip Hop's a good example of why this kind of moral panic story still gets traction though, and that's because while I do think gaming is mainstream on the whole, it's still also something about which a particular segment of the population is passionate about. In Hip Hop's case, that makes it easy for a moral panic around the supposed lifestyle choices of Hip Hop stars. 50 Cent's a good example; I know very little about him (aside from the fact that the games were rubbish), but even I know that he's at least partly famous for surviving being shot at quite a bit. That thing sounds outrageous, so it makes for an easy story.
In gaming's case, it's the fact that while the gaming itself is mainstream, it's still very popular amongst children, and that image sticks. As an example, a week ago I gave a talk at a nearby public school to a group of year 3-6 kids about Journalism in general. They sat in a school hall, mostly looking bored at what I had to say, until it was asked what I write about, and that includes a very small proportion of games writing. As soon as games were mentioned, they lit up, and questions flew thick and fast. What did I know about the Xbox 720? (Nothing). Did I play Minecraft (Yes). Did I hack Minecraft (No.) Would I share my Minecraft world with them (No.) And so on and so forth until I said "No more Minecraft questions!". At which point the questions shifted to Call Of Duty: Black Ops.
That gave me pause for thought; some of these kids are under ten years old, after all, and I wouldn't let my own kids play Black Ops. But they're passionate about it and they've got a lot more free time than I do as an adult. That makes them a point of concern for the broader populace when it comes to gaming, and that's why this kind of story still gets to run. It's not a sign of gaming not being mainstream per se; it's more to do with a "won't somebody think of the children" attitude.
MARK: Again - you make another good point! My theory was that gaming's current position as whipping boy for the moral panic brigade was evidence of the fact that gaming wasn't truly mainstream, but I guess it is possible that the two can co-exist somehow.
Part of it is most likely due to the fact that gaming as a medium is so broadly splintered - into genres, formats, casual, core, etc. The fact that the definition of what a game is is so difficult to pin down may account for the fact that while most folks are technically gamers, they still lack a broad understanding of the broad spectrum of what gaming is. That accounts for the moral panic that continues to rear its ugly head each and every time gaming is covered in the mainstream media.
Are games mainstream? Or do they continue to hover around the periphery? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.