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Let the games begin

If you think of a video game it is unlikely you would imagine yourself in the role of a wheelchair-bound man desperately travelling back in time to try to change the events that led to his partner's death in a car crash – and his own loss of mobility. But that is the narrative of Last Day of June, the multi-award winning 2017 game for PC, Sony PlayStation 4 (PS4) and Nintendo Switch, that promises “an intense, cinematic experience”. Critics described how moving they found it and Dr Pete Etchells, author of Lost in a Good Game, is no exception. “As a 35-year-old man, who lost my dad when I was 14, it really spoke to me,” he says.

More of a meditation on grief than a game, Last Day of June carefully demonstrates to the player a powerful truth: the desire to change the past is as natural as it is impossible. It also demonstrates just how diverse the world of gaming is.

Despite its millions of devotees and booming esports audience, gaming has somehow remained outside mainstream culture. Trapped, perhaps, by a certain stereotype in the popular imagination of gamers as pale, male and adolescent, alone in their bedrooms with a controller in their hand blasting away at aliens.

Yet in America, nearly half of all gamers are women and the average age of players is early thirties. The range of games is immense, from smartphone puzzle games like Candy Crush to hyper-realistic console racing series Gran Turismo, to online multiplayer sword-and-sorcery epics like World of Warcraft on PC. The number of gamers is growing, too, with 65 per cent of Americans saying they play them.

And as interest grows from tech companies such as Google and Amazon to enter the market, there are signs that gaming could one day become as mainstream as watching TV.

The rise… and rise of gaming

Certainly the numbers around gaming are mind-boggling. Multi-million selling titles like the Call of Duty series, a shooting game that is probably popular with that bedroom-bound adolescent, Minecraft-style building games and sports titles like the FIFA soccer series are driving a sector that is expected to grow to $160 billion next year – surpassing the global film industry.
Games are challenging film in other ways. Red Dead Redemption 2, a vast, open-ended recreation of the Wild West for PS4 and Microsoft Xbox One, required 1,200 actors to provide voices and actions for motion capture – creating realistic movements and facial expressions for the game's virtual characters. “We’re the biggest employer of actors, in terms of numbers, of anyone in New York, by miles,” says Dan Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games, the company behind the title, which took eight years to make and sold 24 million copies in its first three months on sale.

Meanwhile, competitive video gaming, known as esports, is growing too, with an estimated revenue of $1.1 billion and 454 million fans worldwide, who cram into arenas or watch live online as players compete in tournaments for games such as League of Legends, a fantasy battle title in which teams try to destroy the opposition's base.

Meet the pros

Top esports stars may not be household names, but they are multi-millionaires, putting in long hours at the console to keep up their skills. Tyler Blevins, aka Ninja, was named in Time magazine’s 2019 list of the 100 most influential people, with a tribute from American football star JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Ninja was huge in building up the credibility of esports,” writes Smith-Schuster, who admits being starstruck when he played an online game with him of Fortnite – a Battle Royale-style game in which players are trapped on an island, fighting to be the last one standing – alongside rappers Drake and Travis Scott.

Now aged 27, Ninja was the first streamer to reach 10 million followers on Twitch, the video streaming service devoted entirely to gaming, owned by online retailer Amazon. His massive Twitch following is worth $500,000 per month and has brought him sponsorship deals with companies including Red Bull and Uber Eats.
The hardcore players on Twitch can demonstrate amazing skill. Dipping in randomly I saw a Fortnite player racing up a spiral staircase, only to realise that he was building the staircase as he ran – laying out each step one at a time while sprinting and turning. I still can’t fathom the manual dexterity and reaction speeds necessary to do it.
Other professional esports players can earn around $40,000 per year, with the best taking more, especially in prize money. They're typically in their late teens or early twenties and mostly male. Often the team that pays them puts them up in a house with other players, where they spend up to 16 hours a day practising their moves for the next tournament or going over strategy with a coach – who often lives with them.
Most will retire by their late twenties or early thirties, says Conran Tobin, a 22-year-old London-based professional FIFA game player: “The main reason, and it’s the same reason for pretty much all esports, [is that] reactions and thinking ability slowly degrade, to the point where you’re just not going to be as fast as a 21-year-old.”

The power of gaming

Esports may be a world of its own, but there’s no doubting the power of gaming. While a book or movie can make you empathise with a character, a game can make you “into” the character, which can lead to more powerful experiences. In his book, Etchells quotes novelist and games designer Naomi Alderman, who says: “While all art forms can elicit powerful emotions, only games can make their audience feel the emotion of agency... A movie can make you feel angry with a traitor, but only a game can make you feel personally betrayed.”

Etchells explains his own experience of this while playing a game called Firewatch, which casts the player as Henry, who, overwhelmed by his wife’s dementia, has run away to become a fire lookout in a forest. The player can control his conversations with Delilah, his supervisor in the game. “You can flirt with her," says Etchells, “and then – remembering that my character has a wife with dementia – I found myself feeling guilty for doing that! The next day, when I went back to the game, I was cold with Delilah and she, understandably, was cold in return.”
Other players get just as involved in other storylines – even, in the case of Euro Truck Simulator 2, for example, taking control of a haulage empire and driving trucks from A to B in an exhaustively detailed simulation. The online version became so popular that players soon found themselves in virtual traffic jams, so a group of enthusiasts started a radio station to keep in-game truckers entertained and give them traffic reports. You don't even need to play the game to listen – Truckers.FM broadcasts online. 

Big Tech calling

Truckers.FM is a sign of how gamers have created a genre all their own. Largely ignored by the mainstream media, reviews of new games get published straight on to YouTube or on blogs rather than in the arts pages alongside traditional movie, TV, music and book reviews. A vibrant gaming media has developed online, on websites and social media, offering the chance to watch others play or pick up tips to help you progress.
All this activity has caught the eye of Netflix, which emphasised the importance of gaming in a letter to shareholders earlier this year, writing: “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.” Now technology companies are queuing up for a piece of the action. Google is investing heavily in Stadia, a new service that lets players stream games online – eliminating the need for an expensive console. They promise the ability to launch games simply by clicking a YouTube video. Similarly, Apple is launching a gaming service of its own – a subscription service of curated video games for iPhone, iPad and Apple TV.
Meanwhile, the established industry giants, Sony and Microsoft, are gearing up to launch next-generation consoles in 2020, which will bring improved computing power, better graphics and faster processing speeds. They, too, are expected to extend their streaming services, which offer Netflix-style subscriptions so gamers can play hundreds of titles.

Next-generation gamers

All this is happening as a generation that grew up with video games is settling into middle age. More of them are writing about their love of games, which is changing perceptions, and sharing their passion with their children.
Andy Robertson is the author of Taming Gaming, which is due out next year and is designed to introduce parents and families to a wide variety of different gaming styles and experiences. His theory is that parents who play games with their children can use them to build stronger relationships.
“Lots of parents don’t understand video games, but all it takes is a conversation,” he says. “One mum said to me that she’d had the best conversation with her teenage son in years just because she’d taken some time to understand the games he was playing.”
Over the next few years, gaming’s profile is likely to get a considerable boost, helping to position it as a form of entertainment equal to TV. Getting into games will probably never be as simple as going to the cinema or picking up a book, but the medium is becoming more accessible and, as that happens, more people are likely to get the urge to explore.

In the future, a “family night in” could involve everyone logging in from wherever they are to play an online game together, catching up via voice chat while they play. And, despite the talk about reactions going at 30 – there are games that might even suit the grandparents.

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