The death of Nintendo’s CEO Satoru Iwata this week has many both within and outside the gaming industry taking a look at how far video games and online gaming culture have come in the last couple of decades. Iwata is credited for strong leadership as his company developed the massively popular Nintendo DS and Wii video game consoles, and by expanding the video game market’s reach to large swaths of new users.
Over the last 10 years, video games have transformed from a peripheral market to a powerhouse on a global scale. Thanks in large part to advancements in technology and gaming’s integration with Hollywood in the U.S. and film industries in other countries, what was once considered fringe is now mainstream. Owning and playing video games is no longer stigmatized. And though the decades-old stereotype that gamers are “nerds”, or in some sort of underground community that spans fantasy, pop culture, horror, and all manner of other genres, those same gamers have embraced those labels as gaming culture has risen to the foreground.
In the U.S., no other event speaks to such growth more than the Comic-Con International conference held in San Diego, California. Held annually during the summer, Comic-Con draws thousands of fans of art forms spanning comic books, film, TV, video games, role-playing games, cosplay, and more. (In recent years, attendance has topped 130,000.) The event demonstrates the close integration of pop culture and other art forms. Perhaps more importantly, Comic-Con has emerged as the emblem of the integration of the comic book/graphic novel world with video games. Since the comic industry has been around far longer than the video game one, the meshing of these art forms is a testament their intrinsic cultural value.
Modern online gaming’s contributions to culture and social change has not gone unrecognized. This week, The Guardian reported that the U.K.’s Cultural Minister Ed Vaizey spoke to a conference about the importance of vital video games to British culture and putting them on par with film:
When I took on this role, I was completely blown away when I found out about this industry; it was just sitting under politicians’ noses. There was all this talk about whether [games] promoted anti-social behaviour, when in fact we were looking at an industry in which Britain was one of the world leaders, and which attracted people at the top of their game in all sorts of fields, from the arts to computer science to physics…it was easy for me to become a champion of the games industry, and push for games to take their rightful place alongside some of the more vocal creative industries like film.
That said, the violent aspect of gaming cannot go undiscussed in a review of its cultural influence. Over the last year, national outrage in the U.S. over the routine harassment of women in online gaming communities has broadened the conversation about the pervasiveness of sexism and violence towards women in general. Even as gamers find support and relief in their online communities, make human connections, contribute to cultural phenomena like Comic-Con, and identify with like-minded users, hoards of women have reported being victimized, with some receiving rape and death threats for their open criticism of games that perpetuate misogynistic, sexist stereotypes. Many criticize the gaming culture itself for excluding this group of users — sometimes violently — even as it claims to be a home for those whose interests lie outside the mainstream.
The jury is still out on whether or not video games that contain violent content contribute to violent behavior in people of all ages. Health is a concern here as well; South Korea’s online gaming addiction problem is now a well-known blight on the country that boasts the fastest internet speeds and some of the world’s most successful technology companies. Gaming addiction rehabilitation centers exist to help users — mostly children and teenagers — wean themselves from online gaming habits.
The barometer for the cultural influence of video games can be found in the vigor of the debate surrounding their use. After all, art wouldn’t be art without the element of controversy.