The blustery drama surrounding the minor Twitter skirmish between Ryan Perez (now formerly of Destructoid) and Felicia Day has put the spotlight on a persistent and ugly issue concerning the gaming industry. For those of you unfamiliar with the events of the past weekend, Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds describes the issue fairly well. The short of it is, Perez called Day out on his private Twitter account for adding nothing to the industry other than being a “glorified booth babe,” then, after getting fired by Destructoid, continuing his self-destructive pissing contest by taking on other members of the gaming geek celebrity circle, and, eventually, coming to his senses and messaging that this had not resulted in the best outcome for his career.
Well and good. And while Day, who is anything but a booth babe, continues to write and produce a significant amount of gaming-related entertainment, (not least of which are her geek dramadies The Guild and DA II films for Bioware) the implication remains: outside of voicework and allowing her image to be used for in-game character modeling, Day does not add to the gaming industry—if the gaming industry is solely defined as “developing and releasing video games and gaming hardware.”
And there’s the rub. The industry itself is inherently conflicted over its need for and rise of a secondary gamer industry.
An article from last year’s Guardian estimated that the US film industry generated in excess of $40.8 billion dollars, with worldwide numbers rising as high as $88.8 billion, doubling the domestic take. Hot on the glittering Hollywood tails, in a report cited in Joystiq from around the same time period, a tech advisory firm stated that the video game industry was closing in on the movie business, bringing in a worldwide $74 billion dollars which looked to only increase in the coming years.
Cool, right? Videogames and films are running neck-and-neck in competition for the consumer’s entertainment dollar, and there’s more than enough for everyone. Heck, the videogame industry is doing just fine as is, beating films in many markets, and showing little signs of any potential for significant decline, despite the mumblings from economic forecasts overall.
And it’s true: dollar-for-dollar, video games can offer more immersive entertainment for longer periods of time, and in a dodgy economy, maximizing entertainment and pleasant distractions is important for frugal consumers. But let’s look at another aspect.
Over the weekend, we went out to dinner with some friends. These are smart, thoughtful people—researchers, designers, photographers, consultants. When we catch up, we talk about anything and everything that interests us, from comic books to science news to films.
The first thing we discussed when we got together was that Katie Holmes was leaving Tom Cruise.
If the film industry disappeared tomorrow, several hanger-on, supplemental industries would be dealt an enormous blow:
- Celebrity photographers
- Celebrity magazines
- Entertainment newscasts
- Gossip sites
- Entertainment retailers
- Fashion houses
- Fashion magazines
- Jewelry makers
- Liquor companies
- Spas and salons
- Webcast channels
- Satire sites and publications
- Talk shows
- Interior design companies
- Cosmetic companies
…the list goes on and on.
And arguably, it’s a superficial and decadent list. Most of the video game developers I’ve met and/or had the honor to work with are relatively modest or shockingly humble individuals, who place a priority on personal experiences over material goods, who are concerned with charitable endeavors and the continuing intellectual challenges that good game development offers. They make games for their living, and therefore, they live accordingly.
However, video games are rarely afforded much commentary in national or global social conversations. It’s much easier to rehash a ninety-minute blockbuster, complete with supplemental gossip (“Did you see her hair at the premiere?”) over drinks, in waiting rooms, in hair salons or in line for the bathroom at Fenway. It’s light, it’s packageable, it’s easy, and because it rides on the celebrity/entertainment infrastructure that has been built and continually expanded since the 1930s, it’s almost impossible to unseat. We’ve been raised to connect over this, and especially in the last twenty years or so, to use the film industry as a cultural guide for everything from clothes to music to the brand of rum we sweeten our mojitos with.
I’m not saying this is how it should be. But it’s how it is.
Those industries I mentioned? They make a lot of money by shoring up the film and entertainment business. It’s advertising that costs next-to-nothing compared to the price of a thirty-second spot on a primetime network show. And for the deeply-embedded industries, like People magazine or E! Entertainment, it is crucial to their very existence that they keep the nation, if not the rest of the first world, talking about the peripheries attached to a Memorial- or Labor-Day weekend release.
Which brings me back to Mr. Perez and Ms. Day. And also the nasty reality of losing your job. Despite gaining on or surpassing films, much of the work that the gaming industry offers is not stable. The current economic model means that cyclically, companies need to ramp up numbers as they approach release, and then let go of a significant percentage of workers to realize any sort of a meaningful profit. Even within a community as tight-knit as the gaming industry, the gleam and attention of a new AAA product will allow a consumer’s attention-span for word-of-mouth, just-play-this purchasing power of say…a month. Maybe two, if it’s a deep game or released near a holiday. And while films get a second and third chance at consumer money through cable and streaming, or DVD sales of the original product, usually an already-released game gets a PR and sales bump only if additional DLC gets offered a few months later, and not without extra time, money and resources from the developer. So the possibility for assured profits isn’t as clear-cut.
It would be easier for the developers and publishers if games shared as much of the global social conversation as films did. But that’s unlikely to happen. Games simply aren’t glamorous or (yikes) shallow enough to be easily distilled into a 15-second Today Show sound bite and a “Get Alyx Vance’s look!” page in US Weekly. But if we could get a percentage of attention, as we’ve started to see with PR appearances on late-night and early-morning talk shows, or an increase in the promotion of an IP’s multi-media offerings (hi, Pokemon!) then the industry stands a better chance of stabilizing internally, to the benefit of a greater number of developers having a larger amount of money to produce cooler and more diverse games.
Supportive entities like Rooster Teeth, Penny Arcade and the savvy Ms. Day are building up that percentage. And if they put out quality content, as the aforementioned do, we should reward them by continuing to reference them and endorsing their output, as surely and passionately as we would the latest Steam sale.
As for Mr. Perez—he seems to be aware that he messed up pretty significantly. However, he asked a question—however poorly—not only of Felicia Day, but the industry at large. For that opportunity to broaden our own conversations and understanding of our profession, I offer him a cup of strong black coffee and an aspirin.