Why Aren't Video Games as Respected as Movies?

Norman Reedus_Chris Evans Infinity War_Split - Publicity - H 2017
The industry attracts A-list talent and outpaces box office returns by billions, yet it's missing the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

Josef Fares, game director of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and the upcoming A Way Out, made headlines at this year’s Game Awards when he went on a spirited, expletive-laden rant that pointedly called out Hollywood’s sacred idol. “Fuck the Oscars!” Fares yelled, live on-air, to a streaming audience of 17 million viewers.

The awards program, started by journalist Geoff Keighley in 2003 as the Spike Video Game Awards, is marketed and widely seen in the industry as gaming’s answer to the Oscars, yet many outside of the gaming industry would scoff at the comparison — and some inside, as well. Many were left confused by Fares’ outburst, which was seemingly unprovoked. The conversation beforehand was focused on his upcoming game, yet he wasted no time in calling out Hollywood, prompting many to ask, "Why?"

In addition to directing games, Fares is also a filmmaker, so his opinions on the Oscars and Hollywood, in general, may be influenced by personal experience. However, his comments did add fodder to a growing debate: Why aren’t video games as well-respected as movies?

In terms of revenue, the gaming industry out earns films. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry earned $30.4 billion in 2016 in the United States. Films, meanwhile, generated $11.6 billion in total box office revenue in 2016. This does not include home entertainment sales for films, but Blu-ray and download sales of films do not make up the nearly $20 billion gap between the two industries.

Fiscal figures aren’t the only factor, however. Much of what make films resonate with audiences and critics alike are their influence on the zeitgeist. Film characters and the actors who play them become parts of our ever-changing culture, influencing fashion trends, hairstyles, attitudes and, in some cases, even our sense of morality. Look no further than the cultural impact of Star Wars, Disney princesses, Indiana Jones, Marvel’s superheroes — or, to look at earlier generations, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz or the influence actresses like Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn had on fashion and society’s perception of beauty. To put it philosophically: When audiences watch movies, they often see figures they aspire to be. 

Where, then, does that leave video games? If media is interactive, and the “fourth wall” is broken by one’s own perception and digestion of a particular work of art as it relates to their own life, then would it not stand to reason that the most interactive form of media should hold the most sway? Video games are the only mainstream form of media that gives the reins of control over to the watcher. While games often guide one along a “track” to different objectives, the choices and ultimate control of the character are in the literal hands of the observer. Furthermore, with the advent of “open world” games and first-person gameplay, the murky line between object and watcher has been rendered even murkier, as gamers are given the opportunity to step into the role of the protagonist as a proxy avatar.

Character customization has been a tool in video games for years, allowing players to craft a reflection of themselves, or their own desired personage, to the best of their liking. That game mechanic has been taken one step further with the introduction of facial scanning, which literally allows the player to import their own likeness into a game and map it over the main protagonist’s face, a living mask of the observer mirrored back (if it works, of course — the technology is less than perfect at the moment). One such recent example is in the NBA 2K series, which lets players import a series of selfies to map onto their avatar, allowing gamers to see, and control, themselves as an NBA superstar.

Seeing oneself in a game and stepping into the role of an avatar are experiences that gaming can offer that films cannot, but it does not account for the familiarity of well-known, respected actors that help drive box-office profits. Shoppers generally aren’t going through game aisles and picking up a new title because Tom Hanks or Dame Judi Dench graces the cover. Gamers are more concerned with the content of the game, its playability and storyline, than the star power behind it, yet more and more A-list actors are moving into the gaming space, while voice and motion capture actors have earned more respect over the past few years (particularly following this year’s video game actors strike, which awarded performers residuals on the games they perform in as well as more transparency on the roles they are hired for). Actors such as Gary Oldman, Josh Duhamel, Ellen Page, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Walken, Liam Neeson, and more have voiced characters in games. The commonality between all these ventures for A-list talent is the refrain of “enticing stories” that the games’ scripts offers.

Game narratives have become more complex, and actors have been given more material to work with, but there is also the prospect of pay and time. The baseline salary for a four-hour voice session is $825, but higher profile stars often have the option of negotiating a bigger payday. However, as performance capture technology has improved, the days of walking into a voiceover booth to cash a check for four hours' work seem to be ending, yet more stars are still coming to games. The upcoming Death Stranding, from Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima, features advanced visuals and performance-capture technology that required its stars, Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen, to don dot-studded, lycra suits and act out their roles much like a theatrical performance. The story hinted at in the latest trailer appears to be so rich that fans are ravenous for even small details about its plot

Beyond recognizable faces, there are also myriad beloved characters and franchises in gaming which not only rival movies, but may surpass them in recognition. In the 1990s, a national survey published by Duke University Press found that Mario was more recognizable to American children than Mickey Mouse. Characters such as Link, Zelda and Donkey Kong have been a mainstay of pop culture for over 30 years. Both Zelda and Mario saw new games released this year, and both were met with massive critical and financial success. Meanwhile, relative newcomers like Halo’s Master Chief and the heroes of Overwatch (which boasts over 35 million active players) have influenced a new generation of fans.

Another fact to consider is the diversification of video games across media. Games are farmed for Hollywood films often, with two major releases (Tomb Raider and Rampage) set for 2018. The popularity of e-sports (competitive gaming) has given rise to a new billion-dollar industry and drawn investors including Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots, and Andy Miller, co-owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.

What video games seem to lack when comparisons are drawn to film is not financial success or recognition of its IP, stars or characters or resonance with audiences or even the strength or depth of the stories. The one key factor that video games seem deficient in is that elusive “glitz” quality. Red carpets, tuxedos, champagne receptions, perfectly coiffed hairdos and glimmering lights are far from the mind when one hears the words “video games.”

There is a sense of a “cool kids vs. nerds” mentality between the two industries, with the haute couture lifestyle of Hollywood in direct contrast to the much less refined sensibilities of the gaming world, despite the profits the industry generates and the command it has over the youth culture in the country. Perhaps branding is to blame, as gaming tends to skew younger, to an audience with more free time to spend on interactive media that demands a generous devotion of hours. Perhaps there is a counter-culture mentality in gaming that pushes against the pristine posterity of flashbulbs, elegant dresses and designer suits that ornament Hollywood events.

Whatever the cause for disparity between perceptions of the two industries, the tide may yet be changing. As a new generation that grew up with video games moves into power, the impact of gaming’s cultural history will loom larger and larger. Hollywood may be twice the age of the gaming industry, but as those born in the '80s, '90s, 2000s and beyond come of age, the demarcation between a century-old industry and a half-century-old industry becomes not only less defined, but less important. As such, the game industry might very well be on the cusp of entering into its golden years, the fabled land of prestige.