Video games are one of the largest entertainment mediums on the planet.
They are at the centre of a huge growth industry, becoming an enormous money-making force through not only one-off purchases but also through subscription systems. Add to this an increased reliance on drip-feeding additional content through online downloads.
Video games are striving to reach both the same artistic and commercial value of other mediums such as film, television and literature and they are getting closer to achieving this with every passing year, especially in the commercial and consumer sales aspects.
Despite all this, video games remain languishing in the curious position of having millions upon millions of loyal, sometimes scarily devoted, consumers whilst also having an extremely negative, broader reputation that it just can’t seem to shake off. No matter how many pounds, dollars and yen that it accrues each year, the video games industry, and video gaming on a whole, still wallows in the sort of wretched reputation reserved for life-shortening substances and the instigators of environmental disasters.
As of this moment there are several big name titles on the horizon set to be released just in time to take advantage of the free space on Christmas lists around the world, such as Resident Evil 6 and the sequel to Call of Duty’s Black Ops spin-off series. Unfortunately, for all the millions of units these triple A titles are sure to shift, the backlash against their content, themes and features will be as much of a tradition this holiday season as Cliff Richard roasting his chestnuts on the fire.
In my opinion certain aspects of the media will indulge themselves in moral panics over the realistic portrayals of violence and a perceived link to the actions of a few, mostly disturbed individuals. Sometimes the link between pixelated guns and the use of real ones can be tantalisingly easy to grasp at but that doesn’t excuse the fact that papers like the Daily mail are desperate to pin blame on gaming, such as in this ridiculous article, whereby they cite the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik’s use of community-based swords-and-sandals epic World Of Warcraft was one of the factors behind his infamous massacre.
Like metal music and movies like The Matrix before them, it would seem that video games are the major source of corruption in the youth of today, with perceptions of the medium not helped by ill-informed, populist attacks. For example, this excerpt from The Alan Titchmarsh Show in which a triad of three middle-aged, conservative ranters drown out a reasoned argument from CVG.com’s Tim Ingham.
It is largely because of the ‘angry loner’ stereotypes presented in the media and persistent moral panics that gaming has been so frequently decried over its thirty-year life span. More than ever before, the level of realism in graphics is increasingly a boon in the genre of first person shooters, especially those that offer an arcade game style approach to wartime scenarios, for instance the Medal of Honour series and today’s immensely popular, omnipresent Call of Duty franchise. Despite this pervading reputation though, the video games industry does relatively little in terms of public relations activity to change their reputation (one of the highest held duties of PR favouring-advertising and internalised industry events over true two-way communication.
More and more money is being spent on that most pervasive marketing tool, advertising, with TV, billboard, transport, viral and newspaper adverts now commonplace alongside those found in the usual specialist publications. Not only that, but the ever trail-blazing Modern Warfare series utilised Hollywood big guns Jonah Hill (Super Bad, Cyrus) and Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation, Avatar) in a series of ads for the last instalment, Modern Warfare 3. Such flashy marketing may serve to shift more units but it doesn’t radically change opinions or even chip away at the industry’s reputation problem.
The big problem is that the games industry tends to either focus on itself or on those who are already loyal to it, never aiming to be inclusive. Media relations is a huge part of the games PR’s workload, relying on the third party endorsement of specialist press to present their games tin the best possible light to existing consumers. This would be fine, a healthy facet of the job, if more effort was made to reach out to those outside the circle, to extol the benefits of titles and gaming to those who don’t understand it.
Exhibitions and events would normally be prime examples of the tools that could achieve this but they also highlight the naval gazing focus of the industry. The biggest events and expos in the gaming calendar, such as E3, cater entirely for existing fans and the companies which make up the industry, providing excited fans the chance to see new games being unveiled and giving developers the chance to show off their new technology.
There’s no incentive at E3, or any other of the main gaming events, for newcomers to get involved, nor is there any opportunity to ‘win hearts and minds’ as it were, to improve gaming’s reputation. There are signs that gaming PR is stepping away from a mainly media relations role and becoming more creative, with the release of special editions such as Resident Evil 6’s £900 Leather jacket edition, but once again this is just games companies preaching to the converted. Offering only incentives to die-hards and bombastically shouting at everyone else instead of communicating properly, reducing an interactive medium to transmitting its messages in one direction only instead of sharing a dialogue with those outside of its comfort zone.
Perhaps there would be a shift if more effort was put into the creation and publicising of more easily accessible, casual games. Or even if as much emphasis was put on the more unusual, amazingly inventive and sometimes emotive indie and standalone titles, such as ICO, Braid and Limbo, instead of perpetuating franchises. Perhaps then then the image of gaming being nothing but a violence training system or a way for teenagers to ogle improbably proportioned females may finally start to dissipate.