Summer Game Fest 2021 highlighted a huge problem in the gaming industry

Why are Elden Ring, Genshin Impact, and Among Us at the same show?

This year’s E3 showcase hasn’t even kicked off yet and, thanks to Geoff Keighley and The Game Awards’ Summer Game Fest, we’re already contemplating one looming problem in the world’s most lucrative entertainment industry — and it’s a philosophical one.

For nearly a century, what could broadly be described as the “video” industry has been neatly separated into the medium’s various forms (then further separated into genres — if you buy that sort of thing), be they film, television, commercials, internet videos, livestreams, or otherwise. In the post-COVID days of Netflix and HBO Max, these distinctions have started to collapse again, as is cyclical for any medium. But for the video game industry, it’s only ever fractured away from its roots in the toy business.

Gaming has spent the last 40 years mutating and evolving to fit the various screens in our lives, finally breaking out of a Toys “R” Us aisle and into mainstream discourse, thanks largely to the internet. We can now play games on consoles and computers, yes, but also on our phones, tablets, cars, watches, bedside clocks, digital assistants, and in virtual reality. Games are sports, visual novels, simulators, party tricks, prestige dramas, episodic soaps, massive social experiments, and even artistic mediums within themselves all available on disc, for download, or streamed to anyone, anywhere, at any time. It’s a lot.

Which begs the question: How do we separate any of this back down into meaningful categories?

It’s a lot.

Furthermore, how do I, with the title “Senior Gaming Editor,” decide what is within my purview? If I simply follow my nose and interests, Input wouldn’t have nearly as much esports coverage as it does — surprisingly enough for a gamer, I hate competition! — and we’d double down on games with strong narratives or addicting loops (or both). But esports are inextricably linked to the gaming business and it’s hard to deny that it’s one of the fastest growing segments of the industry.

All of which is to say that showcase events like today’s Summer Game Fest are increasingly chaotic mixes of all of these things, snapping from updates to long running “games as a service” titles, with persistent worlds and seasonal refreshes, to sophisticated single-player narrative game reveals, and back over to the Sonic the Hedgehog Symphony Orchestra. Yes, really.

While I, and many other people who would call themselves “gamers,” love most, if not all, of these things, whiplash like that can make it hard for single events to focus long enough to even identify what kind of audience they’re aiming to speak to. For one confusing example, Ryan Reynolds’ upcoming comedy Free Guy is a spoof on open-world games like Grand Theft Auto — a perfect pairing for announcements from the teams behind open world games like Genshin Impact or the upcoming Western release of Lost Ark.

And all of these speak to novel, game, and TV franchise The Witcher’s core fanbase of open-world gamers. But, to hear about the second season of The Witcher’s TV show, you’ll have to tune in to what Netflix is calling “Geeked Week,” during which it will presumably hype up various offerings aimed at fans of TV adaptations of video game adaptations of books and video game adaptations of TV adaptations of books.

This is, of course, a separate kind of fan than would tune in for the trailer for House of Ashes from the Dark Pictures Anthology, a narrative-driven horror franchise closer to a choose-you-own-adventure movie than any kind of simulator or RPG. That fan might like Netflix’s “Bandersnatch” episode of Black Mirror but, according to Apple, although it is an interactive story told through a screen, that isn’t technically a game. But according to Congress, Night Trap is. Do you see the problem?

We have to find a way to express that Among Us, a social game that replicates the same environment as playing charades at a dinner party, is simply another category of thing than Elden Ring, the latest grueling epic slasher from George R. R. Martin (of the novel and television franchise Game of Thrones) and FromSoftware (developer of the punishing Dark Souls). So why are they introduced by the same host in the same tone to make announcements on the same stage to the same audience? It’s not just confusing — it’s bad business.

While there’s audience crossover for many entertainment products people enjoy (the same gang that loves Lady Gaga probably really digs Bayonetta, a game about a confrontational witch with magical outfit transformations and exquisite sound design), its not as if these events are one-off crossovers looking to cross-pollinate their fans. They’re juxtaposed with each other, but also with 2 Point Campus, a simulation game about the University experience, and Weezer performing “Tell Me What You Want,” a meta-anthem about selling out from the soundtrack of Wave Break, a “skateBOATING” sports game. It’s just too fucking much.

This is the same issue that my husband, who plays games every single day but would never identify as a “gamer,” has when he’s looking for his next title: It’s a discovery issue. If Xbox Game Pass, which is an undeniable value in any dollars-for-entertainment calculation, is a random grab bag of whatever interactive content Microsoft currently has the rights to, showcases like Summer Game Fest are like drinking four Red Bulls and hitting shuffle on a Wal-Mart trip. A JRPG? Of course. A visual novel? Sure. A movie trailer? Okay! A discussion on the morality of Hitler vs. Fidel Castro by actor Giancarlo Esposito? I’m confused. Classical music? Wait, stop. Comedian and noted landlord Hannibal Burress fighting a demon with the WWE’s Ember Moon? Hold on, this has stopped making sense. Exactly two Overwatch 2 skins? Okay, how did we get back here?

If “games” have become a blanket term for any interactive experience, we’re going to need events like Summer Game Fest, E3, or even an indie showcase like Day of the Devs to focus up. It’s no longer fruitful to simply label the most lucrative, fastest growing, and arguably largest segment of entertainment as all one medium — or even one industry. Between the theme parks and the family-friendly, franchisable IP, Nintendo currently has more in common with Disney than it does fellow electronics mega-corporations Sony or Microsoft, which its content and consumer-base reflect accordingly.

This is video games.Nintendo, Universal Studios

For gaming conventions, publications, award shows, showcases, or subreddits, that are trying to be community spaces for like-minded fans, to succeed, they’re going to have to evolve. Right now evolving means fracturing things into more targetable audiences.

From a top down perspective, forms within the medium of “video games,” like open world games, RPGs, puzzle games, or social games, need to start breaking further off into their own communities where they can set their own tastes, schedules, codes of conduct, and expectations. Events like E3 or Summer Game Fest are desperately clinging to a past where to be a gamer was to be, very likely, of a certain socioeconomic, gender, race, and age distinction. In the age of Candy Crush, Roblox, and The Last of Us, this is no longer the case.

And yet, seemingly the entire nearly $180 billion dollar “industry” is trying to squeeze itself into one two-hour showcase — or, to be fairer, one of a handful of short showcases spread over the course of a week, each company desperately vying for the attention of the same pool of consumers. Consumers, for their part, are expected to either wade through thousands of announcements and blog posts and videos and streams pulled out of a handful of showcases that, in lieu of having any idea how to better target those projects to a potential consumer, default to speaking to everyone like a cishet, male, white American (or maybe Japanese), 20-something with disposable income. As much as we love you, boys, it’s just brass tacks that you’re not the majority anymore. Sorry.

(Note: Please don’t harass me on social media for pointing that out.)

So where do we go from here? I have no idea! I will still have to cover everything that gets labeled “video games” despite that quickly becoming, well, anything. Until companies and industry groups like The Game Awards (Summer Game Fest) or The Entertainment Software Association (E3) start encouraging both the creators and their audiences to break up into more cohesive groups, it’s likely that I’ll be back here in 2022 to tell you about how Lizzo is going to appear in a novelization of Rocket League where she’ll plug Pontiac. Apparently, that’s just “video games” now.