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It's just a game

Why video games matter

For the last 40 years video games have been slowly climbing a ladder towards cultural acceptance. Gamers have been ridiculed for many of those years, stereotyped as one-dimensional, overweight social misfits, perpetually hunched over glowing screens as the world outside their bedroom windows slowly passed them by

For a small percentage of gamers, this old school Dungeons & Dragon-esque perception may still have some validity, but nowadays, gamers are everywhere. They are normal people who go to work, recreate on their weekends and socialize with their friends over food and drink. And, like elsewhere, there are thousands of them right here in Whistler and the Sea to Sky corridor.

Anyone born from the late '60s onwards is part of a generation that has grown up with video games as a household fixture. The eldest of this generation (now in their 40s) grew up playing Atari, Intellivision and Colecovision, or their Commodore 64, transitioning to Nintendo and Sega in the late '80s and early '90s when Sony came into the picture and almost took over. Many of these gamers have kept up, buying new consoles or sophisticated gaming computers the way people used to upgrade their televisions, stereos and other home entertainment appliances.

They do not dismiss gaming as a child-centric waste of time, but consider video games a part of their everyday lives. You see them out in public, playing rounds of Angry Birds while waiting for the bus. Scrabble scores bounce across the world between Facebook friends and, behind closed doors, core gamers shoot, slash and obliterate their way through the alternate realities of Halo first-person shooters (FPSs) and World of Warcraft role-playing games (RPGs). These core gamers, those who spend most of their time playing through their immersive worlds, are the ones that still experience the occasional jock-like heckling or pitiful shakes of the head from their non-gaming peers.

Ironically, however, it is these non-gamers who are now the minority, and the number of gamers is growing with each passing moment. The global business of interactive entertainment will be to this century what television was to the last. Game revenues are bigger than movies, music and television combined. In some countries, notably South Korea, video game competitions are broadcast on television like sporting events. The players are household names.

Gamers are slowly but surely taking over the world. Literally and figuratively.

Victor Lucas is a prime example of the mainstream success one can achieve in the video game industry. He is the executive producer and host of Reviews on the Run and The Electric Playground, two daily TV shows produced in Vancouver (the latter having screened since 1997). His shows air in Canada, the U.S. and Australia and feature the latest movies, gadgets and, most of all, video games.

"I think the coolest thing about video games is that, unlike the film industry, which takes 30-40 years until before there's a major shift, with video games every five years you can count on something shocking, something really cool," he said.

"And every year there is something incremental, some new adaption of technology in the video game space that makes it exciting."

Recent developments include motion-based controllers, 3D gaming, social gaming, the ability to play games wholly over the Internet through services like OnLive, using the Sony Vita portable to play games that are on your Playstation 3 at home, controllers with touch screens, and so on.

So what (other than geeky new technology) keeps gamers coming back for more?

Not unlike how Whistler snags the unsuspecting seasonaire and turns them into life-long, recreation-relishing residents, games tend to suck you in. It can be an incredibly addictive pastime, much like a good book that you can't put down. But in these stories not only can you interact with the environment and the other characters, in some cases you can dictate how the story ends. More often than not, that means fighting your way through a swath of enemies and making moral choices as you go.

Violence in games is now considered acceptable by most people and the idea of blaming first person shooters as the cause of school shootings is almost laughable — though conservative PTA members and politicians still try to convince you otherwise. When almost nine out of 10 young boys play video games, it's hard to substantiate that the ones committing violence were prompted by a video game to do so. In 2002, after overturning several court cases looking to ban violent games, Federal Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner noted:

"Violence has always been and remains a central interest of humankind and a recurrent, even obsessive theme of culture both high and low. It engages the interest of children from an early age, as anyone familiar with the classic fairy tales collected by Grimm, Andersen, and Perrault are aware." Posner added, "To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it."

In reality, the most dangerous thing about video games are the social and sometimes physical repercussions of playing too much, ergo the aforementioned glutton in his mom's basement.

Jane McGonical, author of New York Times bestseller Reality is Broken: why video games makes us better and how they can change the world, states that since the launch of World of Warcraft in 2004 gamers around the world have collectively spent over 50 billion hours playing it — that equates to roughly 5.93 million years.

"To put that number in perspective: 5.93 million years ago is almost the exact moment in history that our earliest human ancestors first stood upright. By that measure, we've spent as much time playing World of Warcraft as we have evolving as a species."

This comparison is of course subjective, as the human race has collectively spent much more time than that evolving into bipedal, mostly intelligent hominids. But it begs the question: How can so many people spend this much time in a world separate from their own?

The answer is what McGonical refers to as "blissful productivity," the sense of being immersed in work that produces immediate results. RPGs such as Fallout and Mass Effect are examples of this so-called "work." As your avatar progresses through the game it gains experience, upgrades weapons and amour, gains and loses reputation, and opens up new environments. The immediate result is that the player's experiences are in the form of self-motivated, self-rewarding activity.

This intrinsic reward is what many people live for in Whistler, only instead of sitting in front of a screen we climb mountains, paddle over waterfalls and ride our bikes down world-class trails — then go and do it again a little faster than the time before. But these awe-inspiring pursuits do not take up every second of every day, particularly if we're experiencing weeks of tumultuous weather or, worse, if we are injured. When the doctor orders you to stay on the couch, what better form of entertainment than one which fires reflexes and synapses, and fosters coordination and critical thinking?

Jose Dufresne is a local snowboard instructor and mountain bike coach who spends plenty of time enjoying what Whistler has to offer. But during his downtime (the weeks when he is out of work, injured or when the weather sucks) — he will shoot his way through Gears of War 3 on Xbox Live. His gamertag "sOUTHWESTjOKER" was ranked number 50 in the world in a multiplayer variation called King of the Hill where teams of five players must defend an area of the map a feat that required two to three weeks at almost 30 hours of play per week.

"That was during the dead season just before winter," said Dufresne.

"To stay on top you've got be playing at least an hour a day and be playing with really good guys who can boost your score."

Dufresne makes a good point — reaching the top 50 out of several million players does require teamwork — a positive skill that also goes against the loner stereotype.

"It's a team game. If you're not chatting to your teammates and they're not chatting to you, the game becomes harder and harder. When your team communicates the game becomes super easy and you get the win."

In today's gamer world the entire global gaming community is connected through online servers — another reason that old stereotype of lone players in the basement is totally out of date. Friends — yes, real friends — can be made playing online games. Voice chat is essential to coordinate a team to victory, allowing social barriers to be broken down. Sometimes the friendships will even extend beyond the game itself.

Said Dufresne of his online Gears friends: "... Some of them were tired of me killing them.

"I know a couple of the guys who are playing a lot of Gears who are planning to do some trips to go see their (teammates) in their hometown, so they can all meet and play together in the same room. I know that happens a lot."

Dufresne stressed that due to a busy, injury-free summer and amazing weather recently, his current gaming stats for sOUTHWESTjOKER don't reflect his past exploits. Check back in the fall, maybe?

Canada's Game

From the birth of pixels ricocheting across the CRT screen in the early '70s Atari classic Pong, to the modern visual marvels and glorification of warfare in Call of Duty, society is just beginning to realize the goldmine sitting under the rapidly growing video games industry. How deep is this goldmine? Total consumer spending in the U.S. alone in 2011 totalled over $24.75 billion including content, hardware, and accessories. In comparison, Americans spent $18 billion on buying and renting movies (DVD, Blu-ray and download) and $10.1 billion at the box office. Video games are an economic force to be reckoned with.

The Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) defines a gamer as "a person who has played a video or computer game in the last four weeks." In its 2011 Essential Facts report, ESAC it stated that 59 per cent of Canadians are gamers with an average age of 33 (source: NPD Group's 2010 Understanding the Canadian Gamer). Almost every Canadian household owns a computer (96 per cent) and 47 per cent of households have at least one video game console such as an Xbox 360, Wii or Playstation 3. With three quarters of all gamers playing somewhere between "everyday" and "a few days per week," they have cemented themselves in the mainstream entertainment industry of this country.

Canadians play a lot of games. But they also make them.

"A lot of people in Canada have no idea about how much cool stuff gets made here," said Lucas.

"Canada gets games — it's certainly true in the development space. Some of the biggest games, and the coverage of video games, is coming from Canada and it has been for a long time. I just think that Canada loves this stuff, we really understand it. I think we have a curiosity and appetite for computer science and understanding what we can do with these cool technologies."

What many Canadians may not know is that with almost 16,000 employees, Canada has the third-largest game-industry workforce in the world after the U.S. and Japan. On a per capita basis, the creative talent that produces video games here safely exceeds that of the other gaming nations.

"In terms of an impact on a global scale, the (most) culturally significant work that's coming out of Canada that impacts the most people around the world is in video games," said Lucas.

"It's not in our music, it's not in our movies, it's not in our TV shows. It's from our video games. They're being consumed by more people and they connect with more people than anything else that Canada culturally exports. We should be damn proud of that."

The most concentrated cluster of game developers in Canada is in Quebec with over half of the country's gaming industry jobs and a majority of the large video game companies having offices in Montreal. In 1997, French development and publishing giant Ubisoft (creator of top selling franchises Assassin's Creed, Farcry and Just Dance to name a few) moved into an old textiles factory in the historic Mile End district, an office which has since grown to over 2,100 employees.

"The (Quebec) provincial government was quite aggressive and had the foresight of introducing some tax credits a number of years ago to attract a few large tenants to set up shop," said Julien Lavoie, ESAC's Director of Public Relations.

"Ubisoft was one of the first ones to arrive in the Montreal area. Since then Ontario and, to a lesser degree B.C., have also introduced tax credits for these types of companies."

But while the Quebec government was the quickest to entice international presence, Montreal has not always been leading the charge. Vancouver was considered the hub for Canada's video game industry for many years and still has a strong presence — albeit with smaller studios.

Last month The Province reported that 89 employees had been laid off at Radical Entertainment's Vancouver office. The employees who lost their jobs mentioned that console games are taking a hit with the rising number of independent game studios and many developers switching to mobile and handheld games. Another significant factor was the differing tax credits in B.C. — 17.5 per cent compared to 37.5 per cent in Quebec. But before we all place the blame squarely on the B.C. government, it's important to note that making a game that sells in such a saturated market is not easy to do. Poor review scores and even a botched launch can upend a studio. Radical Entertainment's latest release, Protoype 2, was the best selling console game in April 2012, but Radical's parent company, Activision Publishing stated after Radical's layoffs that the Prototype franchise "did not manage to find a broad commercial audience."

"For the console games, it's a hits-driven industry," said Lavoie.

"Games that do well do very well, but those that don't are generally not money makers. The risk is pretty high, especially in the larger investment titles where it takes millions of dollars to create those games."

Independent or "indie" games are video games created by individuals or small teams without financial support from a publisher. With miniscule budgets and manpower compared to AAA console games, indie developers will often produce games in polished 2D environments and rely on original themes and compelling gameplay to succeed. In 2009, Toronto-based studio Capybara Games collaborated with musician Jim Guthrie and audio visual concept designers Superbrothers to create Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery: EP. With simple yet visually stunning pixel graphics, abstract script writing and an experimental soundscape, this $4.99 iOS game went viral and since its release in 2011 has found an audience of over 500,000.

"Super mainstream games such as Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, and Cut the Rope have each sold tens of millions of copies," said president of Capybara Games Nathan Valle at the 2012 Games Developers Conference in San Francisco.

"Attempting to replicate that success is natural. But in reality, if you are making a game for everyone, you are actually making a game for no-one. The hit-based mentality takes you away from making a game that has soul or is fresh."

Sword and Sworcery received critical acclaim, making Time Magazine's Top 10 video games of 2011 and receiving thousands of five-star reviews on iTunes. The Wall Street Journal described it as "pop art for the digital age" — not bad for a game that cost $200,000 to produce by a small group of collaborators in Toronto.

The indie mentality of making a game in one's own vision, then hoping people like it enough to buy it, was the underlying theme of the recently released Canadian documentary Indie Game: The Movie.

Phil Fish, the Montrealer behind this year's Xbox Live Arcade masterpiece Fez, is amongst the indie developers interviewed that constantly struggles with frustration, depression and the overwhelming sense of impending failure. While a failed indie game will only affect a small team of people, as opposed to an entire building of staff, the effect that the failure has on that small team can be far more devastating.

"I'm on the line; my name, my career. If this fails, I'm done. I don't think I'll work in games again," said Fish in an interview from Indie Game: The Movie, around 18 months before Fez was released.

"It's not just a game. I'm so closely attached to it. It's me, it's my ego, my perception of myself is that risk. This is my identity, I'm the guy making Fez."

In the first six weeks of release, Fez sales broke 100,000 copies on Xbox Live Arcade. Reviews have been between four and five stars.

Gaming for a better Society

Is time playing video games wasted? That depends on how you look at it. McGonical outlines in her manifesto that the three billion hours global gamers collectively spend playing games every week can be harnessed as a productive human resource. Evoke is a social network game developed by the World Bank Institute (directed by McGonical herself) that tackles real world problems of food, energy, water, disaster relief, poverty, pandemic, education and human rights. Displayed as a graphic novel set in the year 2020, the player takes on a role as a part of a secret group of African problem solvers. The game is aimed at youth, particularly those in developing countries in Africa, and encourages players to collaborate and come up with creative solutions to urgent social problems.

At the end of the 10-week series of missions and quests, players were asked to submit their "evokation" in the form of a video blog post highlighting where they wanted to make a difference, what they aimed to change, the creative idea to instigate that change and how they would apply their first $1,000 of investment. Almost 20,000 people participated in the project from over 150 countries and the top players earned online mentorships with experienced social innovators and business leaders around the world. As well, seed funding was awarded for new ventures and scholarships were received for players to share their vision at the first EVOKE Summit in Washington D.C. which took place in September 2010.

While instigating real world change through a game could be considered a lofty goal, McGonical's initiative does seems logical. Evoke is the first project of its kind on such a scale and if more and more people participate, the world may just have a chance of surviving until the next century.

Scientists have also tapped into the vast resource of global gamers. Biologists and medical researchers at Stanford University have undertaken one of the greatest mysteries of human biology — how proteins fold — with the help of gamers. There are over 100,00 kinds of proteins in the human body made up of 20 different types of amino acids. For the protein to tackle a specific task in the bloodstream, it folds into a unique shape, what scientists describe as a kind of "incredibly complex origami." Sometimes the proteins can stop folding correctly and "forget" what shape to take, leading to diseases such as Alzheimer's, cystic fibrosis and Mad Cow.

Given the nearly infinite set of shapes that a protein can take, it could take a powerful computer up to 30 years to simulate a single set of results. But with players signing up and donating their spare computing power, millions of networked computers and Playstation 3 consoles helped the Folding@Home project reach the petaflop (FLOPs are floating operations per second, a measure of computer processing speed, and a petaflop is approximately a thousand trillion operations per second) milestone in 2007.

With the help of gamers around the world, the Pande Lab at Stanford University is effectively creating one of the world's most powerful super computers to help scientists predict protein folding, thereby accelerating medical research into diseases and cancers.

There are plenty of ways to enjoy ourselves in front of a screen and while we may not all be helping save the world through playing games just yet, the future looks optimistic. TV and film have played a significant part in all of our lives and they still do, but video games have shown that they can be far more than just another from of entertainment. They will help shape the future of human existence. For the better, of course.