Game Developers Conference shines bright light on video games

by Beacon Staff • April 15, 2009

Last month, me and about 17,000 other people in the games industry flocked to downtown San Francisco for the week-long Game Developers Conference.

I attended a swath of panels, lectures, reviews and award ceremonies. The experience was as inspirational and raucous (for a game developer, at least), as you'd expect.

What may be difficult to imagine, however, is how many people you run into that have absolutely nothing to do with making video games. Zilch. Nada.

After meeting a game programmer, designer or artist, you could turn around and have a deep conversation with anyone from a U.S. Army representative to a governmental policy advisor, from a filmmakers to a neurologist, or even lawyers or journalists (well, those two aren't so surprising).

In other words, at the Conference I found validation that games are important. These "non-game" types are, by and large, interested in the same thing: How can society push games so that they are not just about entertainment, but about having a valuable meaning for players?

Clearly, they already mean something. Just look at where the medium started from, and how they have evolved from simple (albeit very influential) games like iMario Bros./i and iPac-Man/i to much more intricate, often socially relevant experiences like iGrand Theft Auto/i and iFable II/i.

But for some reason, our culture-and particularly the media-continue to portray games as "low-brow."

Even so-called casual gamers, labeled as such based on the types of "lightweight" or "Arcade-like" games they buy, statistically play up to 15 hours per week, according to The Casual Games Association. This is more than the typical hardcore gamer, who we might think of as a frequent Xbox 360 or PS3 player.

Interestingly, casual types generally loathe to refer to themselves as "gamers." Video games still carry the stigma of being an activity reserved for the antisocial male teenager-something that is no longer the case.

In fact, a solid majority of industry lectures I've seen lately focus on how we can barely keep up with how fast our audience is expanding.

So why do I bring this up?

As a school that focuses primarily on communication-or at least, bringing ideas in some way to both individuals and the masses-Emerson keeps popping into mind with regard to this societal perception.

Any Emersonian potentially has the ability to portray a long-held idea in a new light. But I am not going to preach to you about the medium's importance and beg you, as communicators, to help society understand it better. That will happen naturally.

Instead, I say no matter who you are, your background, or the discipline you are entering, you will someday encounter interactive games in an important way even if you don't play them.

Or, at least, for reasons beyond your own amusement. Most likely, as with the wide array of non-industry folks I met last month, you will be dealing with games and the technology they have born as the method by which our culture constructs and shares ideas. We need only look at things like iWorld of Warcraft/i, iRock Band/i, or even collegiate gaming leagues-all of which have brought together users from disparate backgrounds and created documented, long-lasting social relationships-to see this already.

Particularly if you are working within media, I'd say it must be of major advantage (if you do not already) to understand what kinds of meaningful impacts games have, whether that's artistically, intellectually or theoretically.

It is not just because video games are a major market. It's also not that movies, music, or texts as we know them are going anywhere.

The argument that games will replace every other media, or even consume all of our productivity or social energy, is pretty absurd.

Like anything else, they are meant to enhance our lifestyles in some way; they have changed how we live, but certainly not in ways that we should be troubled by.

It is far more accurate to say that most media-those that Emersonians typically work in-have learned from games, and vice versa.

More importantly, games have helped create a society that expects to have active participation within the media and technology it consumes. In essence, they have affected user and viewer involvement in deeply rooted ways that have impacts for all creators. I think this column has served that idea well in the past.

But more importantly, I hope that it has you considering why video games are a significant force in how we communicate, grow and play.,John Richardson, iBeacon/i columnist