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Video games dominating music, movies

by Philip Martin | August 13, 2021 at 1:34 a.m.

I've been saying for a while that video games are probably more important to more people than movies are.

Numbers confirm this; video games generate more revenue than movies and music and are a bigger business than ever, topping movies and music combined. Video games generate more revenue than movies and sports combined. Video games are huge -- and invisible to a lot of us.

To me, for instance. I've never owned an X-Box or a PlayStation. I have casually played some mobile games, but I always stop at the point where I'm prompted to make an in-app purchase. Years ago, back in the era when we used to swap floppy disks in and out of drives, I had a baseball game that allowed you to manage a team through the 1961 baseball season. It was fascinating. But, except for the occasional game of iPad solitary, that's about the limit of my gaming experience.

I have actively avoided video games for the same reason I have actively avoided heroin. Down that road lies trouble and I don't have the time to manage an addiction. I'm sure I would enjoy gaming and I'm not sure I wouldn't become obsessed by it. Other people can indulge in it and live normal, healthy lives, but it's not for me. I'd be the guy playing "Red Dead Redemption" three weeks straight.

So all I know about gaming culture is what I see on TV and what I read. And while I have a vague sense that I ought to be paying more attention to the biggest and fastest growing segment of the entertainment industry, I don't really care much about video games. I struggle not to be dismissive of them.

So maybe it's a good thing I'm not reviewing "Free Guy" this week. Because while I think I probably could have come up with something interesting to say about any movie that employs Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, I doubt I would have grasped the film in the way the audience it was built for would have understood it. As a critic I've never been a big believer in the idea that writers ought to stay in their own lane -- I'm not a "horses for courses" guy in that I believe movies should be accessible to anyone curious and alert enough to want to attend them and that you shouldn't need specialized knowledge to write about them -- but I know enough about gamer culture to know that it's an audience that appreciates inside jokes and a certain accuracy in the way the filmmakers portray their culture.

Just like I have a particular interest in the way newsroom culture and sports are depicted in the movies. When there's something off about the way things I know about are presented in a movie, it can take me out of the movie. It doesn't necessarily ruin the experience, but I notice it.

I'm savvy enough about video games that I understand what background characters are and that some games offer richly detailed universes in which players can cavort. But I don't know anything about superstar gamers or internet influencers. I imagine I would miss some stuff that a gamer-literate writer might not.

Still, one of the themes of this section has always been that no one ever sees the same movie as anyone else, because we all contribute to the final mix of the film, the one that plays inside our heads. I've never thought you actually had to grasp the filmmakers' every intention to comment on a film -- I think it's impossible to grasp every intention and that there's always a lot of subconscious content stuffed into art.

That said, movies like "Free Guy" probably don't repay an awful lot of overthinking; it's a chance for Reynolds to exploit his particular charm. Most of the reviews I've read suggest the movie works as a summer tonic, but that it doesn't really get into the more interesting questions that our migration into digital spaces has raised. Most say it's a little bit like "Wreck-It Ralph," a little bit like "The Lego Movie."

I'll bet that it's like most movies -- it starts out more interesting, then gradually defaults to a more conventional mode. Because that's generally what would-be blockbuster movies do -- they present as different but turn out to be more of the same. Because more of the same is really what audiences want.

Or at least that's what the movie people think they want.

But it also might be why more and more of us are spending more and more of our disposable income on interactive adventures that lack the rigidity of filmed fiction while preserving its guardrails. It's still a virtual (i.e. "safe") experience, but the collaboration is more overt, the immersion in the fictional world more total. The player rakes back a little more control from the machine.

It won't end cinema, anymore than cinema ended theater or literature, but it has already begun to dominate it.

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