The Americans dominate the videogame industry, and last year, I looked at how this spread their moral values around the world. This year, I want to flip things around and look at the reasons why foreigners should not only accept, but secretly be happy about the increased political pressure to spread American morals in videogames.
When Wish was cancelled in January of 2005, I saw a talented group of developers and artists left in a sticky situation. They had videogame experience, they had portfolios to die for, but they all had a huge problem finding jobs. Why was this? They’re Canadian. The videogame industry is not just morally fixated on the United States, it seems to think you cannot produce a game anywhere besides California. Sure, there are satellite studios around the world, but for a Canadian, unless you work for Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, BioWare or one of a handful of smaller studios, you’re out of luck. Since September 11th, this has become even harder as our friendly neighbors to the south tightened security. The entire situation is tragic for talented people around the world.
Yet, every time American developers are pressured by their government to make games that promote their values, it may be a victory for those unemployed Canadians and others like them. The more pressure applied and the further games move into the mainstream, the more likely we are to develop regionally diverse videogames. To date, the Western world has been content making games that appeal to the broadest possible market – the U.S.A. – and playing by their rules. Yet, as it becomes increasingly popular to play games, it becomes easier for a clever company to produce a more targeted product and still make a tidy profit. To me, it is only a matter of time before people around the world see their nation’s interests are not being represented by mainstream game production companies. When this day arrives, gamers will be better served by products that actually represent them, their country, their ethnic group, their age group and their language.
It has already begun. While recently in Atlanta, I was talking to Rapid Reality about their upcoming projects, and they explained how Africa – their upcoming MMOG – was being partly financed by Africans living in the United States who wanted to explore the history of their continent in a new medium. This is a history too often glossed over in school books. The success of Africa is uncertain, but it is a crucial first step in the regionalization of the videogame industry. For the first time, Africans – no matter where they live – and people interested in the history of this continent will see their interests manifest themselves in a videogame. Hopefully, people in the industry will stand up and take notice that interesting stories are interesting stories, regardless of who they’re about. I don’t expect EA to develop extreme niche games anytime soon – that is not their role – but if Rapid Reality does succeed, they might show that highly focused topics can be commercially viable enterprises.
Now, it’s time to fess up to a mistake. In last year’s issue, I dismissed the idea of intensely regional topics being explored. I simply did not see it as commercially viable. This remains true; it isn’t. Yet, dismissing it wholesale was closed-minded of me. This is precisely the type of way we’ve seen every other entertainment media develop and a brilliant way to keep the big boys honest. Think about the area in which you live – especially if it is not the United States – and consider the local celebrities, the local films and music. Every so often, they go on to mass appeal and fame, but quite often, they remain as small hits in a single part of the world.
The key to this kind of direction in gaming is for the industry to further expand its reach. In order for regionally focused games to happen, there needs to be ways to create them at a cost more conducive to a limited audience. What I’m looking for are, in essence, art-house videogames. It is also likely that the creation of that type of game would actually benefit the whole. There are scores of people out there who probably do not see anything personally interesting in games. With smaller, focused games, we can grab them and funnel them into the greater world of gaming; just as someone who isn’t a fan of movies may get their curiosity piqued by a small art-house film about their corner of the world. The entire concept feeds the benefit of the whole.
In the short term, there are plenty of ethnic groups inside the United States who have the numbers and the buying power to justify targeted games. North of the border, I’d even wager a game aimed at Canadians could not only survive, but thrive. This doesn’t even touch on the various European countries. It also makes sense for the people for whom these games are intended to actually produce them. Suddenly, non-Americans in the industry do not need to find a visa and move to California. This spreads the appeal of games and moves their creation into new markets. What’s more, the spread of these jobs around the world further legitimizes the gaming industry as just another normal thing people can do with their lives.
It’s going to take guts and a gamble, but whoever is willing to put up the money and run the first test balloon may have a goldmine on their hands. The profit margins will be lower and the production standards less glorious, but people accept that in film and I firmly believe they’d do the same in gaming. Personally, I’m tired of games about America for Americans and want to see something that represents me and my interests. I’m willing to bet I’m not alone. Now, all we need is someone to take up the cause. We’ll all be better served for it.
Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for MMORPG.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.