Why Big Games Aren’t Blockbuster Entertainment

As I’ve been talking to friends and reading internet posts about Mass Effect 2, I’m constantly struck by how different everyone’s experience is.  This week’s Giant Bombcast points out that it is actually kind of hard to watch someone else play Mass Effect 2 because their Shepard isn’t your Shepard.  The shame about this experience is that it’s really something you can’t share with people as it happens.  Video games place you into a narrative in a way that other media don’t: To whatever small degree you are an active participant in the world of the game rather than a passive one.  I don’t know if it’s because videogames are so new or because gamers are isolated and insecure enough that they’re constantly trying to legitimize their hobby but we’re always trying to associate games with other media and the medium we choose is almost always film.

In one very important way though, aren’t video games more like books?

Like books, games are generally a solitary experience.*  You engage them on your own and if there is a social interaction regarding the media, it is after the fact, or in some kind of status reporting as readers/gamers progress.  You generally engage them over a considerable period of time, as opposed to the relatively small time investment of other audio/visual media.

Movies, music and television are all inherently social experiences.  We may not all experience them all together all the time, but their histories all share people coming together to witness a performance of some kind.  I may watch a two hour movie with Dawn, but it is pretty unlikely that she’ll sit through Mass Effect 2 with me.  Even though it is highly “cinematic”, the game keeps getting in the way!  Even a game like Uncharted 2, which was sold to people on the idea that it was indistinguishable from a movie, can be pretty hard to stick with if you’re not the person controlling Drake.  We just don’t crowd around the couch to watch someone play through a game.

At first I thought that this might be a “bad thing,” but ultimately it is just not an something that needs necessarily be shared during the “live” experience.  The social experience comes later, when we share our stories and experiences.  There aren’t book clubs for games, but in this age, there are certainly many forums for discussion.

So even though your Activisions and EA’s would like you to believe that Mondern Warfare 2 is as big a media event as Avatar, and it may be in terms of money, but as a cultural experience, it simply does not add up.  As long as games are designed with a single person in front of a single device (or in the case of MW2 many single individuals connected to one another over the internet- a potentially interesting discussion in itself), they will not have the same mindshare as other mass media.

The funny thing is that even though I don’t really enjoy the Wii experience, Nintendo is one of the few game makers that has really worked to engage the entire family and groups of people in play through the Wii, and this is absolutely by design.  Whether or not the Wii will be recalled as a fad or a shared cultural experience remains to be seen, but they are bringing the medium to people in ways that either didn’t exist or that’s long forgotten.

*Yes, people play multiplayer games online.  Yes people play games like Rock Band and Wii together.  But these experiences are not the “hardcore” and they aren’t the big budget, cinematic blockbusters that game studios keep pitching and that keep most of the game publishers in business.

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