It’s a question that’s troubled me for years – I even made a programme about it for Radio 4. Games are the largest entertainment medium in the world. And yet newspaper culture pages tend not to cover them (pace Observer Tech Monthly). Cultural programmes on TV and radio do a fun segment about games once a quarter at best while reserving discussion and analysis for interpretive dance or experimental opera.
It’s very weird for me: my novels, which sell tens of thousands of copies, are shortlisted for prizes that appear on the news. My games, which have sold millions of copies, don’t make the news. Film and TV Baftas are a news story. Games Baftas are an industry event.
I think this is a shame. It affects the way people think about the medium. It means “gamers” are still being portrayed as spotty teenage nerds, probably sexless and with a hobby of online harassment – rather than the truth, which is that loads of us are in our 30s and 40s with very normal lives, mortgages, jobs, relationships and so on. It means we don’t get the kind of analysis that mainstream media can produce – wide as well as deep – thinking about the position of games in our culture.
I’ve proposed a few reasons for this lacuna in the past. Cultural “taste-makers” who control programming and edit papers tend to be in their 50s and older, still a bit old to have come of age with video games or understand them. Games are often less susceptible to the “single creator” or celebrity who can represent them in interviews in a way cultural media is familiar with. Games are a newish form and still going through the phase of being viewed with suspicion. Remember that Virginia Woolf was one of the first to champion the creative possibilities of that troubling new form: cinema. Give me a high five, Virginia.
But I want to suggest another reason that games aren’t treated as the central cultural medium that they are: the reason is that the games industry doesn’t care enough to make it happen. If it wanted to, it could.
For one thing, you might be amazed at how hard it can be to get hold of new games, even as someone who writes about games. I write about novels too and barely a day passes when a publisher isn’t posting me a copy of a new book in the hope I’ll review it or mention it somewhere. By contrast, I’ve had to spend hours doing phone-rounds in the hope of rustling up a copy of a game. They don’t make it easy. This is not me moaning – doing that work is my job. It’s to say that if the games industry wanted to be treated like other cultural media, it could start by making its work accessible to mainstream journalists.
There’s a timing issue too. In the past, I’ve tried to persuade BBC radio review programmes to cover games more frequently. We often come up against the same problem: film companies organise early screenings, TV companies send out advance links to watch their shows, publishers send proofs, theatres do previews … but games companies won’t send out advance versions of games. That’s because they’re debugging till the last minute and because they want to have tight control over the story. But it does mean that review programmes – which usually give contributors a week to chew over a novel – will be wary of featuring a game, because they may have to demand their panellists drop everything for an all-nighter of rapid gameplay.
So why wouldn’t the games industry care about being covered in broadsheet culture sections, or about fostering the kind of cultural position that might make the lot of the gamer a bit more pleasant? Simply, I’d suggest, because it doesn’t think it would sell more copies. It is already the biggest selling entertainment industry in the world – what good would, for example, a weekly Radio 4 games programme do for it? That’s its prerogative, of course. But I wish it would play ball anyway. Because I think games aren’t just fun, they’re also important, and I’d like to see them discussed that way in the mainstream.
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