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Opinion: To rival the film industry, games need to grow up

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For an industry with a market cap over $100 billion, video games don't get as much press as one might expect. At least they didn't until this month.

Over the past couple weeks, as a reporter focused on the games industry, I've fielded interviews with popular news outlets eager to cover Grand Theft Auto 5, the new video game from Rockstar Games that reportedly cost $250 million to make and market, and earned over a $1 billion in its first three days of sales.

"Are video games surpassing movies?" many of the reporters asked, noting the game outperformed many of this summer's film flops. Blockbuster games typically sell for $60, and cost significantly less to produce than the average summer blockbuster movie. On a financial level alone, games rival films.

But that claim ignores a handful of crucial factors that betray video games' cultural status as the up-and-coming medium: for one, a video game makes the bulk of its money in its first few days of availability, before its price is cut as it competes with the resale of cheap used copies; the medium doesn't have established secondary markets, like home video or Netflix, and instead must produce, market and sell supplementary content post-release; games are still widely perceived to be for children and teenagers; and, most damningly, the culture around videos games is wildly unstable, economically unpredictable and maturity stunted — generally interested in violence and the lives of frustrated, childish white male protagonists.

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Video game development is not the "good time" seen in late night online college commercials or FOX's latest sitcom "Dads," in which two young men make bushels of cash while gallivanting around a well-lit, low-stress office. Video game development, the kind that happens in large developers, can involve hundreds of staff members, dozens of middle managers, thousands of hours of overtime, and tenuous contracts that determine bonuses — intended to supplement employees' modest salaries — on not just sales, but subjective critical reception. Infinity Ward, the creators of the billion dollar Call of Duty-franchise, lost its founders and nearly collapsed over such contracts.

The video game industry, unlike film and television, lacks a central hub of employment, meaning game developers and their families must move from one city to the next, from one closed studio to the next. In 2013 alone, over two dozens developers have shuttered, some owned by seemingly stable companies like Disney and Electronic Arts. And that doesn't speak to the thousands of employees laid off by dozens of other developers.

Long hours, tremendous manpower needs and studio closures are hardly foreign to film production, but crews often boast the protection of unions to ensure they are not abused — games lack that protection. Unionization is a word that employees of large studios dare not speak, at least not on record. Most publishers require newly hired employees sign aggressive non-disclosure agreements, threatening harsh litigation and monetary penalties. The result is an industry from which products appear wholly formed, as if crafted by one publicity-trained studio head and a thousand silent robots. The truth is many developers face months of crunch time, in which they work nights and weekends to insure their game is released on time and under budget.

Video game development lacks protection

What about the games? Not unlike blockbuster films, blockbuster games have developed a reputation for being creatively and morally bankrupt. Perhaps the most widely recognized, yet persistent, problem is these game's insipid and archaic view of women. Assuming the game features women at all. Many don't. Grand Theft Auto 5 for all its mature trappings, political commentary and social satire, still treats women as sex objects, buzzkills and bullet sponges.

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Progress has already sprouted in smaller, independently owned studios, like the Portland-based Fullbright Company. Comprised of designers and artists who cut their teeth on big budget titles like the BioShock series, Fullbright Company is a reactionary salve to the industry's ills: the small team created Gone Home, a game starring a woman about women and sexuality, on a modest budget on a planned deadline. While it hasn't achieved the financial success of a Grand Theft Auto, Gone Home has received critical attention from traditional news outlets like the New York Times, and appeared near the top of the sales chart of Steam for its first few weeks.

Gone Home has also sparked discussion amongst fans of video games about narrative, environment and play. There are no guns in Gone Home. No one is killed. And yet, the story is engaging, the world realistic and the characters worth caring about.

Whether or not video games will pass movies financially I can't say, but I do believe they will receive more and more attention from the press at large. The process has already begun, thanks in large part to the work of mainstream writers like Chris Suellentrop, Simon Parkin and Harold Goldberg, along with a healthy crop of video game-centric news outlets and their incredibly talented teams, who investigate and criticize the medium with maturity and humor.

Over the past four decades, video games' earliest fans have grown up. It's time for the medium to do the same.