Rage against the machines

Tom Chatfield has written a terrific piece in Prospect about computer gaming.

In March, the British government released the Byron report—one of the first large-scale investigations into the effects of electronic media on children. Its conclusions set out a clear, rational basis for exploring the regulation of video games. Since then, however, the debate has descended into the same old squabbling between partisan factions. In one corner are the preachers of mental and moral decline; in the other the high priests of innovation and life 2.0. In between are the ever-increasing legions of gamers, busily buying and playing while nonsense is talked over their heads.

The video games industry, meanwhile, continues to grow at a dizzying pace. Print has been around for a good 500 years; cinema and recorded music for around 100; radio broadcasts for 75; television for 50. Video games have barely three serious decades on the clock, yet already they are in the overtaking lane. In Britain, according to the Entertainment & Leisure Software Publishers Association, 2007 was a record-breaking year, with sales of “interactive entertainment software” totalling £1.7bn—26 per cent more than in 2006. In contrast, British box office takings for the entire film industry were just £904m in 2007—an increase of 8 per cent on 2006—while DVD and video sales stood at £2.2bn (just 0.5 per cent up on 2006), and physical music sales fell from £1.8bn to £1.4bn. At this rate, games software, currntly our second most valuable retail entertainment market, will become Britain’s most valuable by 2011. Even books—the British consumer book market was worth £2.4bn in 2006—may not stay ahead for ever.

In raw economic terms, Britain is doing rather well out of this revolution. We are the world’s fourth biggest producer of video games, after the US, Japan and Canada (which only recently overtook Britain thanks to a new generous tax regime for games companies). Here is a creative, highly skilled and rapidly growing industry at which we appear to excel. 2008, moreover, is already almost certain to top last year’s sales records thanks to the April release of the hugely hyped Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV), the brainchild of Edinburgh-based company Rockstar North. Worldwide, GTA IV grossed sales of over $500m in its first week, outperforming every other entertainment release in history, including the Harry Potter books and Pirates of the Caribbean films.

The media analysis that accompanied GTA IV’s triumph was of a markedly higher quality than it would have been even a few years ago. But truly joined-up thinking about the relationships between games, society and culture is still rare…

Worth reading in full.