Every year we go to the CGDC I meet folks from the book publishing world. It seems like there is a basic assumption that there is some natural connection between their world and the world of video games, but so far nobody seems to have really figured out how to make it work. Publishers come to the CGDC to sniff around for games or studios that would be good fits for supporting their existing catalog of books. As far as that goes…I’m willing to say that the impulse seems reasonable enough. Publishing books at least has some things in common with publishing games. I presume working with an author to get a book out has some similarity to working with a game shop – so we’re good to that point.
But things go immediately sideways beyond that basic assumption.
Book publishers are completely missing what is really happening in the game space and the deep misunderstanding is costing them millions.
Wrong Assumption One: Games are for Kids
Over and over and over I’m met with this assumption at a place so deep it’s almost invisible. I have yet to met a single representative of the book publishing world who does not immediately connect video games with minors. But there are tons of good studies out there that indicate the average gamer is in their mid-thirties. That’s 35 years old folks, not 16.
The instant and costly effect of this wrong assumption is easy to see: 35 year olds don’t read ‘Stink Bug Saves The Day’ and they won’t buy a game about Hermes. If publishers continue to look for the game/book connection in their teen and tween catalog they will continue to miss the huge opportunity to reach the bulk of the gamer market: males between the ages of 26-37 with disposable income and a proven willingness to part with said income in exchange for painted pixels.
Sub-Assumption: Games should be educational
This is connected to the first assumption and may be unique to the Christian and family-friendly space but I regularly sense the unquestioned notion that a game can only be valid to the degree it teaches something. I know where this comes from, the old saw that ‘games are excellent teachers’ is a kind of gateway concept for older professionals wrestling to understand how video games can be the huge business they are. But many folks stick there and assume that teaching is ALL games are good for. The problem with this understanding is particularly acute in the history of Christian games where the most fundamental aspect of a game – that it be fun (hello!) – gets sacrificed in the intense drive to be didactic.
Wrong Assumption Two: Video Games are Supporting Players
I’m certainly more sympathetic to this thought when it comes to book publishers. After all, they are in the book business and they are interested in the idea that a video game might increase the reach of their core business – fair enough. But there is a huge opportunity here that really needs to be seized to move book publishers into the next phase of media. Video gaming is a unique story-telling medium that is quickly developing its own rules of narrative structure, plot development, and character formulation. There is a good body of evidence now that he stories that are well suited to books or movies do not translate well to gaming and vice-versa.
To the extent that publishing is not truly about any particular medium, but about the deeper human impulse to create and experience Story, there is an opportunity today to embrace and shape what is quickly becoming (if it isn’t already there) the dominant cultural medium of the next 50 years. All fiction publishing is about the art of bringing a good story to the people who will pay to experience it and I have to expect that the experience book publishers have gained over the years working with authors on books would translate well to game designers.
I hope this post doesn’t seem negative. I’m really very interested in and positive about the overlap that could happen between books and games, especially in the way we want to see our stories rolled out across several media including games, graphic novels, books, even movies. What I’m noting though is a repeated experience with book publishing folks who seem stuck on what amounts to a question of format. The result of this is a loss of opportunity for all parties – publishers want to find properties that will make money and video games are a massive and exploding market. Game designers want to be published…see prior reasons. That seems like the kind of place where there is a natural win-win for both sides, so long as everyone can agree on what winning looks like.