“The video game should be thought of as an object of extraordinary complexity and the time is ripe to understand its cultural value”. Riccardo Fassone, a researcher at the University of Turinwho has been working for years on game studies, a relatively new discipline that combines humanistic knowledge and digital culture, is convinced of this. Founder of the trade magazine Game, Fassone has recently edited, together with Marco Benoît Carbone, an important volume: Il videogioco in Italia. Storie, rappresentazioni, contesti (Video Games in Italy. Stories, portrayals, contexts), published by Mimesis (Milan 2021).
Why was it so difficult to give this medium its own specificity?
The video game has endured a rather hefty dose of prejudice, which should be expected with new media regarding their cultural value. In the case of the video game, the question of effects also played a role. For years, the fact that a certain type of stimulation could have immediate and measurable effects on aggression fuelled looming distrust of video games. Today, however, having overcome certain obstacles, it is easier to understand how, over the last thirty years, the video game has been one of the constituent elements of new media culture in the West: sparking imagery, communities, shared beliefs, stimulating practices and innovations.
Over the last thirty years, the video game has been one of the constituent elements of new media culture
Riccardo Fassone, editor of the book “Il videogioco in Italia” (Video Games in Italy)
Turning to the Italian context…
Italy has a reputation for being a predominantly consumer country. A country where only a few video games are produced and with little development.
Is this a true picture?
Partially, as we should put things in a historical perspective.
The consumption trend has even been amplified in this pandemic year: In 2020, the Italian market posted a record performance, generating a turnover of €2.179 billion. The video games market in our country is growing by +21.9% compared to 2019…
These are merely figures. However, if we go back to the relative gap between production and consumption and its history, we will have to remember that in the late eighties, Italy flourished with significant economic and production potential. Then something happened. Something that is also a consequence of overall cultural situations: Unlike in France, video games were not considered worthy of protection and support. They were thus relegated to a sort of ‘B-series culture’. This situation has now evolved somewhat. While video games have now emerged from their niche, the days of large-scale productions are long gone. The Italian specificity, if we want to call it that, is that video games are made by small and medium-sized enterprises or even individuals. Companies with hybrid sustainability: they make video games for the public, but are also developing Business-to-Business services.
What kind of B2B services?
These companies create training or team building games. Finally, they work with other companies through the play tool and support themselves economically with this integrated system. In any case, in terms of production, Italy is certainly lagging behind in terms of its industrial fabric and economic sustainability, rather than in terms of actual production.
The most recent industry report (IIDEA) revealed an increase in the involvement of gamers (representing 38% of the Italian population aged between 6 and 64) in video games in 2020. On average, Italians spent 8 hours a week playing games on all devices in the last year, partly due to the lockdown. With the pandemic, however, an aspect of strong socialisation linked to the use of video games emerged…
The idea that video games are a socialising tool has been evident since the days of arcade games. Video gaming per se had a relatively short interlude in which it was seen as a game in solitude: this would be the phase of PC or Console games. In the seventies and eighties, ‘video gaming’ meant frequenting very strong social networks. This later transformed into online gaming, something that has now morphed into a new way of socialising. In online gaming, players come together because of affinities and interests, but there are gaming communities with common directions that go far beyond the game itself: beliefs, ideas, opinions, passions. Gamers have always been very clear about that: entering a virtual world does not simply mean measuring one’s performance with others, but interacting, socialising, communicating and exchanging. This fact has now become more apparent to non-gamers, not least because of the pandemic.
Non-gamers who, during the lockdown, began to experiment with play environments…
Animal Crossing is a case in point. It is a low-intensity game from a competitive point of view, very uninspiring, even aesthetically, but suitable for socialising. Of course, there are communities where the competitive aspects are extremely intense, but that does not detract from the fact that socialisation is also present in these communities, perhaps outside the game (in the forums, for example).
The video game has a very long life cycle. This means that many professionals will be working on a game for a long time even after its release
Is there any gaming product out there featuring qualities of resilience and, at the same time, innovation that bears a distinctively Italian imprint?
In Italy, I particularly recommend a game developed by a Milan-based developer duo, We Are Müesli. They created Venti Mesi (Twenty Months), a game set in the twenty months between 8 September and the end of the Second World War. This group works a lot, both digitally and analogue, on very subtle historical facts. Their experience is perhaps a little bit outside the big game industry, because they work as artisans and visual artists, but I think there is an Italian specificity in this way of working in game design.
This requires multi-faceted expertise, not only in the field but also in the humanities…
The interconnection of knowledge and ‘multidisciplinarity’ are certainly characteristic features of the video game industry. An industry where people work predominantly in teams. The game designer is the one who has the idea, the one who makes the code deals with the purely IT aspects. Then there is a visual-aesthetic compartment (concept artists, modellers, illustrators who often work on several media, from cinema to advertising), joined by storytellers and, in certain experiences, historical researchers and humanists.
Then there is the whole aspect of communications and relationships with the player communities…
Communications and relations often entrusted to community managers who work as a link between production and use. Some of the biggest companies have, for historical games, professional researchers on their staff. The video game has a very long life cycle. This means that many professionals will be working on a game for a long time even after its release.
When looking at a video game, we often limit ourselves to the creative and design aspects…
But there is a second aspect tied to ‘maintenance’, updating and relations with gamers that is just as important. The Italian specificity emerges in this second aspect too, creating increasingly aware and strong communities in a country context where the overall gaming literacy is not among the highest.