A gaming revolution: From niche industry to pop culture phenomenon

Gaming isn’t just a hobby – it’s a cultural force to be reckoned with. From redefining entertainment to shaping social interactions, gaming has left its mark on our cultural landscape, inspiring generations of gamers and non-gamers alike. — Photo by Alexey Savchenko on Unsplash

In the colourful world of pop culture, one entity has emerged victorious, wielding a controller in one hand and a headset in the other: video games.

What began as a humble pastime for a few button-mashing enthusiasts has morphed into a global phenomenon, leaving an indelible mark on our cultural landscape.

Once relegated to the shadowy corners of arcades, video games suddenly burst forth into the mainstream this millennium. The numbers don’t lie: the once niche hobby has transformed into a multi-billion-dollar industry, rivalling Hollywood blockbusters in terms of revenue and cultural influence.

From the iconic plumbers of Mushroom Kingdom to the battle-hardened soldiers of Call Of Duty, gaming has captured the hearts (and wallets!) of millions worldwide.

Today, it would be just as common to see someone clad in a Super Mario T-shirt as the Beatles; it wouldn’t be odd to see the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra enchanting audiences with the spellbinding music of open-world RPG (role-playing game) Genshin Impact, or surprising to find Pikachu brought to life by everyone’s favourite smart aleck Ryan Reynolds.

Likewise, it’s no wonder that in everyone’s current favourite Netflix sci-fi series, 3 Body Problem, based on Liu Cixin’s book, a VR game has been cleverly chosen as the platform for communication between the various players in the series.

This fusion of virtual worlds with real-life entertainment is proof of gaming’s profound influence on our cultural tapestry. From blockbuster adaptations to subtle Easter eggs in popular TV shows, the tendrils of gaming culture have woven themselves into every facet of entertainment, leaving an indelible mark that transcends the boundaries of consoles and screens.

Pass the popcorn

This wasn’t always the case, of course. Video game movies struggled to gain any sort of footing in the 1990s. And it wasn’t until 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider that the genre finally made waves at the box office, thanks in part to the casting of Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft.

The first Tomb Raider movie soared at the box office, partly due to the casting of Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. — Paramount PicturesThe first Tomb Raider movie soared at the box office, partly due to the casting of Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. — Paramount Pictures

Lara Croft brought the adventurous spirit of the gaming world to life on the silver screen. Captivating audiences with her daring escapades and archaeological exploits, the movie enraptured fans with its blend of action-packed sequences and gripping storytelling,” says gamer and movie buff Alex Thomas. “Jolie’s portrayal of the fearless heroine paved the way for future adaptations of video game franchises.”

Tomb Raider demonstrated the potential of video game narratives to captivate audiences in the cinematic arena. Since then, numerous other video game franchises have made the leap to film, each bringing with it a unique blend of nostalgia and excitement that continues to thrill fans around the globe.

Take, for example, the Resident Evil Series (2002–2016), based on the popular survival horror video game series of the same name, starring the amazing Milla Jovovich as Alice, who navigates through a world ravaged by a deadly virus outbreak that turns humans into zombies.

Directed by Paul WS Anderson, the franchise consists of six main films, along with various spin-offs and animated adaptations, which have gained a dedicated fanbase and solidified its place as one of the most successful video game adaptations in cinema history.

“Not every effort had mass appeal. There were a couple of B-rated action flicks like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, which were sort of cult movies that only appealed to fans of the games,” Alex reckons.

“But that was not the case with Sonic and Mario, which catered to both a young audience that may have never heard of these games but also hit notes of nostalgia with gamers who grew up playing these games.”

Sonic The Hedgehog (2020) is a live-action/CGI hybrid film that follows Sonic as he teams up with a small-town sheriff named Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) to defeat the villainous Dr Robotnik, played by Jim Carrey.

The movie grossed US$319.7mil (RM1.52bil) worldwide, becoming the sixth highest-grossing film of 2020 and the highest-grossing video game film adaptation in North America until it was surpassed by its sequel, Sonic The Hedgehog 2, two years later. Still going strong, a third film is scheduled for release this December.

Then came last year’s super successful animated adventure comedy The Super Mario Brothers Movie, based on Nintendo’s Mario video game franchise, featuring an all-star ensemble voice cast including Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black and Seth Rogen.

'The Super Mario Bros. Movie' is the second-highest grossing film of 2023 behind 'Barbie'. — Photo: Handout'The Super Mario Bros. Movie' is the second-highest grossing film of 2023 behind 'Barbie'. — Photo: Handout

The film grossed US$1.36bil (RM6.46bil) worldwide and broke multiple box-office records, including the biggest worldwide opening weekend for an animated film, the highest grossing film based on a video game, and the first film based on a video game to gross over US$1bil (RM4.75bil). A sequel is set to be released in 2026.

Mario is one of the most beloved icons in popular culture, appearing in TV shows, movies, cartoons, clothing and memes. Former Prime Minister of Japan, the late Shinzo Abe, even dressed up as Mario in Rio de Janeiro for the closing ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics! More recently, Universal Studios Japan and Universal Studios Hollywood have added themed areas called Super Nintendo World, where you can experience the first interactive Mario Kart theme park ride.

Michael Cheang, a StarLifestyle movie reviewer, believes that Super Mario was a bit of an anomaly because it was cute enough to appeal to kids and nostalgic enough to appeal to adults.

“The brand was already super strong, so even those who don’t play the game knew who Mario was. Sonic and Mario were decent kid shows, and Pokemon Detective Pikachu was fun.

Detective Pikachu was brought to life by everyone’s favourite smart aleck Ryan Reynolds. — TM & © 2024 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.Detective Pikachu was brought to life by everyone’s favourite smart aleck Ryan Reynolds. — TM & © 2024 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

“But if you’re talking about movies about video gaming culture, then I think Ready Player One, Wreck-It Ralph and Free Guy are probably great examples of gaming characters, tropes and brands being so iconic, popular and recognisable that they already are part of pop culture.”

Directed by Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One takes audiences into a virtual reality world filled with gaming nods, and Wreck-It Ralph explores arcade game characters’ adventures, blending classic and modern gaming favourites in a heartfelt tribute to gaming culture.

You’re the inspiration

Back in the early 1980s, as arcade games like Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man were all the rage, Hollywood took notice and began incorporating gaming concepts into their movies, like Disney’s TRON in 1982. This adventure follows a game designer who finds himself drawn into the digital world of his own arcade creation.

Following in its footsteps, other films continued to explore the exciting possibilities of cinema gaming. WarGames, The Last Starfighter, Cloak And Dagger, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Jumanji were among the titles that embraced gaming themes, captivating audiences with tales of virtual realities, epic space battles and high-stakes adventures.

These movies tapped into the growing fascination with video games, setting the stage for the continued influence of gaming on pop culture in the decades to come.

Television has also discovered equal, if not greater, success for video game adaptations. Netflix series based on games such as League Of Legends, Castlevania and Cuphead have all connected with fans all over the globe.

The Last Of Us, starring Pascal and Ramsey, reached beyond its gaming fanbase thanks to some superb acting, emotional storytelling and top-notch special effects. — HBOThe Last Of Us, starring Pascal and Ramsey, reached beyond its gaming fanbase thanks to some superb acting, emotional storytelling and top-notch special effects. — HBO

More recently, HBO’s The Last Of Us, starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, was a nine-part series that reached way beyond its gaming fanbase thanks to some superb acting, emotional storytelling and top-notch special effects. There were also tonnes of Easter eggs to whet gamers’ appetites.

In one interview on npr.org, The Last Of Us show executive producer Neil Druckmann says: “The game was incredibly successful. But now it’s on another level where I can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere. It’s on commercials on TV, it’s people talking about it on the street.”

Dress to impress

Move over, Gucci and Chanel – there’s a new fashionista in town, and its name is gaming. From pixelated power-ups to iconic character designs, gaming has inspired a new wave of fashion and merchandising, with gamers proudly donning their favourite franchises on everything from T-shirts to sneakers.

With collaborations between gaming giants and fashion brands becoming increasingly common, it’s clear that gaming’s influence extends far beyond the virtual realm and into wardrobes everywhere.

Fashion collabs with games have become ubiquitous: think Uniqlo’s Fighting Game Legends tees featuring Street Fighter and Tekken or the Sony-Nike collab shoe design to celebrate the PlayStation brand back in 2018.

There have also been many examples of apparel brands forging partnerships with gaming companies to create customised skins and virtual clothing collections!

One notable collaboration occurred in 2019 when Moschino joined forces with Electronic Arts’ simulation game The Sims to produce clothing and furniture items exclusively for game characters. This collection was not limited to the virtual world, as some items could also be purchased in real life at Moschino boutiques!

A screen showing the characters from the Animal Crossing series video game is seen at a Nintendo store in Tokyo on June 10, 2020. — AFPA screen showing the characters from the Animal Crossing series video game is seen at a Nintendo store in Tokyo on June 10, 2020. — AFP

Similarly, the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons by Nintendo sparked a fashion frenzy within the gaming community. With over 32 million units sold, the game attracted attention from renowned designers such as Marc Jacobs, Sandy Liang and Valentino, who created exclusive digital clothing collections for in-game characters.

These collaborations blurred the lines between virtual and real-world fashion, offering players the opportunity to express themselves through digital fashion choices that mirrored real-life trends.

Closer to home, Malaysian-made luxury streetwear brand Stoned and Co teamed up with Taiwanese computer hardware maker Asus for the ROG Zephyrus laptop line, which featured a collection including T-shirts, hoodies, a bomber jacket, and headgear.

Esports has also witnessed a surge in fashion collaborations, with many teams joining forces with renowned brands to provide customised apparel for their players – even locally.

Puma teamed up with South-East Asia-based esports organisation EVOS Esports and launched an exclusive co-branded EVOS Esports Puma tracksuit and an activation package that combined virtual and physical items. And local clothing manufacturer Susano teamed up with GamesMY to create jerseys for gaming and the outdoors.

Haute couture was not about to be left out either. In 2019, Louis Vuitton collaborated with Riot Games to create a unique Trophy Travel Case for the World Championship to house the prestigious Summoner’s Cup. This bespoke trunk, a first for an esports championship, combined traditional Louis Vuitton craftsmanship with high-tech elements inspired by the League Of Legends universe.

Similarly, Gucci partnered with British esports organisation Fnatic to produce a limited edition watch featuring the team’s initials. Priced at £1,150 (RM6,899) each, the production was limited to 100 watches and sold out within 48 hours of its launch.

Sing it, sister

While not as prevalent as in movies, TV and fashion, gaming has left its mark in the world of music, too, with the occasional reference in lyrics (especially rap!). For example, in the song Cookie Jar by Doja Cat (2018), you’ll hear: She recorded that, Pokemon Go, you Snorlax, Swear they been sleepin’ on me... a reference to one of the original 151 Pokemon. Eminem’s Rap God also features several game references in the music video, like Pong and Portal.

And Mexican electronic music producer Gustavo Rangel, aka Nitro Fun, uses samples from Super Mario Bros and Pac-Man on his track New Game.

You’ll also be surprised to find out just how many orchestras have created a niche for themselves by playing game music. Sonic Symphony, for example, is an immersive live experience combining an orchestra and rock band that celebrates more than three decades of music from Sega’s iconic mascot, Sonic The Hedgehog.

From the classic 8-bit and 16-bit tunes to rock and EDM songs, this concert promises to take you on a musical journey through the colourful world of Sonic and pays tribute to the music that has defined generations of gamers, old and new.

Another exciting example is the A New World concert series, which brings together the most beloved tracks from over three decades of Final Fantasy games, presenting them in a captivating orchestral performance.

Arranged by acclaimed conductors Eric and Arnie Roth (who even came to Malaysia to conduct the MPO in 2019 for one of these shows) of AWR Music Productions, these intimate concerts offer audiences a unique and moving musical experience, showcasing the timeless beauty of Final Fantasy’s iconic soundtracks.

Connect and communicate

Gaming has also had a strong impact on how we communicate. Gone are the days of solitary gaming marathons in darkened bedrooms. Today, gaming is a much more social affair, bringing friends and foes together in virtual battlegrounds and digital realms.

Whether it’s teaming up with strangers in a team deathmatch or arguing with your best friend in a heated game of Fifa, gaming has redefined social interaction in the digital age.

With the rise of online communities and streaming platforms, gamers have forged friendships and rivalries that transcend borders, languages and time zones.

You might have noticed that gaming platforms and consoles integrate social networking features, allowing players to connect their gaming accounts with their social media profiles.

This integration enables gamers to share their gaming experiences, achievements and in-game content with their friends and followers, further blurring the lines between gaming and social interaction.

The rise of game-streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube Gaming has also transformed gaming into a form of entertainment that is shared and consumed by millions of viewers worldwide.

Gamers who stream their gameplay or create gaming-related content become influencers and celebrities within the gaming community, fostering social interactions and connections with their audiences. Local YouTube gaming and esports personality @SirCloudMY has carved a niche for himself with over 4,300 subscribers.

“Platforms like YouTube can remove geographical barriers to knowledge sharing, as gaming, esports and digital content creation are all interrelated. New translation features are also being introduced on some of these platforms as well,” he says. “For myself, I run a personal show called Podcast Tak Berlesen in which I get not only Malaysians but people involved in esports across the world to share their thoughts so that we can have a wider view of what is going on within the industry from other regions.”

We cannot ignore the impact of video games on language, as they shape our communication both within and outside gaming communities.

Multiplayer online games have led to the emergence of a distinct digital language characterised by abbreviations, memes and game-specific terminology. This shared lexicon has become a universal tool for gamers worldwide, breaking down cultural barriers and enabling seamless interaction and camaraderie across borders.

Words like “mod”, “respawn”, “pwnd” and “grinding”, for example, have become commonplace in everyday conversation, transcending the gaming sphere. And terms like “achievement unlocked”, “beta testing”, “boss battle” and “noob” have crossed over from gaming into our real lives and are often used to describe situations that have nothing to do with games.

Gaming’s influence permeates every aspect of modern culture, from movies and fashion to music and language. It’s more than just entertainment, it’s a global phenomenon that shapes how we connect, communicate and create.

As we continue to embrace its impact, let’s celebrate gaming’s power to unite us across borders and bring joy to millions worldwide.

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