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Why Do We Love Video Games?

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The bastion of video games -- the game console -- should be dead. Or at least dying.

Analysts have been saying this for some time. After all, we live in an age in which Netflix is producing the most innovative television shows while traditional networks are waning, print newspapers are closing and grappling with the rapidly decreasing profits of the industry and even radio has had to grapple with the emergence of Pandora.

Digital, streaming, cross-platform content seems to be the name of the game. But when Microsoft introduced the Xbox One video game console earlier this year and espoused such a digital plan, it led to a tremendous backlash. Microsoft did a complete 180 turn in order to address the desires of their customer base.

For years, analysts and commentators have remarked that the age of the console may be at an end and rapid growth in mobile gaming seemed to attest to this. Yet in the past few weeks, Sony and Microsoft respectively released their new consoles -- the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One -- and they have become respectively the fastest and second-fastest selling video game consoles in history. Both consoles sold more than a million units in the 24-hour period following their release and locating the units (particularly the Playstation) was the closest equivalent to last year's "Tickle Me Elmo" challenge.

More than 72 percent of households play video games, the average age of a video game player is 35 and 40 percent of players are women, according to the Entertainment Software Association. These numbers represent the incredible penetration of the medium that reaches across the population. In a MacArthur Foundation survey of young adults 12-17, it was found that 99 percent of boys play video games and 94 percent of girls, with little differences across ethnicities. This year, Americans spent an estimated $20.5 billion on games -- much of that in digital purchases, according to the Amsterdam-based market research company Newzoo.

Indeed when you takes into account mobile games like Angry Birds and Plants Vs. Zombies, and social games like Farmville and Words With Friends, suddenly you realize that even your mother-in-law who churns her own ice cream and your technologically challenged uncle are hardcore gamers.

The fanaticism over these consoles is at an all time high, with passionate arguments being made as to why one console is better than another. Yet beneath the numbers and the gaming partisanship exists a very distinct truth -- Americans love video games.

As someone raised in the 1980s, video games have been a part of my existence and consistent form of entertainment. Now as an academic, I've become interested in the cultural narratives underlying gaming. I've conducted research in particular on religion in games. But all that research is built on the foundational understanding that video games matter to people. And clearly, as the numbers imply, they do.

From a first glance, it looks like an awfully significant waste of time. You'd be better off learning a musical instrument or reading a book. Or even playing a sport nobody understands. Like croquet.

What is the appeal?

Well, it's hard to explain to someone who has not played Bioshock Infinite that the violent first-person shooter game has an incredible moving and emotionally driven story. And if you haven't played to the end it's hard to explain how string theory, a theory regarding alternate realities, could be used to create a poignant, thought provoking ending. Video games have democratized the nature of storytelling, which allows players to take part in the stories being told. And when the story is interactive, more complex tales can be told.

The ending of Bioshock Infinite dealt with quantum mechanics. In a movie or television show such an ending would bring out a unanimous "Say what?" But not only did it work in Bioshock Infinite, but the ending brought about a viral conversation as gamers met at digital watering holes to talk through the final plot twist.

The game's creator Kevin Levine argued in an interview with Game Informer that it would never have worked so effectively outside of the interactive, video game environment.
"The whole ending we could have had as a cut scene with people talking to each other," Levine said, "But we had to make that whole sequence interactive. That was really tricky because it wasn't just complicated from a development standpoint, but it was also conceptually a complicated notion." As a result, the player pieces together the ending gradually -- it is not revealed in a LOST-esque "ah ha!" moment.

Similarly, Naughty Dog's Creative Director Neil Druckmann worked through creating a more interactive ending for The Last of Us, the second largest game launch of 2013. In the ending scenario, the hero Joel is attempting to rescue his companion and surrogate daughter Ellie. Throughout the game, Joel has killed an innumerable number of zombies. But in the last scene you're faced with unarmed doctors are part of the group that kidnapped Ellie.

When I played The Last of Us, I realized I didn't have to kill those doctors. But I did, like many others who played the game. In real life, if I were to imagine myself in the midst of a zombie apocalypse -- which is perhaps most like a university during finals week -- I'm not sure I would have killed the doctors. But I was part of telling the story and I believe Joel would have killed them. Games also give us the ability to take risks that seem real without real world consequences. Part of the appeal of first-person shooters is that players can shoot a rocket at a building and witness the results, without actually ending up in prison.

Video game designer Jane McGonigal argues that our workplaces could learn a lesson or two from the consequences/rewards systems in gaming. "The truth is this: in today's society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy," said McGonigal, the director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future, in her book Reality Is Broken. "Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not."

Games such as the blockbuster franchise Mass Effect give players the option of playing as a "good guy" or a "bad guy." In Mass Effect, this translates into violently coercing potential sources for information instead of gently reasoning with them or killing an enraged character as opposed to talking him down. These choices have effects on the story -- some respond more favorably to a coercive villain as opposed to a nice guy, but there are also opportunities lost.

Granted, in the Mass Effect series, as in many games with a moral element, the story seems to lend itself a bit more toward being a hero as opposed to a villain. In Bioware's PAX East panel, the team behind Mass Effect reported the majority of players, 65 percent, choose to play as the good guy. While players have the option to take risks see what the consequences are, players -- at least in Mass Effect -- like to do that as a hero as opposed to a villain. One of the things Mass Effect teaches through its morality system is that there is a considerable amount of gray area between paragon and renegade.

Video games also have the ability to help us get lost solving seemingly unsolvable problems. We live in a society with increasingly complex problems that don't always seem to have a solution -- our ability to figure out a level of Angry Birds gives us hope about even the most hopeless problems.

This perhaps has the greatest mainstream appeal. With perhaps first mainstream game of this kind, Tetris, Nintendo executives negotiated with Soviet Union computer programmer in the midst of the Cold War to acquire the copyright for a tile-matching game they would package with the Gameboy. The game went on to sell more 33 million copies, just on the Gameboy. Now of course, the game is available on your iPhone, your Android phone and in an ever-expanding array of formats.

In his book, All Your Base Are Belong To Us, Harold Goldberg reports on a conversation regarding Tetris. One Nintendo executive questioned the entrepreneur connecting Nintendo with the Soviet programmer why it was worth pursuing the complicated negotiations, and the high cost, to acquire the game. "Why should we do that when we have Mario? All the boys already love Mario." The entrepreneur responded, "If you want boys to play, include Mario. If you want everyone to play -- mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters -- include Tetris."

The game, a precursor to casual games like Angry Birds and Plants Vs. Zombies, had a gender-balanced and enormous player base. Even as time has passed, Tetris remains of interest, not just to players, but also to researchers. Researchers at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque found that Tetris actually increases brain efficiency. Trying to fit the T-shape into your Tetris puzzles isn't just cathartic, but scientists argue, it may actually be good for you.

When Tetris was first released many remarked about the peaceful, relaxed nature of trying to fit the puzzle together.

So why do Americans love video games? It's the new normal. At least for Millennials, it is because they can't think of their lives any other way. Video games have always been a part of our lives. And while it may have once been a niche activity for pimple-faced teenagers to conduct in their basement, it is no longer.

It may have been a niche activity, years ago for some of us. But it is a part of the air now. Take a deep breath.

(Top) Screenshot from the Bioshock Infinite TV Spot./>
(Second) Photo illustration courtesy of GamePur.
(Third) Screenshot from Candy Crush Saga.
(Forth) Screenshot from The Last of Us.
(Bottom) Screenshot from Mass Effect 3.

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