We have witnessed nothing less than a cultural genesis in the rise of video games. Over the last twenty to thirty years, gaming has gone from fringe to mainstream entertainment. As an industry, it now rivals Hollywood in budgets and revenue, and like Hollywood, it commands a large, diverse audience. In its evolution, gaming has created cultural icons, spawned social controversies, become heralded as an art form, and created diverse cultures of gamers. This post is my attempt to concisely and objectively get people up to speed on what the wide world of video gaming looks like. I have done my best to avoid using insider jargon, and footnotes are provided throughout to help describe the game genres I recruit to illustrate my points. Gamers, do you know someone who doesn’t seem to understand your hobby? Parents, are you curious what all the fuss is about? Please read, comment, and share.
The wide world of video games
For the purpose of this post, I define video games as any game that is played on the computer, on televisions via gaming consoles (e.g. a Playstation or Xbox), and on handheld devices such as cell phones, tablets, or handheld consoles (e.g. a Nintendo 3DS). This definition is also adopted by most scholars (e.g. Gentile & Anderson, 2003) and by research firms who compile market data about gaming’s popularity. Worldwide, the gaming industry is a 65+ billion dollar industry, annually amassing over $800 million and $15 billion in revenue in the Netherlands and United States respectively. Gaming revenues are the result of hardware and software sales, subscription fees (often for persistent online games), and micro-transactions, optional in-game purchases for content such as accessories or cosmetic options for a player’s characters.
Gamers seem highly devoted to their hobby. For example, in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game League of Legends, up to 7.5 million players are regularly active during peak hours. Similarly, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG’s) such as World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 draw millions of players into their persistent worlds every month. Players in these games are notorious for volunteering hundreds to thousands of play hours. Players of the MMORPG EVE Online put their money where their mouth is with their monthly subscription fees being converted to in-game currency. The game is host to a complex net of player factions who jockey for economic supremacy by negotiating trade deals and alliances; in a particularly dramatic showdown in 2014, over 7,000 players joined a daylong territorial battle that cost both sides the equivalent of over $300,000 in damages. Also showing tremendous investment, players in Grand Theft Auto Online (GTA Online) have spent more than $500 million on micro-transactions since the game’s launch less than three years ago. Its offline base game, GTA V, broke sales records by netting $800 million on its first day, and has since sold over 50 million copies.
These lucrative play and sales figures are what allow many video games to be developed on million-dollar budgets. But in contrast to these so-called “mainstream” titles, recent years have also seen a drastic rise in so-called “indie games,” video games developed by small teams and often on shoestring budgets. Indeed, 2015 saw the release of nearly 3,500 games for the computer, with the development of these games largely being made feasible by how affordable game development tools have become. Not constrained by corporate interests, indie games have made a niche for themselves by often being passion projects and in special cases, daring to experiment with the gaming medium or striving for artistic expression (see for example Mountain, Proteus, and Gone Home). This niche sector has also benefited from initiatives like Games For Change and Games For Health which highlight video games that are developed in pursuit of social good. As a result, indie games have helped make today’s gaming market more diverse than ever before.
This diversity in available products has also attracted a diverse audience. For example, with nearly 50% of video game players aging between 18 and 50, and over 25% aging 50 or more, the average video game player is 35 years old (Entertainment Software Association, 2015). This also raises an important point about the types of games being played by different age groups: One likely reason that older adult populations are so strongly represented among “video game players” is because these populations are likely to be playing so-called “casual games,” otherwise categorized as mobile and social games. These are games such as Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Farmville which are available on mobile devices and/or embedded in social media services; in general, they are easy to play because they have simplified inputs and user interfaces, and player input is quickly rewarded with points or colorful sounds and animations. These features make for a very low barrier of entry, making them ideal for older adults and younger children. In contrast, the more “hardcore games” like the ones listed in the previous paragraph, feature more complex input schemes, more dynamic in-game systems, and generally afford more gradations of skillful play. By virtue of this variability in depth and difficulty, the gaming industry has made it seemingly easy for everyone to be regular gamers.
In general, it has been games of the more hardcore variety which have given video games their cultural relevance. For example, cultural icons such as Mario and Pikachu stem from these sorts of games. Video games and their characters have bled into other forms of media in many notable ways, forming the basis for blockbuster films, and an elaborate 2014 April fools gag by Google which allowed users to catch Pokémon in Google Maps. In 2013, the Syfy channel and developer Trion Worlds simultaneously launched Defiance, a television series and MMORPG with overlapping worlds and characters. In 2004, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts began annually hosting an award ceremony for “outstanding creative achievement in games”. In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art in New York introduced 14 video games as part of their permanent collection, and a year prior, the Smithsonian American Art Museum showcased 80 video games in their The Art of Video Games exhibition.
Video games have also sparked political debates. For example, in the 1990’s, two United States (U.S.) senators argued that the violent and sexually explicit content appearing in some video games posed a threat to society. Their arguments sparked debates about the applicability of free speech to video games, and eventually led to the video game industry’s creation of a third-party regulatory board. Similarly, in 2005, the state of California passed a law that made it illegal to sell minors video games deemed too violent; but after reviewing the state’s legal claims, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law, deeming it a violation of free speech (Ferguson, 2013). The justices also heard arguments based on psychological research on the effects of violent video games, research which I will likely discuss in an upcoming post.
Video games were again recently the center of heated political discussion. Starting in 2014, the convoluted Gamergate debate has partly revolved around claims by feminists that the video game industry is inherently sexist. They have argued that game makers tend to promulgate sexist attitudes by building games that stimulate male sexual and power fantasies. These claims led to harsh backlash from many among the predominantly male player-base of today’s hardcore games. Both parties took to social media services like Twitter and YouTube, engaging in a modern (and sometimes not so civil) socio-political debate about women’s rights and censorship in video games.
Social media has also been a breeding ground for large communities of gamers. On YouTube, the gaming-themed Pewdiepie channel has amassed over 40 million subscribers – more than any other YouTube channel. The channel’s content predominantly features gameplay footage of its host playing a video game overlaid with his dramatic reactions to what unfolds. This so-called “Let’s Play” format is widespread across YouTube and other streaming services, allowing gamers to digitally congregate in chat rooms and online discussion sections. The popularity of Let’s Play streams was also largely responsible for the creation of YouTube’s Gaming service, and the decisions of Microsoft and Sony to equip their latest home consoles with streaming functionality. These trends and services reflect the desire among gamers to share their experiences. In the first event of its kind, hundreds of thousands of gaming fans spontaneously took to the online streaming Twitch.tv service in a communal effort to complete the 1996 video game Pokémon Red. In 2014, the site hosted a channel called Twitch Plays Pokémon which live-streamed gameplay as it was being entirely controlled by input from the site’s chat window. The immense popularity of the stream meant that the game was constantly flooded with input, leading to a seemingly random agent exerting control over the game. Yet after 16 days of continuous gameplay, and an average concurrent viewership of over 60,000 views, the mob was victorious.
Another reason for Twitch.tv’s success lies in the rising popularity of professional gaming, called eSports. eSports is a growing entertainment industry that allows gamers to gain sponsorship deals, join franchised teams, and to professionally compete in video game tournaments. Instead of being syndicated on television channels, eSports competitions have primarily utilized Twitch (and other online streaming services) to tune audiences in. The most popular eSports tournaments garner millions of viewers, feature multi-million dollar prize pools, and routinely sell out stadiums filled with live spectators. The spectacle comes from witnessing the seemingly superhuman mastery of professional players engaged in high-speed battles of wits and reflexes. This has allowed a variety of game genres to be well represented in eSports: MOBA’s – like League of Legends – and real-time strategy games – like Starcraft II – are the most popular, but first-person shooters – like Counter-Strike and Halo – and fighting games – like Street Fighter – are also played in hundreds of tournaments each year. These successful eSports titles generally require a combination of strategy and ultra-fast reaction times and decision making, meaning that successful players commit themselves to packed training schedules. Recognizing the dedication of eSports competitors, and the viability of playing eSports as a means of income, the U.S. government recently began granting athletic visas for internationally recognized eSports players seeking U.S. residency.
Finally, eSports seems very much an extension of how much video games have themselves become more social in nature. Of the top ten video games sold in 2015, nine featured multiplayer capabilities (NPD Group, as cited by Grubb in Venture Beat, 2016). Eight of these nine games were designed with multiplayer as a primary goal. Moreover, the one game lacking multiplayer functionality – Fallout 4 – was released by a developer that encourages fans to create and distribute mods, modifications to existing games. Mods can be new missions, character designs, or graphical options. Games like Fallout 4 foster modding communities where fans pitch and create new content. Modding communities often keep games commercially relevant long after most other games’ shelf lives, with mods providing experimental content or graphical upgrades to keep the game looking current. Multiplayer functionality is also ubiquitous among games that are free to play: MOBA games are the most popular of this kind, with titles such as League of Legends and Dota II featuring millions of concurrent users, and mobile games with social designs – such as Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clan, and Words With Friends – were the most downloaded mobile games of 2015 (Mobidia, as cited by Taylor Soper in Geek Wire, 2016).
In sum, gaming has emerged not only as a commercial juggernaut, but as a medium that generates art, socio-political debate, community, and emerging forms of modern entertainment. The wide world of video games is thus diverse in its content and audiences, provocative, and a source of social connection. My goal here has been to speak plainly about video games as a cultural phenomenon. I understand that for those on the sidelines, the wide world of gaming can have a dumbfounding effect. Hopefully, this post may serve as a point of entry or a conversation starter for those curious to know what all the fuss is about.
 Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas, or MOBA’s, are video games that place two small teams of players on opposite ends of a map, pitting them against each other to conquer one another’s home base. Each player is able to choose from a large cast of characters, each with their own unique abilities. Successful teams are ones that are comprised of characters who foil one another, especially when players work together. These games demand quick reflexes, strategic thinking, and teamwork. Popular MOBA’s include League Of Legends and Dota II.
 Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, or MMORPG’s, are video games that allow dozens or hundreds of players to share a large world at any given time. The roleplaying aspect of these games comes from allowing players to create their own unique in-game character and from often having a fantasy/science-fiction setting. Players create their character(s) from a generally colorful cast of races, and depending on each player’s interests, he/she can customize the character’s aesthetics and skills to his/her own liking. MMORPG’s commonly promote teamwork by making the game’s greatest challenges insurmountable by a single player or by groups of players with identical attributes. Teams of players where characters complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses are therefore promoted by the design of these games. Therefore, closely-knit teams – called guilds or clans – typically form to tackle the game’s hardest challenges and to compete in rivalries against other groups. Popular MMORPG’s include World of Warcraft and Destiny.
 Real-time strategy games are competitive video games that require players to make strategic decisions in real-time. Typically, players assume the role of an overseer who can control his/her units on a virtual map much in the same way as players control their pieces chess. Like chess, the ultimate goal is for players to vanquish his/her opponent(s) from the map. Unlike chess, however, players try to expand their control of the map by choosing how to grow the number and quality of their units. The challenge lies in players having to gain economic superiority and properly manage their resources while initiating and/or in the face of military threat. Also unlike chess, the player’s actions and decisions are made in real time, as opposed to in turns.
 First-person shooter games are a popular genre of video games where players shoot enemies from the first-person perspective. Violent in nature, these games do however vary in how graphic/realistic the violence is portrayed. Today’s most popular first person-shooters are designed around their multiplayer functionality. These games enable lone players or teams of players to compete in fast-paced, well-balanced contests of skill and precision. Such games include entries from the Halo, Call of Duty, and Battlefield series.
 Fighting games are competitive games that allow players to choose from a cast of characters each with their own unique set of unique abilities. In most fighting games, players and their opponents compete in rounds, each player being granted a life meter. During the round, each side must deplete the other’s meter by landing attacks. Players try to fluidly chain attacks together for so-called “combos” that are difficult or impossible for their opponent to defend against. Popular fighting games include games from the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series.
 In order of most to least sales, these are the ten most sold video games in 2015, with games featuring multiplayer in bold, and those clearly designed with multiplayer in mind are underlined: Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Madden NFL 16, Fallout 4, Star Wars: Battlefront, Grand Theft Auto V, NBA 2K16, Minecraft, FIFA 16, Mortal Kombat X, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.