Art has become a product.
The commodification of art is a sad trend plaguing any number of media. Nowhere is this more prominent than in gaming. In my article about the action-adventure game “Dishonored,” I talked briefly about the high price of gaming, as well as the increase in artistic accessibility ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At this moment, given the United States’ current need for a collective reflection on race and class, it seems like an opportune time to reflect on the future of gaming as it pertains to both. And with the next generation of Xbox and PlayStation consoles slated for release later this year, such a reflection could not be more appropriate. As such, this article will be the first in which I will address and unpack a number of phenomena in video games — especially concerning class and accessibility — that 2020 has brought to the forefront, starting with 2020’s impact on E3—short for Electronic Entertainment Expo —the world’s largest annual trade event for the video game industry.
The world of gaming has historically been an exclusive group — from rich white developers to normative playable characters and even to the players themselves. There is no denying that the face of gaming is changing, however. Today’s population of gamers is far less homogeneous than in the early ’80s at gaming’s mainstream inception, in large part because of increased opportunities and education for nonwhite, nonmale groups. These opportunities have allowed people of color, women and nonbinary folks to play a role in shaping the games we play, making them a more welcoming, inclusive and representative place.
There is a lot of work to be done to make gaming more accessible on the user end, however. One of the last great bastions of exclusivity remaining in the world of gaming is E3. From its inception in 1995 up until 2017, E3 was an invite-only event; industry people, journalists and developers were selected as the sole group to receive the breaking news on all things gaming. For everyone else, keeping up with new announcements required press releases from the major companies or secondhand reports.
In 2017, E3 began admitting non-industry attendees. Fifteen thousand tickets were made available to the public at a premium of around $200. The following year, this access was limited on two days of the event, during which industry members were allowed in three hours before doors were open to the public. This 15,000-ticket figure — which represents around a fifth of the convention’s average 69,000 attendees — has remained static since 2017, although it was planned to increase in 2020 before the event was canceled as a result of COVID-19.
This cancellation has jump-started a new trend that was slowly being integrated by gaming companies: the “Direct.” In 2013, Nintendo opted to eschew a traditional stage presentation at E3, instead using their Nintendo Direct format — a preexisting method of distributing information virtually Nintendo had been utilizing since 2011 — to stream their major announcements directly to consumers. The “Direct” format is a highly edited and curated digital stream, around 40 to 60 minutes in length. It allows developers to spend their time and energy on introducing their new projects and most importantly, it totally cuts out the intermediary. Before, to attend a Nintendo E3 conference, one had to be a reputable games journalist, established developer or have several hundred dollars on hand to spend on a ticket. Now, all you needed to see every second of the presentation was access to YouTube. It was a massively democratizing move, but was initially met with scorn and ridicule.
Nevertheless, the “Direct” caught on. Developers like Devolver Digital and major distributors like Sony, which skipped E3 in 2019, began adopting the format. Even developers like Microsoft, which still opted for a physical showcase last year, added streaming elements, broadcasting their entire show live.
The gaming industry has been slowly discarding E3, and 2020 proved it right in doing so. With E3 canceled and the global population urged to stay at home, this digital streaming showcase allowed E3 to happen in a way without need for a convention hall packed with people. The “Direct” format has proven itself not only to be a method for gamers to gain their own insight into the industry’s movements, forming their own unfiltered opinions on announcements, but is also a reliable and flexible tool that can shape itself to, say, a sudden global need for self-isolation. Additionally, if this year’s PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S announcements are proof of anything, it’s that gamers aren’t any less excited about the announcement of something they love just because it’s not on a stage.
Gaming is experiencing a shift toward digital in other ways too, including in the way we play games, which I will discuss in the next part of this series. This digitization is an important move in dismantling the gatekeeping nature of gaming, reducing the monetary and environmental cost of the industry and making video games an even more flexible and accessible form of art.
Mac Riga is a rising senior in the College. START/SELECT will appear in print and online every other Friday.