The Games Industry Is Just A Spectator Sport

It started, as it always does, on the Internet. Xbox fans who moments earlier were imagining clasping their new Titanfall posters, a single community united as one under Microsoft, defiantly pointed to Sony’s business decisions as proof that the Xbox One was no bipartisan healer uniting console owners and guys who just want another way to watch Game of Thrones.

The Xbox fall-from-grace is the Vaudevillian macronarrative we the audience have been watching for, arguably, years. The gripes that persist between Sony and Microsoft are one thing media watchers have always been able to count on, a David/Goliath display normally relegated to the hallowed halls of Pay Per View wrestling narratives. But in recent years we’ve begun to see a new power struggle emerge from that pit. The role of the gamer is shifting, now playing a central part in a seachange in the games industry that is transforming how consumers relate to producers of entertainment.

It’s only at times like this – when the video games industry appears at the height of its own lawless turbulence – that words spoken by Vince McMahon, the heaving and beligerant patron-saint of professional wrestling, can have the resonance of a Zen Koan. 2013, a year that will introduce two new generations of consoles and cultivate two rabidly blustering schools of fans, marks another step in this industry’s transformation into populous theatre, in a way McMahon could only predict.

Because no one knows better just how important an audience is to a spectacle.

In the words of the venerable McMahon, the “crossover of whether [something is] entertainment or news is the biggest crock of B.S. in television today, because it’s all entertainment.” For McMahon, the face behind pro-wrestling behemoth World Wrestling Entertainment, that statement was central to the industry he helped build in the early ‘80s. His vision of the WWE was driven by a stoic sort of principle. “We [in the WWE] look at everything as an entertainment vehicle,” he said in a 2001 interview with Playboy. “Nothing is sacred.”

Today it’s safe to say that same philosophy has independently risen in our own industry. The games industry has unintentionally emerged as a symbol of modern spectacle that shares a defining and universal truth with McMahon’s ideology: It just isn’t clear where the entertainment ends anymore.

Where games once were the centrepiece of our industry, publishers, studios and even individuals are gaining a place alongside them as a part of the show; the result of a new kind of relationship between the participating audience and the entertainment itself.

Likewise, McMahon had made his business in blurring the already murky territory between business and entertainment, something that in an older era of entertainment was referred to as Kayfabe, a term originally used by carnival workers to mean the portrayal of fiction as reality. The walls typically seperating performance, business and audience members could be broken down with this, and as a result McMahon could capitalise on a theatrical call-and-response entertainment with levels of interaction.

Wrestlers assumed two possible personalities intended to either encourage the audience to cheer or to draw the ire of spectators. Narratives would be fabricated, an open-secret in its industry, while writers pieced together in-show subplots that often co-opted real-life problems ranging from contractual issues to injuries.

For McMahon, he used this to show above all a moral plotline of good versus evil. Often, individual matches would be part of a bigger plot arc that followed conflict between characters: the Babyfaces and the Heels, the morally just and the defiantly bad, respectively. The audience would help drive this. The idea of paying up is essential in wrestling, and leads to an immanent kind of justice – the baser the action from the antagonist, the more the crowd calls out for a deserved punishment.

It’s a familiar kind of story. It’s easy to feel the games industry is a spectacle to jeer at.

The balloons have dropped. The party’s over. The last unenthused body with a press pass has politely been escorted out of the conference hall and Don Mattrick stands languid in a dark room waiting for his next day at work to start. It’s months since the first reveal of Xbox One and in the meantime we’ve had all this time to think back on its message while we brace for the next comedy of errors to come out of the bowels of the games industry.

But for all the nihilistic machismo of the games industry, it – like McMahon’s ring-side theatre – is equally rooted in a deep sense of morality and justice.

Game fans – the would-be consumers of the industry – are finding a new role as commentators of our own theatre, and as a result manufacturers of entertainment have become the centrepiece of our attention. Now, seemingly ruled by a mass market that finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the entertainment makers and the entertainment, the games industry appears to be on a trajectory to becoming pure spectacle.

It’s only in recent years that popular social media has shown its talent for irrevocably breaking down the fourth wall separating consumers from the games industry. In an era of TMZ mentality, one where every action is followed by an equal or greater reaction, the Internet has for better or for worse become the world’s greatest barometer for knee-jerk justice. Now, like a theatre of the rounds, audience participation is at an all-time high.

We in the games industry have our own morality story, although I’m still unsure whether we’re aware of the narratives we help to build as an audience. Villains emerge, so do team allegiances. Gamers align with a protagonist, take in the inevitable plot twists that unfold moment to moment in sport. Ultimately there’s a feeling that we are directly involved with what we’re rooting for and connected to their rise and fall. Gamers and the media implicitly encourage the industry’s transformation into pure spectacle.

Now more than ever it’s the spectacle that appears to be running the show.

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