Taking Games Seriously

by Dennis Redmond
Why should self-identified progressives and activists care about videogames? After all, don't we have more important things to do -- like stopping the Terror War, organizing unions, and constructing Left parties? Aren't videogames just a frivolous luxury of First World consumers?
Not so. Adorno noted long ago that the line between progress and regress becomes blurred during periods of historical reaction. At such moments, what is truly progressive is scorned as obsolete, unrealistic, or foolishly utopian, while what is reactionary is praised as revolutionary, pragmatic, and state-of-the-art.
The videogame culture is a case in point. The Right has long castigated videogames as a mortal threat to public decency. All too many Leftists unthinkingly echo this critique, dismissing videogames as engines of militarism and xenophobia. Yet the videogame culture does not belong to military planners, Hollywood executives or elite programmers. It is a hugely diverse and dizzyingly complex field, where the burning issues of the multinational media culture, multinational ideology, the open
source software revolution, US neoliberalism, EU integration, and the East Asian developmental state all converge.
In just four decades, videogames have spread from minicomputers to arcade and computer platforms, home consoles, and latest of all, handhelds and cellphones. To give you an idea of the size of the game market, here are the numbers for the US market in 2003:
Mass Media Markets in the US
US Sales 2003
Videogames (hardware plus software)
$11.2 billion
Console software 58%, total hardware 31%, PC software 11%
Cinema (box office)
$10.1 billion
DVD and videotape sales
$22.5 billion
(64% sales, 36% rentals)
Total media
$43.8 billion
Data: NPD, ZenithOptimedia, Wedbush Morgan SecuritiesThe picture is similar in the other major media markets of the world, namely Europe and Japan. Most estimates peg total videogame software sales in Europe and Japan at $9.8 billion in 2004. Since software typically makes up 70% of all videogame-related sales, it's safe to assume that world videogame sales were at least $25 billion last year, and probably closer to $30 billion (the official totals don't include the booming online gaming market, or places like Russia, China, and South Korea, where statistics are difficult to come by).
Interestingly, one of the little-known reasons for the vibrancy of the videogame culture is its development model. High-quality games are not mass-produced by giant corporations. This has long been true of the cinema and other branches of the video culture -- no corporation could ever replace the creativity of a Hayao Miyazaki or an Abbas Kiarostami, for example. Though Sony and Microsoft studios do occasionally produce a hit game, almost all of the best videogames come from small specialty firms and quasi-independent producers. (Nintendo is a partial exception, but that's because the firm built its success around its software and the efforts of its legendary designer, Shigeru Miyamoto).
Nor are videogames a Japanese or US monopoly. Some of the finest videogames are being produced by Canadian, Croatian, Finnish, and Korean programmers and firms. Thanks to the Internet, the software tools and codes used to create games are accessible worldwide, resulting in an explosion of creative and non-commercial content from hobbyists, fans, and junior programmers.
The partisans of open source software have long argued that apparent hegemony of silicon capitalism conceals a remarkable amount of underlying cooperation and collective planning, a.k.a. nascent forms of information socialism. Videogames prove their point.
There are two reasons for this. First, the videogame culture has enduring links to the forces of multinational production (via the chip, software, and telecom industries) and has equally significant connections to the multinational relations of production (via the open source software revolution, the information commons, and the mass media).
Many of these issues were on prominent display at the May 2005 E3 convention (the Entertainment and Electronics Exposition, the videogame industry's annual trade fair). In addition to a slew of new games, Sony and Microsoft unveiled their next-generation game consoles, the the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, respectively. The PS3 was especially impressive -- the console is the product of a four-way partnership between Sony, Toshiba, IBM, and Nvidia. At its heart is a whole new line of microprocessors -- the Cell chip, which is essentially a massive parallel processor, designed specifically for multimedia processing. The PS3 will deliver two teraflops of computing power, roughly equal to the fastest supercomputer in existence in 1997. (The technical details of the PS3 are here.). All of this computing power will be able to run 3D games at high-definition digital resolutions, the equivalent of cinema-quality visuals on widescreen TV.Strange as it sounds, console videogames have their own version of the Five Year Plan -- five-year product cycles, during which a given console generation stays constant, but the software is gradually optimized for the console. Given the rapid changes in computer hardware, one might ask how consoles could possibly compete with the rapid advance of computer technology.
There are three reasons for this. First, computers have to be all things to all people, while consoles are designed solely for multimedia uses. While computer power roughly doubles every year, dedicated hardware can leapfrog over this rate. Second, all that computer power tends to be swallowed up by buggy software code and opaque operating systems -- a level of complexity which console systems can largely avoid. Third, consoles are designed to be sold at a loss. Sony and Microsoft don't make a dime of profit from the sale of their console systems; initial production costs are eventually recouped two or three years into the cycle. (The real profits lie in software, add-on merchandising and peripherals.)
To make a long story short, a $250 dollar stand-alone console which lasts five years will always offer more value than a $1000 computer which requires updating every three years, plus endless software and antivirus upgrades. This isn't to say that PC gaming will ever disappear. Though the personal computer has declined in importance as a vehicle for gaming -- PC game sales dropped from $1.8 billion in 2001 to $1.1 billion in 2004 -- the PC remains an indispensable development platform for the gaming community.
Put another way, console systems are more than just commodities, they also have some of the classic features of a public good. They are a key infrastructure of the information commons, which individual companies ignore at their peril. Historians will consider Microsoft's Xbox venture as the classic example of how the videogame culture ingeniously deflated the pretensions of the information rentiers. The original Xbox was technically superior to the Playstation 2, but Microsoft's legendary greed (essentially, Microsoft priced the console too high in the beginning, especially in Europe, and didn't want to pay top dollar to publishers, resulting in a lack of hit software) allowed Sony to dominate the console market.
This console cycle will be slightly different, because Microsoft has paid top dollar to a bevy of developers, programmers, and publishers, giving it a powerful line-up of titles -- a crude form of reparations, if you will, to the videogame culture. Microsoft will eventually make money in the videogame business, but it will never extend its PC monopoly into the console world.
There is a deeper lesson here. In an era when predatory neoliberalisms and monstrous petro-fundamentalisms are running amok in the world-system, it is crucial for the Left to wrest the concept of progress from the forces of Capital. Only by deciphering the new types of the multinational society emerging all around us -- new types of social and political movements, new economic formations, and new modes of aesthetic perception -- can we combat neoliberalism on its own global turf.

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