More Than a Game

Posted on May 26, 2010

It's been reported that the digital game industry is now bigger than the film industry, and dollar for dollar, this has been debated. What can no longer be debated is that, eyeball for eyeball, more people now play games than watch films. A study released by a marketing research group reported that more Americans play video games than go to the movies. Carnegie Mellon University Professor, Jesse Schell claims that there are more FarmVille players than there are Twitter accounts: 75 million players per month. And with the explosion of mobile games such as Angry Birds and Doodle Jump for iPhone and social games like Mafia Wars on Facebook, games are taking up even more of our time. 

In a recent presentation at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, game designer and Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future, Jane McGonigal said that by the age of 21, a majority of kids will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games. And it’s not only kids playing games anymore. In fact, another recent study by PopCap Games, a popular social gaming company, found that the average player of online social games is a 43-year-old woman. So much for the stereotypical image of a gamer being a kid in his basement mowing down zombies.

Clearly, Hollywood is trying to take advantage of the massive popularity of gaming and it seems as if all blockbuster action flicks these days are released with an accompanying game. But what about documentaries and independent films? How do they relate to games? First off, games are no longer just adrenaline-fueled racing and shooting escapades. Today, the game industry is almost as diverse in terms of content as the film industry (who could have guessed that in 2010, the biggest game in the world would be about farming?) This week kicks off the 7th Annual Games for Change Conference (G4C) in New York City. 

G4C is the only conference of its kind that is dedicated to digital games for social change: "games about the most pressing issues of our day — from race to poverty to the environment." Just as documentary films explore social issues, so can games. ITVS has seen the potential for combining documentary storytelling with games for some time now. Off the Map, launched in 2005, allows users to create online backyard paradises. Fatworld, a videogame about eating, obesity, and the politics of nutrition launched in 2007. World Without Oil, an alternate reality game, imagined a global oil shock that enlisted the world's collective imagination to document the oil crisis with blogs, videos, and images. And most recently The Garbage Dreams Game invites players to take on the role of Cairo’s Zaballeen who recycle 80 percent of the trash they collect. 

These types of immersive experiences shift the experience from a passive one — watching a film — to an active one — putting the viewer directly into the issue being discussed. This serves to personalize an issue and engage a viewer with it directly, giving a first-hand experience with the consequences of certain actions and the rules that govern a given issue in the real world. It isn’t that games are going to kill TV or cinema, but that games created as integrated elements of many productions can expand an audience exponentially. And when the message is social change, that kind of extended reach could lead to a different type of impact than just an explosion of pixels on a computer screen.


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