Video Games, A Cultural Asset?

Article  by  SEBASTIEN GENVO et BORIS SOLINSKI  •  Published 23.09.2010  •  Updated 03.11.2010
Video games are considered here as a technological, economic, and cultural object. This article discusses the history of the sector and analyzes contemporary questions on the subject.



The origins of the video game are inseparable from those of the game machine. The first commercial examples (the arcade game machine Computer Space in 1971 for instance) only had one use, just like the pinball machines found next to them in bars: if you want to change games, you have to change machines. The same goes for one of the first ever home consoles, the Home Pong (made by Atari in 1975), in which the console and the game are one and the same. Because of this, the hardware manufacturers very quickly came to dominate the market. This stronghold is still existent today in a more indirect manner – with exclusivity contracts that link a game to particular hardware or by the conditions imposed upon the game producers (the development studios) - a dynamic that controls the market from behind the scenes. As technical obsolescence means that games disappear along with their hardware, the durability of a video game as a product has difficulty outlasting that of the technology that creates it. However, the best video games are those that know how to make the best of their own technical and economic constraints to offer original playing experiences, which go beyond fashion trends and firmly establish them permanently in people’s memories and gaming practices, an aspect that contributes to giving the object cultural significance. This is the case for Tetris, for example, which, created in 1984, recently achieved 100 million mobile phone downloads, although it is far from being the most visually impressive of models.
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A market dominated by hardware

The video game market is controlled by the hardware, in turn working together or competing, which includes console games, computer games and mobile phone games. From the birth of the videogame industry until the end of the nineties, the console was considered to be a machine exclusively dedicated to games. The game console was the first to be offered to the public at large, at a time when computers were not yet personal and the game wasn’t separable from the game machine. It traditionally allows for better interaction between the game and the controller because all players have strictly identical systems, which is impossible where the computer is concerned. It’s a real development asset that allows all the machine’s resources to be utilised as its abilities are known and unchanging, and it has dedicated development tools. It must be remarked, however, that consoles are being sold more and more as multi-media machines, particularly since the arrival of the Sony Playstation 2 on the scene, which installed a DVD player into its console as an extra selling point to complement its function as game console. For the designer, a strict quality control, carried out on the console’s game products by the console manufacturer, ensures both image and visibility for the final product, which furthermore benefits from a ready-made client base waiting for its release, meaning a quantifiable and guaranteed market for their game. These advantages, which obviously cost the console manufacturer a considerable amount, are compensated by the royalties given in exchange by the editor. This economic model has driven the global growth of the videogame industry and awarded the console first place in the market, with sales figures representing 60% of the market in 2008 (including portable consoles), meaning almost three times as much as computer or mobile phone games.

The computer game market has, however, always stood in antithesis to the game console market, offering a more expensive but more versatile machine and a plethora of games but without any other quality control save the commercial quality criteria. This means that, taking on the console market, the computer game advertises its versatility and its resourcefulness. In any case, the console is slave to a life cycle that quickly renders it obsolete (and its game library acquired at great cost alongside this), while computer games benefit from the constant evolution of their machine’s power and are simultaneously assured the retro-compatibility of their PC games, thanks to the partial monopoly of the Windows computer operating system[+] NoteThe Windows operating system was found, in May 2010 in 92% of the computers connected to the Internet in the world.X [1]. Furthermore, computers were the first to give access to both network and then online gaming, the economic viability of which was notably validated by the success of Doom (Id Software, 1993). Finally, any game designer may now offer up a computer game through the internet, often for free, without needing to go through an editor, which has given birth to independent creation.
As for the mobile telephone game, it represents a huge potential market as the mobile phone penetration rate stood, at the end of 2009, at two thirds of the world population (95% in France), which puts it ahead of all other hardware. However, this market suffers from a lack of regulation standards, with each brand offering both different ergonomics and logic functions depending on the model. Consequently, a game must be adapted to each telephone in order to be usable. The market is therefore both varied and erratic, as the old games don’t work on the new phone models and the success of a game is directly related to its availability on the fashionable phone of the moment - thus, to its agreements with the operators. Moreover, mobile phone network games suffer from a lack of terminal interoperability*, which impedes people from playing together. Thus, the mobile video game sales figures in relation to the number of mobile phone users was still only an average of 2.12 dollars in 2008 [+] NoteAccording to ARCEP, the number of mobile phone subscriptions in the world will rise to 4 billion in December 2008 and according to GFK the sales figures for the mobile phone game was 8.5 billion dollars in 2008 (see note 2).X [2]. Only the latest generation of smartphones*, which are more ergonomic and powerful, allow for group playing through the internet. The success of the Apple iPhone, with over 50 million copies sold in three years, has thus encouraged the development of mobile phone games [+] NoteThe download figures for videogames on the iPhone is 80% while the average percentage is only 50% for the competitionX [3].
Also, the arrival of the its big sister, the iPad, the first touch and communicating pad, meant being able to tap into a new videogame market, somewhere between mobile phones and console [+] Note44% of applications uploaded onto the iPad are games X [4].
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Hierarchy of market players

A game is created by a designer, financed by an editor and, in the console market, approved and published by the console manufacturer. Since the appearance of Famicom [+] NoteThis console appeared in Europe in 1986 under the name of NES : Nintendo Entertainment System.X [5] (the first home console by Nintendo) in 1983, manufacturers have started to initially sell their consoles at cost, even at a loss, in order to rapidly ensure a base of players. Ensuring that a new console penetrates millions of homes is a major investment but is indispensable to attract the editors who secure a return on this effort and compromise with the royalties that they pay these manufacturers from game sales. The barriers to entry are therefore very strong. Today, three manufacturers are established: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

Already present in the electronic games market in the seventies and in playing cards before that, Nintendo started to establish, from 1983, certain evaluation criteria for quality and ergonomics that were then taken up by all the other console manufacturers. Things, for example, such as according every button on the remote certain functions, thus standardising in turn the use of all games. Ergonomic innovation is still the manufacturing fingerprint of Nintendo who launched their first portable game console, the Gameboy, in 1989, then their touch version, the DS, in 2004, and finally the first console equipped with a motion detecting remote, the Wii, in 2006.

Sony’s competitive edge comes from its know-how when it comes to family electronics, which allows it to offer a console capable of also being used as a CD player for the Playstation 1 in 1994, DVD player for the PS2 in 2000 and Blu-ray player for the PS3 in 2006. Sony was also the first to offer retro-compatibility of its consoles.
Thanks to its financial power and its software development expertise, Microsoft arrived on the scene in 2001 with the Xbox. Its competitive edge comes from its famous development language, C#, used by a majority of game designers the world over and assuring a smooth migration between PC games and its console.
Before being approved, the game needs to be financed right from its conception through to distribution: this is the role of the editor who takes the most financial risks. A finished game doesn’t necessarily guarantee a profit and it is possible that, if distribution costs are more than the expected takings, it will not end up being placed on the market, which is the most expensive step of the development process (with marketing, manufacture and retailing being 70% of the cost of an average game [+] NoteStéphane Natkin, Twenty-first century video games and Medias, 2004, p. 23.X [6]).
Indeed, after several years of development, a game can become technically obsolete even before its release, or the genre of game can, in the meantime, fall out of fashion. However console manufacturers also edit games, which they develop in part internally in their own studios. Nintendo is the leading games editor in the world according to software sale figures, and Sony comes in 9th.
Ten leading video game editors worldwide in 2009.
(With their world ranking amongst all software editors)

This sector tends towards economic concentration, in the way of Square Enix’s takeover of Eidos Interactive in April 2009. Even more significant is the merger of Activision and Blizzard with Vivendi Games in December 2007, making them the leading editor group in the world just in front of Japan (second in the world), and giving France a second editor in the top 10 above Ubisoft (6th). In effect, the price of a video game is not subject to its development costs but to the hardware on which it is edited. This way, just like with the cinema, the system favours the big productions as, for the same retail price, a player will benefit from a game that received a much bigger technical investment. With the ever-growing production costs taken into consideration, the business model is still widely concentrated on the sale of the physical media and consoles, when online games offer more protection against pirating [+] NoteObviously it is possible to add a chip to consoles in order to play pirated games but this costly and illegal process cancels out the constructor guarantee and needs third-party material, such as a Blu-ray player for example, in order to work properly. This is therefore not very common practice.X [7].
Financed by the editors, designers hold the most precarious position. Indeed, due to the market structure, an editor has continuous control over the development as they only finance a project bit by bit, allowing them to withhold payments at any moment, therefore suspending work. The pressure built up by the necessity to meet deadlines is therefore permanent, so much so that licensed games must be released a month and a half before the film on which they are based. Taking into account the validation of a game and its different migrations, the development of licensed games is often limited to only a few months. However, the development studio paradoxically receives the least takings: they only take an average of 14% of the game sales, compared to 22% for the console manufacturer and 29% for the editor.
There are three main market stances for a development studio: built upon competitiveness, price/quality relation or excellence. Simply to exist, a studio in need of references will generally start by offering the lowest development costs. With the capitalisation of experience and team loyalties, the studio can then start to improve its operational profit margins by optimising developments. Yet only a major success would enable it to start working with an editor and therefore benefit from reasonable deadlines and budgets. A series of substantial successes would then give the studio the opportunity to self-edit its games, as did Blizzard with the online game World of Warcraft (2004), or Valve with Team Fortress 2 (2007) and Left 4 Dead (2008) through its downloading platform Steam.
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The video game as a cultural asset

The video game is largely perceived as a consumer product and not as a cultural asset. The industrialists are mostly to blame for this state of affairs, with a video game normally only on sale for a few months, or even weeks, whilst still having to succumb, reflecting it’s ever decreasing market value, to repeated price cuts until it disappears from the catalogues.

However the formation of a collective memory and the possibility of consolidation of past works are necessary for the construction of a culture for this medium. In order to play games that are no longer on the market and the hardware is no longer in production, the only solution left is often to emulate the games, most probably illegally when done without the agreement of the editor. However, in France, the establishment of a legal archive of multimedia works, set up by the French National Library in 1992, is leading to an evolution of mentality. In 1996, the MO5 association was created in France, with the sole mission of “preserving the computer and video game heritage”. Under the auspices of the National Centre of Cinematography, a videogame tax credit, modelled on the tax credit for research, was started in 2008 to support production, followed two years later by support funds (FAJV) and a video game monitoring body. On the other side of the Channel, the National Videogame Archive project was set up in February 2009 under the initiative of the National Media Museum to attempt to assemble important collections together and create a video game museum. However, the first videogame museum was American: the International Center for the History of Electronic Games opened its doors in New York in April. It is also noticeable at the moment that old games are available to be bought and downloaded onto new consoles, although the supply is however still very limited in comparison to the videogame market as a whole of the last 50 years. The distribution policy for these games comes more in this case from the manufacturers’ choice as they select first and foremost those games that have the biggest commercial value (with certain hardware and their gaming possibilities not to be found amongst these offers). 
 It seems today that despite everything the cultural industry name should be reconsidered to take this sector into account, considering that the very notion of this industry encompasses all industrial activities that produce and sell rationales, sounds, images and arts according to the definition given by the researcher Jean-Pierre Warnier [+] NoteJean-Pierre Warnier, The Globalisation of Culture, 2008,X [8]. The current use of this term mustn’t allow us to forget that the phrase “cultural industry” was originally coined by Adorno and Horkheimer in an intended critical analysis of the standardisation of contents and practices. As such, video games have undergone numerous interrogations in the last few years in regards to the image they promote, this being related to the incredible globalisation that structures their market. Analysts such as Stephen Kline [+] NotePlease refer to the work, Digital Play, which Stephen Kilne co-wrote, published by McGill-Queens’s University Press. Or, to read an article by this author in French, look at “La fin de l’histoire et la tyrannie des algorithmes”.X [9] have discussed, for example, the strong, but not exclusive, presence of “militarised masculine” themes throughout the history of the video game. This is related on one hand to economic necessity - the videogame market having built itself on its popularity with the target demographic of male adolescents – and on another hand it is socio-historic, with the context of this industry’s birth having brought about the reinforcement of certain themes.

Other researchers, such as Gonzalo Frasca, equally show that the conception of every rules system ends up shaping its own value system and original view of the world. In this way videogames should be considered, just as are music and the cinema, as a means of expression that can transmit all different kinds of rationales and/or emotions, the specificities of the nature of which and its active relation to other mediums have yet to be fully understood.
Indeed, the video game made numerous links with the cinema early on, as much as in terms of style and content as of socio-economic exchanges [+] NoteSee Alexis Blanchet, Pixels in Hollywood, Pix’n Love, 2010.X [10]. It is also starting to compete with the 7th art (the cinema) where budgets are concerned.

The videogame industry quickly learnt to make use of licenses coming from the cinematography world, such as Star Wars, E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark (all three from 1982). Video game genres are also inspired by genre cinema: science fiction in shoot’em up* (Computer Space, from 1971), action films in Beat’em all* (Karateka, 1984), or even horror in Survival horror* (Alone in the Dark, 1992). Furthermore, kinematics, from non-interactive sequences, are routinely used to contextualise the action. The arrival of 3D has given the player the opportunity to become the director of his own film by allowing him to play using different vantage points (Quake, 1996) and to immortalise his gaming exploits by using Machinima* and to share them on the Internet. However, “videogame expression” (as we are talking about cinematographic expression) can’t be pinned down to one single model.
The video game is characterised in particular by the need to hook a player with constant stimulation in the form of action and by superior and enticing spatial exploration possibilities, seeming to simulate architecture. This link has become particularly apparent since Super Mario Bros (1985), which introduced us to the discovery of a world made up of secret rooms and hidden treasure.
Whatever the mode of user interaction or the configuration of the market may be, the videogame sector is in constant mutation and has probably still not taken on its definitive shape.
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Heading towards digitalisation of the game

After the disappearance of Commodore (the manufacturer of the Amiga in 1994), the arrival of Sony followed by the disappearance of the pioneer Atari in 1996, and finally the withdrawal of Sega as competitor for console manufacturing in 2001, followed swiftly by the arrival of Microsoft that same year, new upheavals are always on the horizon. The widening of the market to welcome the casual player thanks to new devices such as the Wiimote, Nintendo’s intuitive remote, or Microsoft’s project Natal that allows a game to be controlled by simple gestures, invents new ways of entertainment whilst also attracting a new audience. Following this trend, most popular games in the world are now on social networks like Facebook. This is the case for Farmville who, appearing in June 2009, can lay claim to almost eight times the number of players as World of Warcraft (2004), at 82 million [+] Note page visited on April 15th. NB: This is a “free” application financed by micro-payment and advertising. On this subject click hereX [11]. Nevertheless, it must be considered that not all players invest the same amount of time. On the social networks some games only generally require several minutes whilst other online games can have a single game that lasts several hours a day, requiring months of practice sometimes. Video games thus have a certain plurality, regarding both the games and people’s gaming practices, which must be taken into account.
What’s more, the obsolescence of physical media seems to be questioning the well-established supremacy of console manufacturers, which until now enabled them to dominate the market. Steam, the download and online game platform developed by the studio Valve in 2003, let in third-party editors in 2005 and now has more than 25 million players. This inspired competitive sites from console manufacturers: the Xbox live arcade in 2004, then the Playstation network and the Wii Store in 2006. It’s also thanks to its applications distribution site, the App store, that Apple had already taken over 19% of the portable console market in the United States in 2009, almost four times the year before and twice as much as PSP, Sony’s portable console. In this battle of market figures, there is only one certainty and that is that the near future of the game will be one that is connected, collective, digitalised and pervasive*. 
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The mutation of the hardware market towards a users market is under way. Many of the most famous online games, following the example of World of Warcraft, are available to buy on DVD but can still only be played exclusively online, which allows for game information to be shared among friends on Facebook, by synching your account to your avatar’s account, and to plan the stages outside of the game, such as activities for your guild, from your iPhone [+] NoteWow Armory and Mobile Armory respectively.X [12]. The game can now be present at every moment of the day: when you’re at home, on the move, at work. In this context, the hardware no longer seems to be competition but merely complementary. The future of the video game resides quite clearly in new forms of interaction, somewhere between the hardware and the users.
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*Isometric 3D: Two dimensional image where depth is simulated by a ¾ perspective which gives characters a fixed single size no matter what their position on the set.
*AAA : pronounced « triple A ». Any game made specifically to excel in all three possible criteria: technical, artistic and game content. The minimum budget for this kind of game is around 20 million dollars to ensure a threshold return of a million disks sold.
*Beat’em all: a melee combat game where the player must take on unending waves of enemies, originally an arcade game.
*Console Manufacturer : the manufacturer of consoles. The three main ones being, in chronological order of their arrival on the market: Nintendo (1980), Sony (1994) and Microsoft (2001).
*Emulation: using a game on a different platform using special software called emulator, which simulates the original console. This economical solution avoids the need to completely reprogram the game, such as is the case with migration.
*Interoperability: the possibility of a shared game between players using different platforms: such as different brand mobile phones, or even distinctive hardware such as a computer and a game console.
*Machinima: a film that is made from recordings of game scenes in real time. The possibility of recording a game from different view angles is a regular feature of 3D games.
*Pervasive : is what a video game is called when it breaks down boundaries with the everyday life of the player, for example by sending him text alerts in real-time of important events that are taking place in the game, or even using elements of daily life such as augmented reality or geo-positioning to pass certain levels of the game.
*Migration: adaptation of a game developed for different hardware. Done with the aim of widening the audience of said product.
*Retro-compatibility (or backwards compatibility): The ability for a game machine to work with a game that was originally made for the same brand’s previous generation hardware. For a long time this privilege was reserved for PCs, now retro-compatibility has become common on all new-generation consoles, though not for all games (for example the Xbox 360 is only retro-compatible with certain games originally edited for the Xbox).
*Shoot’em up : a videogame genre, the most well-known example of which being Space Invaders from 1978, which consisted of waves of extra-terrestrials or spaceships that must be taken down by firing at them. The first arcade machine used this theme for Computer Space in 1971.
*Smartphone: mobile phone handset that offers the possibilities of Internet connection, a digital personal assistant, and even GPS.
*Survival horror: this genre places the player in a frightening environment - haunted house, zombie invasion, or cursed place - that they must either escape from or bring peace to.

(Translated by Leah Williams)
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