2007 was a remarkable year, not just for the quality of gaming but for the image of gaming, as well. It would be easy to simply dismiss the judgment popular culture at large casts toward our hobby, but for a multi-billion dollar industry where bottom lines are affected by rocky political and social landscapes, changing attitudes is high on the agenda. The effort has, in the past, been largely ineffectual, and the resistance to our participation in western culture has been palpable in lawsuits, negative press and legislation, but as the year closes there’s something new in the ever-changing winds of social attitudes.
Much as we’d prefer not to care what anyone on the planet thinks of us, positive or otherwise, the rules of the game have changed over the last decade. Gone is the rebellious youth of the videogame industry, when four guys could create a cultural phenomenon, and firmly entrenched is an environment where budgets soaring into the millions and teams of hundreds are needed to launch even modest projects. The cost of pushing the cultural envelope, intentionally or accidentally, can be measured in the amount spent by Take Two when they had to recall Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Public opinion can take down corporations; lose jobs; cost millions.
We never have so clear a picture of gaming’s acceptance as when tragedy strikes, and this year, tragedy was a constant companion. What has given me pause is the court of public opinion didn’t immediately hand down a guilty verdict. The videogame bugaboo didn’t seem to have the same attraction as it had in years past, and when the fame-hounds spouted their typical dogma, they didn’t seem to meet the same receptive audience they did earlier.
Much as I might like to imagine some enlightenment taking place in the belly of tabloid media, I think another factor is, in every sense of the word, at play. I think there are just a lot more gamers around now. It’s much easier to point a finger at the gadget in someone else’s house rather than the one you just bought for your 10-year-old on his birthday. But even that is only a partial explanation.
Equal credit should go to next-gen consoles and PC services that have popularized and exploded the casual game market. The scary-threshold that has classically separated gamers and non-gamers among genders and generations has begun to evaporate with the success and exposure of services like Xbox Live Arcade, GameTap, PopCap Games, the PlayStation Store and others. I routinely see people who wouldn’t have played a videogame two years ago enjoying games like Peggle, Lumines, Carcassone and so on. The Xbox looming in the corner no longer seems like the device where mayhem is manipulated in cabalistic ways by the indoctrinated, but it now seems like a place to play a quick online board game for a few minutes before popping in a DVD. By demystifying the gaming experience, the fear factor is significantly reduced.
But, perhaps most importantly, the popularity and accessibility of Nintendo’s plucky Wii has done more to create goodwill than any system that has come before. The Wii has deservedly been praised for its price point, its clever controls and its ability to rise above the console war escalation and by extension win the damn thing, but we also end up having to give it credit for bridging the long-standing divide between those who “get it” and those who don’t.
Somehow, Nintendo managed to co-opt their “kid system” moniker and recast it at once into the “family system,” and the subtle difference between those two concepts is impossible to overstate. It changed the tone of the discussion and broke down the key barrier that has plagued gamers for decades: how to explain to someone who doesn’t play videogames why we do. Now, it’s as easy as firing up Wii Sports and simply putting a remote in their hands. You don’t have to say a thing after that. Most of the time, they just get it, and that makes all the difference.
Sean Sands is a freelance writer, one of the co-founders of Gamerswithjobs.com and runs a small graphic design business with his wife near Minneapolis. When not writing about gaming, he can often be found playing video games and pretending to call it work.