Sex, Lies, and Videogames

What if a computer program combined the action and graphics of a video game with the emotional power of great art? The result could revolutionize interactive entertainment—and even change the meaning of “play”

If today’s video-game industry were a person, it would be at what people used to call “that awkward age.” Suddenly, like a teenager with long legs and short pants, it finds itself grossing $31 billion this year in revenues worldwide, according to the business consultancy Price­waterhouseCoopers, and nearly $10 billion in the United States alone. If the industry keeps up its growth, Price­waterhouse expects it to rival the global recorded-music business by about 2010. Yet the video-game industry, for all its swagger and success, remains something of a niche player. In the United States, it is smaller than the theme-park and amusement-park industry; according to Price­waterhouse, its rapid growth would still leave it, in 2010, about a third the size of the film, radio, or book industry, and about a seventh the size of the television industry.

A lot of people play games now, and not just kids: the average gamer, according to the Entertainment Software Association, is thirty-three years old. But while just about everyone regularly listens to music or reads books or watches movies, many adults never pick up a joystick. Only about a seventh of game titles sold in 2005 were the racy or violent stuff that draws an M (for “mature”) rating; the stereotype that video games are nothing but antisocial savagery is just that—a stereotype. Puzzles, pets, strategy games, and social games abound. But it’s true that the adrenaline-pumping, youth-oriented genres dominate. According to the ESA, almost three-quarters of the best-selling games on the market are in the fighting, shooting, racing, action, and sports genres. A sexist commentator might call it boy stuff.

The graphics of the best modern games are stunning, and their “physics—their power to create a world that feels real as you move about in it—hardly less so. But the industry is rife with game designers who complain of “sequelitis” and creative underachievement. “Will we address an excruciatingly audience-limiting lack of diversity in our content?” wondered Warren Spector, one of the industry’s leading developers, in a recent article in The Escapist, a video-game magazine. “I can see us limiting ourselves to the same subset of adolescent male players we’ve always reached. And if we do that, it’s back to the margins for us.”

“There’s no drama genre, there’s no comedy genre,” Andrew Stern told me recently. “What exists right now are action movies, basically.” He might have added: silent action movies. The video-game industry’s annual trade show in Los Angeles, called the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3 for short, is one of the loudest places I have ever been. Also one of the most silent.

This year’s show occupied all of L.A.’s cavernous convention center. Its thousands of microprocessors and liquid- crystal displays and sound systems burned enough electricity to power a good-sized suburb. Take the crowds of Times Square, add the high-tech dazzle of Tokyo and the floor-shaking decibels of surround-sound cinema, throw in Vegas-style showgirls (known in the trade as “booth babes”), and you have some idea of E3.

Drifting through the show last May, I saw many shallow games and many derivative games: superheroes dueling with giant robots, skateboarders flashing Nike logos, boxers throwing punches amid showers of sweat and spittle, warriors trudging through jungles and snowscapes. Joining one particularly long line, I found myself in a small, darkened room where a designer was debuting Midway’s John Woo Presents: Stranglehold. Fighters were demolishing everything in sight. “Look at the state of the teahouse, just massive destruction,” said the designer lovingly. “And it never looks the same twice.” As he emphasized how realistically each bullet splintered the walls, a male connoisseur in the audience called out, “Aim for the head!” (The audience in this demo, and at the show generally, was at least 80 percent male.) Even the schlock, however, exhibited striking craft and ingenuity, and I came across some astonishingly imaginative games, including an alien-invasion shooter (Capcom’s Lost Planet: Extreme Condition) whose visuals were so compelling that I was helpless to tear myself away.

It was only after I left the hall that I realized there was something odd about all the noise. The thunderous sound effects were masking the absence of conversation. In real life, much of what’s interesting involves talking to people. The characters in games could deliver scripted lines like “I’m ready to kick some ass!” or drop prerecorded comments on the action, but conversing with me or each other was completely beyond them. It occurred to me that if video games seem inhuman, that is because they lack humans. Their esoteric syntax is an artifact of a stunted environment in which blasting someone’s head off is easy but talking to him is impossible.

A month later, I asked Andrew Stern what he thinks of E3. “I shake my head a little,” he replied. “All this effort and money being poured into all this derivative and uninspired work. I’m bored and slightly disgusted.” Few in the mainstream industry would express disgust with their product, but many designers, being intelligent and creative people, feel they have made much less of their powerful medium than it could be. They are vexed by a sense of underachievement. As Will Wright, the most famous and successful American game designer, told a crowded session at E3, “Interactive design is a really large box, and we’ve really only explored one little tiny corner of that box.” David Cage, another prominent designer, told another audience, “What strikes me in this industry is, there’s just a real lack of meaning in general.”

Meaning is the catalyst that turns action to drama. Meaning requires words, not just sounds. It requires characters, not just figures. It requires dramatic shape: a sense that the action is leading to some transformation or resolution. It is what Stern and Mateas resolved they would bring to video games.

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Jonathan Rauch is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

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