A generation of gamers

Caine, a nine-year-old boy, became an internet sensation last year after he constructed his own arcade out of cardboard. He would crawl inside and work the machines himself. It was reminiscent of the amusement or penny arcades of the late 19th and early 20th century. As Kerryn Pollock writes in Arcade, computer and video games, the latest story on Te Ara, New Zealand never really had these penny arcades on the same scale as other countries. However gaming is now more widespread than anyone could have imagined.

I have an uncle and two aunts who regularly compete to see who can cheat the best at Facebook Scrabble, my 65-year-old mother was recently playing Flower at a church function, I recently fended off a Minecraft addiction, and over Christmas I watched the destruction of a friend’s living room by his kids playing Kinect Adventures.

With all these video games, it’s not surprising that in the last five years the industry has grown from $30 billion to $60 billion, and it’s now the largest entertainment industry. The fastest growth has been in mobile games and games developed for Facebook. Both of these platforms have caused the number of gamers to dramatically increase.

The increasing diversity of gamers is also increasing the diversity of games. More and more games, like Portal 2 (above), where the primary method of interacting with the world doesn’t involve shooting someone, come out each year. It has been fascinating to watch the evolution of games, and I believe video games now are where movies were in the 1940s. The creators are still experimenting, figuring out how they can tell stories, and how to use the medium. I’m not sure gaming has had its Citizen Kane yet.

The average gamer is now 33, and those in their 30s, like me, played games in the 1980s when they weren’t universal – when they were predominantly for kids. Despite New Zealand’s slow start with gaming, and a comparative dearth of penny arcades compared to overseas, the golden age of video games in the 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of the video arcade, and the adoption of video games at home. A generation of Kiwi gamers were born.

It’s this generation, my generation, that are now looking back nostalgically at the games that shaped our childhood. From the Atari 2600, to early computer games (before Windows, and even DOS), and including the cabinet games from arcades and fish ‘n’ chip shops. These games and more are featured at the Game Masters exhibition on at Te Papa at the moment. It takes a look back at 40 years of gaming, and allows dads in their 30s to show their kids what it was like being a gamer before the internet and modern game consoles.

Video game nostalgia has even inspired an entire genre of music, called Chiptune, an example of which is above.

The nostalgia often leads people to pine for the days of video arcades. But I don’t see it as a huge loss, it’s just evolution. I used to meet up with friends at arcades to play Afterburner, Street Fighter and later Tekken, Sega Rally and Daytona, and it was a great time. But the arcade, like so much else these days, has simply moved online. However there was a very unsocial gap in the mid-1990s as the arcades died and few people had the internet. The online communities that now exist are far larger and more social than any physical arcade ever could have been.

New Zealanders are no longer stuck at the bottom of the Pacific, playing games with the kids down at the arcade. Instead they game side by side, and face to face with people from all over the world. Gaming is used as a way to connect with people. I have a friend who never picks up the phone or writes an email, but he’s as chatty as a teenage girl while we race cars around the Top Gear test track (see below).

Gaming is not only the largest entertainment industry, but it has the most potential in the future. Like the arcade, many consoles and technologies will be set aside for new advancements, not just in graphics or game-play mechanics, but in ways of telling stories, and most importantly connecting people while creating passionate communities.

6 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by AlexB || January 30th, 2013

    Good Article. I remember fondly travling into the big smoke (wellington) to the large acades in Mid City (woah) and others. Gaming has come a long way.

  2. Comment made by Julia || January 30th, 2013

    This seems like a good place to let y’all know that there is a great exhibition on at The Dowse currently – Arcade.
    Nice blog too- Thanks.

  3. Comment made by Simon Nathan || January 30th, 2013

    Fascinating post, Heath. Perhaps you should be co-opted for the writing team!

  4. Comment made by Kerryn || January 30th, 2013

    Caine almost made me shed a tear.

    It’s very interesting to see gaming and the creation of games interpreted as a creative endeavour, by some at least. The fact that games have made it through the doors of museums and galleries is revealing.

  5. Comment made by John H || February 7th, 2013

    There is another lesser-known story about the video arcade scene from the early-to-mid 1980s (the “Golden Age” of video arcade games); money laundering. At a time when the standard game cost .20c to play (probably about the equivalent of $1 today), they were an ideal way to wash dirty money clean. Gangs would set up arcades via associates (machines were leased) then funnel cash through to younger family members, associates and prospects, with the proviso that the money be spent playing games at a particular arcade. I had a friend whose elder brother had such “contacts” and his pockets were always bulging with cash to play “spacies”.

  6. Comment made by Kerryn || February 7th, 2013

    That’s really interesting John, thanks for recording it here.

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