In its thirteen days in release, American Gangster has dominated the box office, bringing in over $85 million – an impressive figure – that is until you consider Activision’s $115 million in first week sales of Guitar Hero III, and Bungie’s $170 million in first day sales of Halo 3.
The numbers speak for themselves: The winds of change are blowing in the entertainment industry. The fact that a video game can gross twice in one day what a favorably-reviewed major motion picture can in almost two weeks speaks to an ongoing revolution of our cultural understanding of entertainment.
It is more than plausible that the exponential advancements in video game hardware in recent years have contributed to the trend. Contemporary video games are beginning to more closely resemble interactive movies than the chunky, abstract characters on which our generation was raised. The technological motivation behind the rise of the gaming industry is obvious. Less black and white, however, are the social factors that underlie this trend.
In a recent interview, Dusty Welch, head of publishing for video game company RedOctane, offered insight into both. In response to questions concerning what makes the Guitar Hero series so phenomenally successful, Welch replied that, “On the software side, it was about that promise that you deliver of being the musician… or about really becoming a rock star, and I think that that fantasy is primal.”
Welsh’s statements suggest that the franchise is so successful not because it offers anything drastically new, but because it taps into a fundamental desire of all human beings: to be good at something and attain notoriety for it. Consider the games’ context in a society that idolizes musicians and enjoys easy access to its favorite songs, and it’s easy to understand why they strike such a chord with a contemporary audience. Welsh encapsulates this allure, stating, “I, too, as a person sitting at home, can maybe one day aspire to and achieve success as I see on American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.”
It is because of this sense of personal involvement and aggrandizement that the game industry has begun to, and will likely continue to eclipse the film industry. There is no doubt that film has established itself as a permanent entertainment staple. But the degree to which it fulfills our society’s desire for diversion is slipping, as both that society’s conception of fun and its technological capabilities evolve.
The major players in the film industry are not unconscious of the trend, however. Films like Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf seek to cash in on the allure of video games by mirroring their breakneck pace and action-heavy narratives. Beowulf is entirely digitally rendered, featuring three-dimensional representations of big-name stars like Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie. Still more telling is that, when seen in IMAX theaters, the images pop from the screen and surround the viewer in an overwhelmingly immersive movie experience. Almost as immersive as a video game?
The explosive growth of the gaming industry and the increasingly skin-deep nature of film mark the beginning of a transformation of our society’s sources of entertainment. Here’s hoping that change is for the best, but if it means the dumbing-down of narratives in favor of thoughtless entertainment as I fear it does, I’m less than hopeful.