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Culture Watch

Entertainment Industry News by Christopher Gildemeister

For the week of 3.27.06  

As videogames grow in popularity their influence on American culture is increasing.  Over the last several years, as the music industry has struggled with sales and movie box office has shrunk, the videogame business has flourished. The videogame industry now takes in more revenue annually than does Hollywood from theater box-office receipts.


From 2000 to 2004, sales of gaming software and hardware in the United States increased from $6.7 billion to $9.9 billion.  In 2005, total sales of videogame hardware, software and accessories rose to an all-time record high of $10.5 billion. The results surpassed the old record of $10.3 billion set in 2002 and were 6 percent higher than the $9.9 billion reported in 2004. Considering only software for portable game players, such as Nintendo's Game Boy Advance and Sony's PlayStation Portable, sales rose by 42 percent to $1.4 billion in 2005. This was the second straight year in which portable game technology earned in excess of $1 billion. (AP, January 13, 2006; New York Times, February 6, 2006) And worldwide online game subscription revenue – which makes up only a fraction of the estimated $29 billion in overall video game sales in 2005 -- grew 43 percent to $2 billion.  Massively Multiplayer Online games, such as World of Warcraft, accounted for more than half of the subscription sales in 2005. (AP, March 8, 2006)  No end or even slowdown in such spending is in sight; PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that worldwide spending on videogames and related materials will reach nearly $55 billion by 2009.  (BusinessWeek.com, October 19, 2005)


With such numbers, it is clear that many people are spending ever greater amounts of time playing videogames. But the influence of videogames on American children and families is not merely an economic one.


The National Institute of Media and the Family found that 92 percent of all children ages 2 to 17 play video games, and the average child spends 9 hours each week playing them. The Institute also found that 87 percent of pre-teen and teenage boys play games rated "M" for Mature by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. M-rated games often contain realistic depictions of human injury and death, mutilation of body parts, rape, sex, profanity and drug, alcohol and tobacco consumption.  (US Fed News, July 25, 2005; Advertising Age online, July 28, 2005; Associated Press, July 27, 2005)


What is perhaps more surprising – and potentially disturbing – is the fact that far more adults, many of them parents, than previously suspected also play such games…and are not immune to the allure of the violence presented within.


"If you saw her in a grocery store, you would see an old, Midwestern diabetic with thick glasses leaning on a crutch or shopping cart…but get her in front of a game, and she becomes a monster." -- Timothy St. Hilaire, describing his grandmother, 69-year-old Barbara St. Hilaire, who spends about 50 hours a week playing violent videogames and whom Timothy has nicknamed "Old Grandma Hardcore." (BusinessWeek.com, October 19, 2005)

One in three parents play videogames and 80 percent of those play them with their children, according to a survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. The typical gamer parent is 37 years old and almost half the group are women. Twenty-seven percent of gamer parents began playing video games around the same time their children started. (AP, January 27, 2006) Fifty-three percent of parents in game-equipped households say they play these games with their children at least once a month. (Sacramento Bee, January 7, 2006)  The same survey found that 19% of gamers are over age 50.

This is a matter of potential concern. Too many hours spent playing videogames can foster both social isolation and aggressive behavior, according to studies cited by the National Institute on Media and the Family.  68-year-old Liam Murray once played so much electronic Mah-Jong that a ghost image of the tiles was burned into his monitor. Murray now plays about 50 hours a week online, sometimes until 3 a.m. (BusinessWeek.com, October 19, 2005) At a time in which many of the elderly, particularly those suffering from physical disabilities, are already housebound, such gaming can contribute to their isolation.


Also of concern is the possibility of increased aggression and competitiveness between parents and their children, with such conflict centering around shared videogames.


Clinical psychologist Erik Fisher, author of the books The Art of Managing Conflict and The Art of Positive Parenting, warns parents against becoming obsessive over videogames, and becoming too competitive when playing against their children. "You don't want to be practicing all night just so that you can beat them," Fisher says. (Sacramento Bee, January 7, 2006)

"I really got into it when Nintendo came out with
Super Mario. I remember playing with my son all night long, competing against each other." – "Old Grandma Hardcore" Barbara St. Hiliare (BusinessWeek.com, October 19, 2005)


Parental obsession with gaming can also set a negative example to children of priorities and how best to use time. "Kids pay attention to what we do over what we say," says David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family.  "If I say, 'Don't bother me, I'm playing games,' and then I get on their backs for playing too much, what kind of credibility am I going to have?" (Sacramento Bee, January 7, 2006)

With interest in videogames spanning a spectrum of ages, it is no surprise that the games' popularity is having an influence on other entertainment media and even in America's educational establishment.  

On November 8, 2005, game company Players Network Inc. began providing original gaming lifestyle TV programming exclusively on Comcast's Select on Demand. The programming includes new talk-show formats, gaming-education seminars and lifestyle entertainment featuring celebrities like company spokesman James Caan. (HollywoodReporter.com, October 11, 2005) And the Academy of Interactive Arts and Science revealed plans for a new annual television awards program designed to showcase the year's best video games and the design teams which created them.  The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Presents The Year in Games is set to debut in 2007. Because of videogames' broad appeal, the special's organizers anticipate that the program will air on one of the major television networks. (HollywoodReporter.com, Feb. 13, 2006)


 "The audience for the show is much, much broader than most people think, at least 12-49…It will be entertaining even to those outside the game crowd." -- Jules Haimovitz, vice chairman and managing partner of Dick Clark Produtions, co-producer of The Year In Games Awards show. (HollywoodReporter.com, Feb. 13, 2006)


Responding both to the opportunity for employment in the digital media industry and  to the tastes of a new generation of students who have grown up playing videogames,  videogame-related courses are increasingly being offered in colleges around the country. Nationwide, over 50 schools now offer courses in video game study, development or design. Some colleges even offer full academic programs designed around videogames. The Art Institute of Phoenix awards a bachelor of arts in game art and design, while University of Pennsylvania offers a master's degree in computer graphics and game technology. (AP, September 23, 2005)


Although the greatest threat of violent videogames is to children, adults and parents are obviously not immune to the addictive thrills of such games. As video game culture increasingly dominates American society, parents should take careful stock of the influence which such games may be having, not only on their children, but on themselves and on our entire culture. 

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