Epic Games, which publishes the online title Fortnite, this week removed police cars from its digital world of 250 million active players, highlighting the real-time reckoning publishers are having with content in the wake of George Floyd protests.
But there’s a larger rethinking of the value of video games following both America’s protests against police violence and the coronavirus pandemic. Video games — long a scapegoat for society’s ills — have been overdue for it, given their exponential growth as not only entertainment and art but as tools of learning and, lately, multimillion-dollar sports competitions.
Colorado has neither the reputation nor the development scene to place it among the top cities in a global industry valued at $140 billion. Despite that, we have a culture that spans esports leagues and classic arcade tournaments, mobile gaming and digital animation festivals. In fact, there’s new evidence that our residents are more skilled at video games than most of the country.
On top of that, a recent study from Deloitte Digital Media Trends found that one-third of U.S. consumers and nearly half of Gen Z and Millennials say video games helped them get through a difficult time. Since the crisis began, nearly half (48%) of U.S. consumers have participated in some form of gaming activity (for Millennials, it’s 69%, and for Gen Z, it is 75%).
At long last, are we ready to embrace gaming without shame or qualifications?
The answer is likely generational, given that the people who grew up with home consoles and mobile devices are just beginning to age into positions of influence (or recently did). Even still, 65% percent of American adults play video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
Yes, games have been blamed for mass shootings and misogyny, brain rot and addiction. And while there’s undoubtedly a relationship between our media diet and real-world consequences, study after study has shown that blaming violent video games alone for aggressive behavior is overly simplistic (if not flat-out wrong).
“Media violence is only one of many factors that contribute to societal violence and is certainly not the most important one,” wrote Craig A. Anderson, Ph.D., in a round-up of myths and facts about gaming research for the American Psychological Association.
Old-guard media also continues to warm up to games’ artistic and entertainment value, following decades of trade and fan publications knowing the same. In the last few months, The New York Times has published articles questioning their bad rap with non-gamers, their potential to become career pathways, and how addictive they really are. A March 23 op-ed featured the headline “It’s a Perfect Time to Play Video Games. And You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About it.”
The widening road to esports
In Colorado, esports have taken firm root as an industry, The Denver Post reported in January, connecting students and real-world athletes in virtual environments such as League of Legends, Rocket League and Overwatch. Every four-year college in Colorado has some level of organized esports, The Post’s Kyle Fredrickson wrote, although the state lags behind others that offer college scholarship dollars for recruited gamers.
Industry investing in esports topped $1 billion in 2019, and Kroenke Sports — which controls the Colorado Avalanche, Denver Nuggets and Colorado Rapids teams — owns multiple esports teams in Los Angeles. And why not? The audience is there: On YouTube, the top five gaming streamers alone account for 59.5 billion in total video views, according to recent data.
The esports industry still faces a public relations battle. A recent survey found that nearly half of all respondents (46%) do not view esports as a real sport. That, despite the fact none of the participants in the interactive survey were able to beat pro gamers in an apples-to-apples skills challenge. (In fact, 75% said they did not think they could be a professional gamer.)
The unscientific study, commissioned by online gaming/casino site Casumo, must be taken with a grain of salt, given the sponsor (you can try it out yourself at casumo.com/en/blog/esports-elites). But it includes commentary from Matt Huxley, a tournament director and esports lecturer at Staffordshire University in London.
“There is still a strong perception that games are only for the lazy and unmotivated, a means to escape their responsibilities and pass time,” he said in a press statement. “Gaming is reduced to something simplistic and dismissed as such, without any effort made to understand the levels of which most games are played competitively. Esports also makes little attempt to be perceived as a genuine sport more widely because what other people think isn’t important!”
In fact, the Casumo survey found Colorado residents ranked among the best in the U.S., finishing in the top 5 for every skill that was tested — and No. 2 in several key categories.
Sponsored by Huxley’s eSports Elite team, the survey took a pair of professional Counter-Strike players and sized them up against a representative sample of 1,409 Americans. The games they played (with a mouse and keyboard) were chosen for being “typical measures of different types of cognitive performance, which are also considered esports-specific parameters, noted in research into esports player performance by the German Sport University,” organizers said.
In category after category, Coloradans ranked No. 2 above every other state except Arizona. For example, esports pros ScreaM and apEX ranked 82% in a hand-eye coordination test, which noted the percentage of time correctly following one stimulus on-screen over 60 seconds.
Arizonans ranked 43% for that, followed by Colorado (40%), and Ohio, Alabama and California (tied for 39%). Coloradans also ranked No. 2 behind Arizona for “divided attention” (the percentage of time correctly reacting to two separate stimuli on-screen) with 24%, and No. 2 for “actions per minute,” or the number of correctly ordered clicks and keyboard inputs (106, vs. Arizona’s 121).
Visual scanning, which tested the number of correctly identified letters in 60 seconds, found esports pros at 60 characters — and Colorado and Arizona tied for No. 1 (which 34 each).
It’s difficult to conclude why Coloradans scored so high on the survey (or Arizonans, for that matter). Could it be our generally high engagement with arts and entertainment? More people attend art events in Denver than any other city in the U.S., according to a recent National Endowment for the Arts study, and the state is No. 1 in the percentage of residents who personally perform or create artworks.
“Colorado is a very active state. We like to get outdoors and do things that require a certain level of motor ability and fine motor skills,” said Graeme Winder, CEO of the Boulder-based game developer MeloQuest. “I don’t know exactly how that plays into gaming, but it’s clear we’re very active. We also have a nice, central spot between the coasts for (esports) tournaments.”
For Winder, gaming isn’t just about esports. MeloQuest’s latest title, Keys & Kingdoms, is an extension of the half-dozen music schools Winder has founded over the years. The game has other local backers, including Wyeth Ridgway of Denver-based Leviathan Games (which has worked with Capcom, Sony and EA Sports), as well as industry heavy Brian Hodous (formerly of Activision Blizzard Inc.).
Keys & Kingdoms hopes to teach kids aged 7-15 music skills via a mobile game he described as a cross between The Legend of Zelda series and Guitar Hero. Now in beta testing, the game launched last week and is available for a free, 30-day trial (and a $10 monthly subscription after that). It’s partly an effort to combat the 80% drop-out rate kids have with private piano lessons, Winder said.
“I grew up in Colorado and struggled with music learning — which was very odd to me, because I loved it,” Winder said. “I had certain abilities in music that were just not being developed in traditional learning pedagogy.”
After moving to California to work in film and TV scoring, Winder turned to music education. About three and a half years ago, he tried to put his nontraditional lessons into a software platform. But that experiment fell flat, he said.
“We tried to code our (classroom learning),” he said. “But the product was very much ed-tech (education technology) and didn’t feel like a game. Teachers in the schools really liked it. Kids didn’t.”
To harness kids’ love of popular, free-to-play mobile games such as Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox, Winder and his team “baked in” the learning tools but dressed them with adventure-gaming mechanics. The result is a musical role-playing game that now has the backing of the aforementioned industry veterans Ridgway and Hodous — the latter of whom created the $2 billion Guitar Hero franchise.
There’s renewed potential in “gamifying” educational software in the age of coronavirus and shuttered schools. Disney reported this week that its Codeillusion educational game saw a 300% increase in signups while social isolation orders have been in place. Most of the new players were adults.
MeloQuest’s hope is that Keys & Kingdom’s becomes the first music-learning game to stand on its own as an entertaining diversion — and one that can penetrate the general gaming market over ed-tech. Despite not having the resources of Silicon Valley, Winder thinks the Front Range is the perfect place to do it.
“I love Colorado. I’m from here and I’m raising my family in Colorado Springs,” he said. “One of the main reasons Keys & Kingdoms is so awesome is the work of Denver-based Leviathan Games. Their incredible development team brought my vision of this musical world to life — and Keys & Kingdoms wouldn’t be as magical if it were created anywhere else in the world.”
That feel-good, home-state boosterism is increasingly available anywhere, thanks to our digital connectivity. This week, the Dubai-based DGC Games conference operated an online agenda that included discussions about esports’ global reach and virtual reality. The latter technology has increasingly showed up at Denver museums, film festivals and gaming bars.
Interactive arts company Meow Wolf has also said virtual and “extended reality” will be part of its forthcoming Denver installation, blurring the lines between physical and digital installments at its 90,000-square-foot, $60 million new building.
Denver’s digital art festival, Supernova, is also embracing consumer gaming for its Sept. 17-20 outing, according to creator Ivar Ziele.
“We’ve always had this curious intersection with (consumer gaming), and opening up to that world is a very natural fit,” said Zeile, who typically operates in the fine arts world. “The aesthetics in video games and those we find within digital animation are kissing cousins. It may help people understand digital animation better.”
This content was originally published here.