One of the many characteristics of the contemporary lifestyle is the inhabiting of virtual / digital space, and there are few better examples for this than video games. Modern video games have become curious creations combining the latest virtual reality technologies, cinematic techniques, and unique art styles. More importantly, video games have made a noticeable impact on the landscape of media businesses and emerged as a competitor to films and television, which for many years dominated the entertainment market. It is estimated that Americans consumed 20.77 billion dollars on video games in 2012 compared to 67 billion on the global scale. Analysts projected that the video game market will grow to 82 billion by 2017. Despite being a massive profit generator, video games are yet to be mass-mediated, for many still conceptualized video games as in the realm of the Nerds. Video games continue to be blamed in such claims as cultivating violent behaviors or causing social detachment, creating public uproars or censorships. It appears that video games have not made its way into the cultural sphere, for many people still don’t fully comprehend video games either as a technological creation or a vessel for cultural expression. In this article, I aim to explore the institutional practices of one of the largest video game production company in North America, Electronic Arts (EA for short), and attempts to find how video games have impact the society on the cultural sense using the theoretical apparatus of Marxist criticism. The question that concerns me most is: Are video games hegemonic?
A Brief History of Electronic Arts
Founded in 1982 by Trip Hawkins, who at the time was the director of strategy and marketing at Apple, EA was given birth by a team of marketing specialists who virtually possess no knowledge or skill to develop a computer game. The company needed to find other sources of product development, and Hawkins quickly established the policy of buying out smaller, independent workshops with some degree of success in video game development. Evidently, conglomeration was the most pervasive policy in the history of EA’s expansion. Many celebrated video game developers in the 1990s such as Bullfrog, Westwood and Origin Systems, later either became subsidiaries of EA, or dissolved in EA’s reshuffling of development assets.
Being the overarching corporation, EA was not interested in preserving the unique personality of its developers, rather, it enforces corporate censorship and stripped the title of the developers from the games and replaced them with that of EA’s. Often when a team continued to fail in producing projected profitability, EA would dissemble the team and regroup their employees with members of other developers. Even the long-standing fame and popularity of Bullfrog and Westwood did not stop them from being shutting down, for which many gamers still hold a grudge against EA. Despite its financial success, EA developed a foul reputation among the gaming community and was voted the worst company in the United States for two consecutive years since 2012.
The rise of EA appears to be an antithesis to what is commonly believed about new media and/or information technology companies. Instead of creativity and innovation, EA is built on ruthless acquisitions, strong orientation on profitability and lack of independent development capabilities. EA became a tycoon in the video game industry through continued concentration and heavy commercialization, which resonates with the characteristics of the “Big Five” corporations in the media business landscape. For this reason, I find it fair to analyze EA in the same measure of that of the “Big Five”, which many scholars have contributed to the discussion.
On Ideology and Hegemony
Croteau, Hoynes and Milan (2012) observed the process of conglomeration, concentration and commercialization and discovered a causal connection between media ownership and content diversity. As many scholars have hypothesized, concentrated ownership of media producers will cause a dwindling effect on the diversity of the information being circulated (p. 49). Croteau et al. borrowed the concept of media pluralism, which is the term to determine the degree of diversity presented in media products, and illustrated that very few political and cultural discourses are represented in the public sphere as media production continue to be dominated by a few enterprises. This notion stems from observing the business practices of traditional media outlets, particularly journalist publications. As Bagdikian (2004) has argued, the same can be applied to new formats of media outlets as well (p. 49).
Perhaps the more important question is how concentrated media ownership can impact our way of thinking. Croteau et al. argued that private ownership in news providers can create problematic results such as altering political decisions. They argued: “It is possible that those building media empires could use their media outlets to promote a very specific political agenda. Furthermore, when media barons become candidates for major offices, their media holding can be invaluable political resources” (p. 45). The more damaging effects, however, occurs on the public consciousness. Adorno and Horkheimer (1944) characterized contemporary culture as being subjugated to commercialization and industrialization. They created the concept “culture industry” and describe it as creating “a false identity of the general and the particular” (p. 349) that “requires identical needs in innumerable places with identical goods” (p. 350) which results in “the circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger” (p. 350). According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the contemporary practices of cultural production, exemplified by its mass-manufacturing and commercial oriented nature, induces a cultural sameness – a generalize social identification that is being endorsed without question, resulting in the false representation of human consciousness and experience and a narrow perception of social reality (p. 374).
The concept of cultural industry shares the same perspective with the concept of hegemony. Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci used the concept of ideology to describe the sum of ideas, beliefs and philosophies that is being maintained with social structures and systematically upheld by a particular social class (p. 15). Lull (1995) described ideology as a social system as he put: “Mass-mediated ideologies are corroborated and strengthened by an interlocking system of efficacious information distributing agencies and taken-for-granted social practices that permeate every aspect of social and cultural realities” (p. 62). Gramsci argued that the society is dominated by the ideologies of the ruling class, a phenomenon which he termed as hegemony. Croteau et al. explained hegemony as a practice of maintaining established power structure by constructing commonsense assumptions and dismissing alternatives (p. 160). They observed that any social consciousness that is deemed normal, commonsense and beyond scrutiny fell in the territory of hegemony (p. 161). Referencing from Stuart Hall, Croteau et al. observed mass media as “one of the principle sites where the cultural leadership, the work of hegemony is exercised” (p. 162) and argued that mass media aims to shape and define our social consciousness rather than reflecting social realities. This notion is also embraced by Lull, who put: “Hegemony implies a willing agreement by people to be government by principles, rules and laws they believe operate in their best interest even though in actual practice they may not. Social consent can be a more effective means of control than coercion or force” (p. 63). Lull noted that hegemonic practices can be conducted through more than one media outlets, as he argued that “trans-media and trans-genre integration with mutually reinforcing ideological consequences are also commonplace” (p. 63).
One of the many practices for video game industry to be incorporated in the hegemonic process of media institutions is what Hardy (2010) termed as intertextuality. “Intertextuality describes the phenomenon that one media entity cross promote, cross reference through magazines, newspapers, broadcasting outlets and online resources connected to an often extensive array of interlinked media products” (p. 65). Hardy observed the proliferation of intertextuality across various media outlets executed by licensing. “Licensing involves formal agreements to permit third parties to make restricted use of intellectual property rights in exchange for fees” (p. 79). Intertextuality in film industry is exemplified by megabrands such as the Harry Potter series, The Matrix series or The Lord of the Rings series. Hardy discovered that “licensing of film characters and thee use of images and other intellectual properties to a secondary manufacturer created tie-in merchandise designed to cross promote the Harry Potter brand and stoke consumer investment (both emotional and financial) in the phenomenon” (p. 79). Through extensive acts of commercialization which carry the megabrands to a wide spectrum of media productions, megabrands such as Harry Potter became more than a single media entity but a cultural phenomenon interconnected with various media formats and outlets.
Harry Potter is probably one of the most celebrated franchises of the 21st century. It is not only a bestselling novel series beloved by children and adults alike, but also affiliated with eight heavily invested Hollywood blockbusters. EA has been developing and publishing Harry Potter video games since the release of the first movie in 2001, and continued to produce a new game for every new movie being released. Up until 2004 with the release of the third installment of the film series, the games had maintained a moderate level of originality. Although visually the games were noticeably borrowing from the designs in the films, the characters and environment were rendered in a cartoonish style which distinguishes themselves from the films. However, from the fourth installment forth, EA became more apparent in their attempt to copy from the films. The characters developed a much higher level of realism (which is of course also partially due to the advancement of visual technologies), bearing striking resemblance to the actors in the films. Photographed cover art, which appeared almost identical to the movie posters, were used to promote the games. This policy continued to carry on until the final release of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which like the film is the conclusion of a two-parted adaptation of the final book of the novel series. More interestingly, EA had carefully planned the release dates for its games to be synchronized with the film releases. All of the games were released scarcely earlier than the debut of their corresponding films, which noticeably helped the sales for the games by taking advantage of the hype built up by the movies’ promotions.
Harry Potter is but one of the many franchises adapted into video games by EA. The long-listed library also includes such household brands such as Star Wars, James Bond, The Lord of the Rings, and The Simpsons. It is easy to conceptualize that the merit lies in making use of already established brand recognition and market share, but it is equally hard to ignore the lack of production agency on the game maker’s part. While there are film-based video games that command a long history of fondness from gamers, the structure of film-based video game defines it as an apparatus for commercialization and publicity, which diminishes the cultural significance of the video game as a separate form of media.
Not unlike the Hollywood blockbusters, sports industry has been a vital component of cultural capitalism. Rarely can any consumer be as devoted and loyal like a sports fan, nor has any other event generated the massive commercial value like the Super bowl or the Olympics. Schaaf (2004) noted how sports industry had synergized with media outlets and emerged as a significant part of contemporary culture, as he wrote: “The sports industry grew slowly and deliberately as the layers of media, sponsorship, and commercial enterprise grew from the actual games and events. At times went on, and a degree of routine and permanence became attached to the events, the sports industry developed the infrastructure that would become the multibillion-dollar platform of today” (p. 33). Much like with the film industry, the video game industry has been playing the ancillary part in the process of intertextuality for the sports industry. Peter Moore, former COO of EA, commented on the company’s continued interest in producing sports video games: “The key is to provide personal access to the emotion of sports. No other medium has this type of passion, emotion, and is part of the deep core of who we are. You need to leverage everything from a business perspective, but without destroying the passion and emotion that we all love about sports” (Carter, 2010, p. 67). As with the film industry, licensing is an important policy adopted by many video game producers, as Carter (2010) stated: “Licensed images and content providers, especially sports leagues, teams and athletes, become more important as consumers desire a strong connection to the product, whether it is linked to a physical workout or social activity” (p. 60).
EA is arguably the largest player in the field of sports video games. The company’s largest and most profitable subsidiary, EA Sports, is solely devoted to developing, publishing and promoting sports video games. It is estimated that EA Sports contributes over 54% of the annual revenue for its parent company, which is equivalent to approximately $2 billion dollars. EA Sports is known for producing video games on all types of sports ranging from the globally popular ones including soccer, basketball, baseball, car racing and golf to the regional popular ones such as cricket and rugby.
Modern sports games are different from other sub-genres of the video game library for their lack of fictional elements. Since as early as 1990 with the release of John Madden Football which sprung a long-standing series that continues to exist today, EA has been producing sports video games as simulations of real sports events, featuring sports teams, players and commentators from real life. EA has been purchasing licenses from sports associations, teams, players, and celebrities in order to incorporate their likeness in their games. Over the decades EA has produced games affiliated with John Madden, Tiger Woods, NFL, FIFA, NBA, NASCAR, NHL, NCAA, MLB, and so on. In addition to sports associations, EA has also incorporated ESPN’s programs including podcasts, text articles and video presentations in its games by signing a contract with the network in 2005. EA’s licensing strategy became even more prominent in 2006 as the company started brokering exclusive deals with NFL, NCAA and other sports associations. The act is flagged as monopolistic and anti-competitive for it prevents other game producers from acquiring licensing. This added to the existing criticisms against the company and resulted in an anti-trust lawsuit that is still pending today.
Licensing is not only a major business strategy for EA Sports. In many ways, it became the signature and most prominent attraction for EA’s sports games. While EA follows a strict annual release policy and produce a new title each year, the new games often see little variation from their predecessors. Although a popular player is featured as the cover star each year, the popularity for these games remains relatively unchanged, which probably explains why few sports games has been celebrated by gamers as industry legends.
Sports games further testify the great influence of commercialization on the video game industry. If we describe the practice in film-based games as duplicating and mimicking the theme and appearance of the films, then sports games are characterized by their repetition and monopolistic control of licensing rights. A very much similar game is being resold to the sports fans every year, while close-door bargains ensures the exclusion of competitors from entering the market. The two factors restricted the sports games genre into one unified design by one company, which convey extremely flat cultural messages to the audiences of sports games.
The impact of video games on the cultural level is not always viewed with objectivity. In one of such cases in 2008, EA was under the attack from Fox News for presenting “graphic sexual scenes” in the sci-fi adventure game Mass Effect developed by its subsidiary developer, BioWare. The accusation was proved fraudulent for the said “graphic sexual scenes” were never present in the game. The commentator at Fox News was misled by some of the gaming footage and never played the actual game beforehand. The incident can be seen as a signature event where mainstream television came into public conflict with the video game industry.
As much as the industry has latched itself onto existing media enterprises including that of films and sports, there is another side of the story. EA has been more active in recent years in displaying its autonomy and independency as a leading company in an emergent media field, particularly so with its acquisition of the Canadian developer team BioWare.
BioWare, which holds high esteem within the gaming community even before EA’s acquisition, is known for its expertise in storytelling and character portrayal. Among other things, the developer is celebrated for pioneering in representing homosexuality in video games. It bears noticing that representation of homosexuality in video games is not a recent phenomenon, but can dated back to as late as the 1990s when Jacques Servin, a social and cultural activist who at the time was a coder at game developer company Maxis, put codes to cause scantily dressed men hugging and kissing one another to appear in a helicopter simulation game. The addition managed to escape the attention of the company’s self-censorship process and made appearances in the retail version of the game, causing a massive public uproar which cost Servin his job as a game developer. Homosexuality in video games had been historically scarce, either as comical cameos or negative stereotypes. It was arguably until the creations of BioWare that homosexuality became truthfully and justly represented. In the developer’s 2008 title Mass Effect, which fell under attack from Fox News, the players were introduced to a lesbian couple consisted of a human girl and a female from a beautiful, human-like alien species. Although the couple served as background characters and may not be discovered by all the players. It was a step into an unfamiliar realm for video games. In 2009, BioWare took a step further by giving the player the option of engaging in homosexual relationships with the game’s characters in another title Dragon Age, which included both options for male and female protagonists. While endeavoring deeper into a “controversial” theme, adding to the fact that this was merely one year after the controversy with Fox News, the game was not stifled as a profit risk and received heavy promotion from EA. The audacity testifies that the video game industry is more than puppets for mainstreamed media outlets and popular franchises, but a conscious entity with complete agency in production decisions. The video game industry is equipped and capable of defending its voice when the occasion arises, and proved to have emerged victorious in previous events as demonstrated in the Fox versus. EA case.
I find it hardly fair to conclude the article by arguing against video game industry for being predominantly hegemonic. Neither do I think the industry had contributed adequately to the diversity and enlightenment of contemporary cultural sphere. For now, we have to settle with a middle ground that video game industry is neither hegemonic nor anti-hegemonic. As video game industry continues to integrate into the agendas of dominating business tycoons, luring more moviegoers into theaters and cultivating more devoted sports fans, it also preserved the venue for the less represented, normalized and accepted as an alternative to the traditional media. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that video games have yet to be recognized as a member of mass media in the strictest sense. As important as profitability and popularity is to any form of media business, it can be equally vital to maintain some degree of independency to resist the massively proliferated hegemonic forces in our culture today.
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