I’m sure almost everyone reading this article is fairly familiar with the Oscars. Maybe you haven’t watched an entire screening, but you’ve heard about who won best picture, or best actor, and how Will Smith slapped Chris Rock. You probably saw the clip.

Despite struggling to maintain the high viewership it once enjoyed, the Oscars still holds a special place in our collective pop culture.

Even as the movie industry struggles to produce the wide spectrum of films it once did, and only cheap Netflix horror movies or mega huge comic-book movies seem to make any money these days, Hollywood and its super-star elite occupy the upper heights of fame, fortune and esteem in our culture.

What if I told you that in 2022 there was a massive cultural entertainment industry that earned more money than films, filled stadiums with fans, sold millions in merchandise, had hundreds of millions of customers and stories written by some of the most famous authors on Earth and yet was still somehow seen as an obscure subculture?

The video game industry in 2016 earned $101 billion in revenue worldwide. In the same year the film industry earned around $49 billion and the music industry $16 billion.

By 2020 video games had grown to an industry which pulled in $159 billion, close to four times the revenue accrued by movies that year. This is also double the revenue of the North American sports industry, which includes American football, soccer, hockey, baseball and basketball. 

These huge earnings are not just because a small elite of wealthy children living in their parents’ basements are willing to pay through the nose for games

In 2020 the number of people playing video games of some sort was estimated at 2.7 billion and some estimates believe that by 2030 at least half of all people on the planet will play video games to some degree.

While a comparable figure for movies is not readily available, the number of regular movie watchers still likely eclipses gamers, but it is not by much.

One should remember that many of these 2.7 billion people are mostly very casual video gamers who play mobile games on their phones only occasionally when bored and are not heavily invested in the kind of complex games – played on personal computers (PCs) or video game consoles such as PlayStation or X-Boxes – which are most closely associated with ‘gaming culture’.

Still, this is a significant number of people who are familiar with the medium and are already hooked into the cultural space.

While we don’t know for sure the number of more ‘hardcore’ gamers, their numbers are estimated to be at least 20% of those 2.7 billion people; it is clear that they exist in sufficient numbers to support industries such as ‘e-sports’.

Incredibly high skill levels

E-sports are competitive video games at incredibly high skill levels, and they are big business. One of the most popular e-sport tournaments is the DOTA 2 international, where the 90 best players from around the world compete in 5-man teams in the video game DOTA 2 for a prize pool which in 2021 was $40 million. It took place in front of an audience of 2.7 million online viewers.

Until Covid-19 the DOTA 2 international also was played in front of a live audience of thousands who cheered on their favourite players with a fervour to match any conventional sports fandom. Other games such as Fortnite have also attracted big audiences and big money, such as in 2019 when Fortnite finals had a grand prize of $15 million.

Yet this industry, which attracts a devotee with an average age of 34 – manna for marketers and other commercial operations – remains relatively ignored by most politicians, cultural activists and particularly general mainstream media. We’re a long way off from having a Barry Ronge of video games.

Those in the film industry might say that the reason for the relative lack of cultural prestige attached to video games is the lack of care and artistry that is put into the creation, writing and music of video games, and that they ultimately are shallow experiences compared to the pedigree of film.

The list of truly engaging and memorable video games is no doubt much smaller than that of film, but video gaming is only a 50-year-old medium as opposed to the 120 years over which film has developed.

And the video gaming industry has produced some big blockbusters.

Big names

Today’s big-budget games such as Cyberpunk 2077, created by Polish video game developer CD Projekt Red, have budgets which come close to those of big Hollywood movies. Cyberpunk cost around $174 million to make and another $142 million in marketing. It included not only stunning visuals which tested the limit of modern hardware, but a distinctive soundtrack composed by a variety of artists, many of whom are big names in their respective genres.

More subjectively, the game’s main storyline, which tells the tale of a petty criminal in a dystopian technologically advanced future, was far more gripping than most of the movies I have watched in the last five years. Other games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 (the tale of a band of outlaws at the end of the cowboy era) and Disco Elysium (the story of a drunken cop solving a murder in a fictional world) have provided hundreds of hours of entertainment and storytelling, which undoubtedly compares with even some of the well-written Hollywood products.

In many ways, we are living in a dark age of film but a golden age of video games. The 2010s saw a massive explosion in the variety and options available to consumers in the video-game space as the proliferation of digital marketplaces and crowdfunding websites allowed the variety of video games to explode. The game market is now filled with an abundance of products, from tiny independent games made by one person to massive ‘block buster’-type games which hire legendary movie composers (such as Hans Zimmer) to do their soundtracks and are produced by thousands of people.

Despite the incredible size, richness and scope of video games as a medium, ‘The Game Awards’ attracts almost no fanfare or media coverage and is largely a low-rent, unglamorous exercise in advertising soft drinks and snack foods.

Even as people complain that they’ve seen none of the films nominated for best film, the glitz of Hollywood invites an opinion from almost everyone you might speak to, while finding out that someone you know is a video gamer still feels a bit like meeting a fellow devotee of some obscure religious group.

Cultural acceptability

It is time we opened the doors of cultural acceptability to the gaming world and embraced the potential that the medium has to offer our cultural lives.

Every publication that has a film reviewer should also treat video games the same way. And lest you doubt that there isn’t that much to say about these silly little children’s toys, consider the video below of a man talking about the 2002 game, Morrowind, and finding enough to say to keep going for nearly 8 hours.

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Nicholas Lorimer is a politician-turned-think tank thinker. His interests include geo-politics, and history (particularly medieval and ancient history). He is an unashamed Americaphile, whether it be food, culture or film. His interests include video games and armchair critique of action films from the 1980s.