Value in videogames: A losing argument

We all have complaints when it comes to the gaming industry. Poor quality sequels, game release delays, and in-game advertising are all hot topics on message boards all over the web. Still, one argument seems to transcend gamers of all shapes and sizes, and that is the argument against the pricing of games today. I will attempt to explore this argument until I reach an epiphany, burst a blood vessel, or just plain get bored. Here we go…

Why do we, as gamers, feel the need to put a price on what an hour of entertainment is worth? One argument is that we’re just cheap bastards who want something for nothing. Being classified as a gamer usually lumps you into a certain category of the young and pop-culture savvy with an eye for whatever might be the next “big thing” in terms of entertainment. There are, of course, thousands of different demographics that gaming crosses and the boundaries are getting more and more blurry with each passing moment, but the stereotype remains. Whatever the case, almost anyone who finds their free time spent gaming has complained about the price of their hobby at one time or another, but why?

Choosing gaming as a hobby is certainly not a cheap venture for anyone, and as someone who owns basically any system you can name from the past 25 years I can vouch for the fact that my hobby has caused chagrin from any number of family members and friends. This is a factor especially when they attempt to add up the money I’ve spent (or wasted, in their eyes) on games in my lifetime. I have, indeed, spent an exorbitant amount of my income on my hobby and that fact is not lost on me. In fact, I believe this is from where the first contributing factor to the “price crisis” stems. Gaming in general has always been a bit of a black sheep in the scope of entertainment mediums, and, as members of this cult of acne-ridden faces and neck beards, each one of us strives to set ourselves apart from that stereotype by proving that we, personally, are making good decisions when it comes to what we spend our money on. Anyone who has purchased a game blindly and without researching the current buzz behind it, only to find that it is truly a sub-par product will feel cheated, and to a certain extent scorned, by the industry that they so lovingly support. This is a factor that many believe contributed to the great videogame crash of 1983. At that time, there were so many poor titles coming out that consumers who had taken the blind leap into the gaming world were met with a harsh reality: most games are shit.

The crash is something that has stuck in the minds of many people, most of which are older, more experienced gamers who realized long ago that the majority of games are not worth a purchase. In addition, a large portion of consumers have taken it one step further by passing the “purchasing” option all together in favor of rental services such as GameFly, which have become their sole means of new content acquisition. To gamers such as this, the land of retail releases is a conquered one, leaving only the downloadable sector to pose any real threat to their personal “Money for Entertainment” castle.

Another factor that contributes to the constant stream of complaints against game prices is nothing more than conditioned behavior to which there is no real guilty party. Complaints about the prices of any form of entertainment are clearly not isolated to the world of videogames and I’ll not insult your intelligence by explaining that point further. I will, however, put gaming in a different casket in this cemetery of beaten horses and present the idea that gamers, in general, are confused – but for good reason.

In the market of digital entertainment, nothing comes cheap. I should know, I’ve spent a total of 20 dollars in the past month to watch Heath Ledger redefine the role of “villain”, twice. I have nothing to show for the money I’ve spent other than the experience itself. Now, when the home release of the same film lands on Walmart shelves, we’ll all be able to own that piece of history (in standard definition, of course) for less than the cost of my two viewings in the theater (that’s an interesting commentary in itself that deserves some exploring, but I won’t be the one to do it).

Entertainment prices are much like gasoline prices in this way. You can think of your standard feature-length film as “Regular Unleaded” entertainment. Your typical movie ticket at a non-budget venue is anywhere from $7 to $12 depending on your area of the country. If we put a blanket average on what “feature length” means as roughly 120 minutes, you’re getting an Entertainment-Per-Dollar or EPD average of 12. Meaning that, for the most part, your local movie theater is offering to entertain you for 12 minutes per dollar you spend. It might be 15 minutes, it might be 9 minutes, but the average never flies too far out of the boundaries and your standard movie theater conforms to that average quite nicely.

Now, if we look to another common form of entertainment, digital music, we’ll see a slightly different trend. Again, we’ll work with averages here and say that your average digital music download is around $1 per song. Also, while songs vary greatly from less than a minute to perhaps as much as dozens of minutes in length, your typical “current” song choice will weigh in nicely at around 3 minutes. The math on this one is pretty straightforward and it comes out to an EPD average of 3 minutes. When compared directly to your movie-going EPD of 12, digital music is clearly a rip-off, right? Not so fast. The difference comes in when you factor in your ownership of the media. For that $1 you now own the rights to play that music whenever you want, as opposed to your movie-theater schedule which dictates that you will be entertained from 9 p.m. until 10:57 p.m. and then kicks you out the door. If we stick with the gasoline analogy, does this cause something like digital music to fall into the “Premium Entertainment” category, as it offers far less EPD on the surface, but includes the perk of ownership and endless replayability? One might argue, yes.