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Olympics and video games: backward priorities

13 Jun

What’s more fun than real archery? How about shooting a virtual bow in Far Cry 3?

The summer Olympics will be starting soon, which means that here in Canada where summer sports aren’t a strong suit, the media will swoon whenever a Canadian wins a medal. Really important things, like archery, horse jumping and fencing, will be front-page news and the lead story on evening television should a Canadian land a medal in them.

The shame of it is that last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, the Olympics of video games, wasn’t big news anywhere in the country despite the fact that Canadians – particularly those working at Ubisoft’s Canadian studios – cleaned up and stole the show.

Ubisoft brought an impressive array of games, including Assassin’s Creed 3, Far Cry 3, Watch Dogs, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Zombi U and Rayman Legends, to E3. The first three are being developed in Montreal and the fourth is the first game from the company’s Toronto studio, while the last two are from the parent company in France.

With hundreds of publishers and developers showing off thousands of games, it’s a little odd to declare that anyone “won” E3, but the gaming press is doing just that. Other Canadian studios, including Electronic Arts and Beenox, also had strong showings. The former impressed sports game fans with its latest iterations of FIFA and NHL franchises while the latter’s upcoming Amazing Spider-Man was good enough to crack my top 10 of the show.

Ubisoft, you may know, is a French company that really isn’t. This year, Ubisoft is celebrating the 15th anniversary of the opening of its Montreal studio, which has since become the heart and soul of the multinational company. Montreal employs the bulk of its designers and is responsible for virtually all of the parent’s most successful franchises. Along with the studio in Quebec City and the recently opened Toronto operation, Montreal accounts for nearly half of the entire company’s employees. On the whole, Ubisoft’s Canadian operations contribute a good chunk of the 16,000-plus employees in the Canadian games industry, which is third biggest in the world next to the United States and Japan.

With its size and talent, it’s no wonder the Canadian industry routinely produces the best games in the world. But does this get on the front page anywhere in Canada? Did the butt-kicking E3 showing even warrant a mention on TV news broadcasts? Of course not, but it absolutely should because video games are just a tad more important than archery or fencing.

According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, the games industry contributes $1.7 billion a year to the economy in the form of jobs and the expenditures they make possible. More importantly, video games are the crux of the future economy, lying at the intersection of culture and technology as they do. These aren’t jobs in a dying industry such as manufacturing (don’t believe it’s dying? Wait till 3D printers take hold), they’re the vanguard of an exciting and fast-growing field that is only just starting to take off.

Sure, sure, the Olympics are important. Success at the Games means more government money for physical education programs, which supposedly encourage kids to get off the couch – and ironically leave their video games behind – to go exercise so they don’t become fat. Yet, video games are having a big impact there too.

The technology being developed by game companies is rapidly spreading into physical health and training as well. At E3, Microsoft announced a partnership with Nike to bring Nike+, a training-like game, to the Xbox 360. Nike+ uses the Xbox’s Kinect motion sensor to help the user developer a training regimen, with status and reminders being sent to a smartphone. There’s also Ubisoft Montreal’s Your Shape Fitness Evolved line of games for the Kinect, which train gamers in yoga, not to mention a whole host of emerging physical training titles for Xbox, Wii and PlayStation Move.

Such games are far more likely to appeal to children and potentially burn more calories than a boring sport like rowing. Games such as Dance Dance Revolution have been adopted by gym classes at U.S. schools because, as researchers have pointed out, they are persuasive technology that convince individuals to adopt behaviours without their even knowing it:

Although the DDR was not developed specifically to promote physical activity, it has changed exercise attitudes and behavior of children and youth using principles of persuasive technology. Dance Dance Revolution uses video, music, and a dance platform to capture interest and engage children in the activity without their being fully aware that they are exercising. The emerging field of persuasive technology has enormous potential for promoting physical activity and healthy behavior.

On the flip side, how many kids watch archery at the Olympics and think, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to go get me a bow?” They’re more likely to do that after shooting one in a video game, which is ironic because E3 quite clearly declared 2012 as the year of the bow. Of course, archery may be the wrong example, because it’s not really that physical an activity anyway, but that’s besides the point.

The real point is, the media has its priorities backwards. Instead of slavishly covering an event that has no relevance to the average Canadian, it would be nice to see some attention paid to a field that is actually growing in importance (nearly two-thirds of Canadians say they are gamers). At the very least, the thousands of Canadians who are routinely kicking the rest of the world’s butts should get some recognition.

Until that unlikely day, let’s keep the equestrian and table tennis coverage coming. Yawn.

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4 Comments

Posted by on June 13, 2012 in ubisoft, video games

 

4 responses to “Olympics and video games: backward priorities

  1. Simon Cohen

    June 13, 2012 at 10:34 am

    I get where you’re coming from Peter, but I think you might be a wee bit out of touch with the priorities of the average Canadian. I’m not a sports fan at all (just ask my friends and family) so I’m the last person to argue that they are more important than, well, anything really, but even I acknowledge they are hugely important to a lot of people. Just take a look at the excitement over the EuroCup of soccer – it’s not even the most important event in soccer, and no Canadians are directly involved, but plenty of Canadians are watching, obsessively.
    Comparing the coverage that the Olympics and the gaming industry receive is as apples and oranges as I can think of. One has stories of young people in the prime of their life, engaged in what might be their one chance to become the world’s best at their chosen sport, the other has simulations of wars, races, or completely artificial activities that might provide a fun diversion for us now and then.
    I have long been annoyed that pro-sports athletes receive far more fame and glory than the scientists who actually push our world forward. But I totally get why. How can a 15-year search for a cancer cure compare to flying through the air for 2 seconds and scoring a slam-dunk?

     
    • petenowak2000

      June 13, 2012 at 10:44 am

      Good points Simon, but that’s sort of the crux of my argument. In the grand scheme of things, jumping hurdles or throwing a javelin is not at all important, while video game design is, both in terms of economy and getting people motivated to engage in actual activity. You may be right in that I cast my criticisms at the wrong target; maybe it’s not the media that should be blamed for placing false importance on the Olympics, but the viewing public. But in that case, it’s a chicken or the egg situation.

       
    • petenowak2000

      June 13, 2012 at 11:06 am

      Also, I should note that when Canadians shine at the Grammys or Oscars, that’s big news. Frivolous entertainment is frivolous entertainment to the media, except when it’s “kids’ stuff” like video games.

       
  2. russellmcormond

    June 13, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    I totally agree with you that video games aren’t getting as much attention as they should for the art form and contribution to our economy they are, and the Olympics gets more attention that it deserves for the alleged global unifying force that it is not.

    I do note a similarity: Both have extremist associations (IOC, ESAC) who demand outrageous and unnecessary changes to statutory monopoly laws (copyright, trademark, etc). And unfortunately our politicians are clued-out enough to have handed each pretty much what they wanted.

     
 
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