Gaming is Eating Culture
Here’s a puzzle: How is it that gaming can be a bigger industry than Hollywood, with launches that regularly outperform the biggest blockbuster films, yet still feel less culturally relevant? Tony Tulathimutte asks in his essay on Clash of Clans:
“It is some wonder how a decades-old, $21 billion industry that outperforms Hollywood could still be considered culturally marginal, but there’s no games editor at the New Yorker — is there?”
That essay was written in 2016. Five years later in 2021, the gaming industry is bigger than ever with global revenue estimates ranging from $152B to $179B. In contrast, global box office revenues + streaming video are estimated at somewhere between $85B to $100B. Avengers: Endgame is estimated at having earned nearly $2.8B globally in box offices. PUBG Mobile has already grossed $3.5B in revenue and is still going strong. I could go on… and yet the contradiction persists. (And no, there’s still no games editor at the New Yorker.)
I’ve spent hours this last year playing games online with my friends instead of being able to see them in meatspace. Sometimes we’d play together, building a Viking longhouse in Valheim. Other times we’d hang out on Discord (the voice chat service of choice for gamers) while individually playing Hades and battling our way out of hell. But even after a global pandemic forced everyone indoors – where video games have kept us entertained, helped us stay connected, and grown bigger than ever -- we’re still more likely to see a piece in the news about Tenet in theaters than Genshin Impact (a game you’ve probably never heard of, but that has made $874M in five months).
It’s not just that games are a bigger business - if that was the only thing going on, then this wouldn’t be much of a puzzle. Copper mining is a $70B+ industry, but no one is surprised that we aren’t talking about it all the time. No, the weird thing is that gaming isn’t part of mainstream culture despite the ridiculous number of people playing games. Three-quarters of US kids ages 9-12 play Roblox. Three-quarters! Minecraft has 131 million monthly active players! Elon Musk tweets about Factorio. Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke plays Starcraft.
Yet outside of publications “for gamers”, we don’t hear much about them. Here’s Tulathimutte again in an interview:
“If you read an essay by Susan Sontag or Martin Amis about the great books, or by André Bazin about film, they can assume a certain level of knowledge about the text or film from their audience. I can write that way about games on my own time and my own dime, but there’s no presumed canon or general readership for games, because they’re not taught in schools and not regularly discussed in big publications. So you either write for the diehards — the equivalent of film buffs or bookworms — or for novices.”
Games are still viewed as a separate, distinct hobby, unlike something broad like film. Of course everyone watches movies, or sports. Game of Thrones was a cultural phenomenon, and something like ~14M people watched the final episode (I unfortunately was one of them). League of Legends has over 100M monthly active players – how many conversations about League of Legends have you had at work? What the heck is going on here?
Like all kids (especially kids of Asian immigrants), my parents thought I played too many video games. (I now get the distinct pleasure of telling them that it all led to where I am today, working in games.) They were pretty lax about it – I remember my dad buying me a copy of Starcraft to play over the summer. I would also routinely monopolize both(!) phone lines: playing Quake III on dial-up while simultaneously chatting on the phone on the other line. This was fun for me, but my parents were genuinely worried I was wasting too much time on games.
The science-fiction author Douglas Adams wrote:
“Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”
Every generation seems to undergo some major cultural shift, and then promptly forget about the fact that culture is going to keep changing and shift again. People who grew up with the rock and roll revolution of the 60s are probably scratching their heads at EDM. I can only imagine what 80s music sounded like to people who came of age listening to The Everly Brothers.
While games have existed for decades, they've exploded more recently with the rise of mobile, free-to-play, and online gaming. In our always-connected age, digital culture is increasingly the culture that matters, and games are the first digital-native form of entertainment. Sure, you can watch a movie on Netflix or read on your Kindle, but those experiences are ported from their native forms – you simply can’t play a hundred-player battle royale in Fortnite in a non-digital format. As kids who have grown up with Roblox and Minecraft get older, games will be some of their most common shared experiences. One day (not too far from now) I expect games to surpass the cultural relevance of movies and books because they’re digitally native.
Gaming is already a giant and growing industry. That's obvious at this point, but what some people still don't realize is the cultural pervasiveness and impact games will wield in the future. As software is eating the world, gaming (which is software!) is eating culture.
There's the classic William Gibson line: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Gaming's cultural rise is already happening, if you know where to look. Last October, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez streamed herself playing Among Us on Twitch to over 400,000 viewers in one of the most-viewed streams of all time. She may be the first major US political figure to do so, but she definitely won’t be the last. The absurdity of gaming’s undersized cultural impact won't last much longer… If you want to understand culture in the future (let alone influence it and stay relevant!), play games.