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Videogames - a global phenomenon

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Alex Duin Alex Duin | 10:00 UK time, Friday, 3 February 2012

In 2009 a piece of entertainment was released that sold 4.7 million units across the UK and USA in a single day. Those one-day sales generated $310 million. This made it – in revenue terms - the single biggest entertainment launch in history.

It wasn't Avatar. It wasn't a Harry Potter novel, or a lost Beatles album. It was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the incredibly popular first-person war simulation videogame. And the next year, the game's successor, Call of Duty: Black Ops shattered that record by selling 5.6 million copies.

The videogame industry has become a behemoth that is difficult to ignore. What was the sole preserve of geeks and hobbyists in the 1970s is now run by huge multinational corporations, almost as large as the Hollywood studios. As cinemas struggle to secure bums on seats, and TV channels scrabble over a shrinking pool of viewers, most years more videogames are sold than the last.

And games aren't just soulless profit engines. Videogames are regularly delivering experiences more spectacular than anything seen in blockbuster films, and with the added benefit of letting the player interact with them. Just this year, Uncharted 3 showcased a breathless adventure through a burning French château, on Colombian rooftops, and culminated in a heart-stopping plane crash into an endless Arabian desert.

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, gives the player astonishing freedom to explore a huge and often beautiful wintry fantasy world based on a Scandinavian template of snowy mountains and fjords. And these two examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Videogames are expanding beyond these mind-blowing epic adventures as well. The fastest growing segment of the industry is that of casual games – simple games of the sort played on social networking sites or on smartphones.

Zynga, the company responsible for the most popular Facebook games, is now reckoned to be worth between 15 and 20 billion US dollars. Games also make up 15% of all the downloads on Apple's App Store for the iPhone - which has total download numbers well into the billions – making them the biggest single app category. And all these games are being sold to a much broader market than videogames' usual young male demographic.

These and other digital distribution technologies have also allowed a new wave of smaller, but often more artistic and cerebral 'indie' games to bloom. One of my personal favourites is Braid, a vibrantly coloured game from creator Jonathan Blow which is simultaneously a mindbending set of puzzles, a metaphor for the melancholy of a lost relationship and an incredibly subtle allegory for the creation of the first atomic bomb.

Less intellectual, but making up for it with amazing popularity, indie game Minecraft's randomly generated, blocky worlds have been so successful that it's made Markus Persson - the Swedish coder who originally single-handedly created the game - a millionaire many times over. I can rather embarrassingly admit that I've sunk far too many hours of my life exploring and mining those bleak, cubic landscapes.

And all this success isn't just money flowing out of the country. The UK is the third-biggest producer of video games in the world (by games sold), and by some distance the biggest in Europe, employing around 9,000 people. Blockbusting titles such as Batman: Arkham City and the hugely successful Grand Theft Auto series are made by British developers.

Ed Vaizey, the government's Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, wrote on the Huffington Post website that 'Anyone who thinks video games are a niche industry is totally out of date. This is an industry that has grown to rival any entertainment business. And it's an area where the UK has some of the most talented and successful developers in the world.'

The unstoppable juggernaut of videogames isn't expected to stop any time soon. At the end of last year, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was released, and again blew away its predecessors' records. This year, the next in the Grand Theft Auto series is expected and will likely sell by the shipload, and a whole new generation of more powerful game consoles are on the horizon.

With so much going on, perhaps you might join in yourself? You'll certainly have company!

Alex Duin has spent his whole life wading through technology and the media, and in the process has worked and written all over the place, including for Channel 4, and Digital Unite. He currently lives in London

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