Thursday, April 26, 2012

Online games and the end of mass media

This week my undergraduate class at KAIST, entitled "Introduction to Mass Communication" is looking at the game industry, both globally and Korea's role in it.  I was surprised when one of the students asked me to explain why we were studying online games in a course on "mass communication."  A good question and it is worth being explicit about the answer.
First, I think there is a good argument to be made (it already has been by many scholars) that the era of mass communication took place in the twentieth century and is over.  The data show that, all over the world, people are spending less time watching television or with other traditional "mass media" pursuits and more time online.  The online experience is decisively different from "mass" communication and nowhere is this more apparent than in the online game industry.
Second, the game industry, including online games, arcade games, video games (as in Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft X-box) and most recently mobile games) are part of the entertainment industry.  As digital technology, the internet and cloud computing continue to develop, online games are converging in some ways with both television and the motion picture industry.  If you doubt this, view the following trailer for the new version of World of Warcraft.
Third, as we discussed in our Tuesday class meeting, Korea has a big stake in the game industry, as illustrated in the accompanying graphic that was published in a December 2011 Korea Joongang Daily article.  (click on the graphic to see a full-size version).  The title of that article, "E-sports spread from PC Bang to world stage" hints at the answer to my student's question about why the game industry is becoming part of media today.
Finally, the game director of Diablo III, one of Blizzard Entertainment's popular online games, was in Seoul earlier this week and was interviewed by the Korea Joongang Daily.  He addressed the question of how important or large mobile online games may become as part of the global game industry.   His take on this question is quite interesting. He suggests that, despite their alarmingly rapid growth, games designed for smartphones will not replace those made for online use on PCs but rather offer gamers a more diverse range. He cited his own personal experience. “I play tons of games on my smartphone. I play tons of games on my PC. And I play tons of games on my console,” he said during the interview. “However, each one gives me a different experience.”
So there you have it.  Participation in a multiplayer online game, whether at home, at a PC Bang, or while riding home on the subway, is not really "mass communication," or is it?  Comments welcome.

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