We've all heard it claimed that the video games industry is bigger than the movie industry--and we've all heard it proved that the claim is an artful crock, built on a comparison of apples (total gaming-related revenues) and oranges (domestic U.S. box office figures). Yes, numbers are a tempting but treacherous means of establishing the cultural significance of video games. So even as World of Warcraft approaches $1 billion in annual revenues--potentially "one of the most lucrative entertainment media properties of any kind," according to a front-page article in today's New York Times--one hesitates to claim this figure means the MMO moment has arrived. What then to rely on as an indicator of genuine cultural resonance? Well, front-page coverage in the New York Times is a start. But I would like to submit another, and perhaps ultimately more reliable, marker. Let's call it the Shanghai Taxi Weirdness Index.
I'm posting from China, where two days ago I got into a taxi and saw, on the little TV set you get to watch in Chinese taxis sometimes, the most hallucinatory Coca-Cola commercial I have ever witnessed: We open with a vision of the hip Taiwanese girl band SHE lounging about in their slick apartment somewhere. Zoom in on a laptop sitting on the kitchen table, out of which, suddenly, emerge a big green World of Warcraft orc and his troll and Tauren sidekicks, who proceed to rampage through the apartment, raiding the fridge for Coke, then grabbing the bandmembers themselves and dragging them kicking and squealing back into the computer and the barren lands of the Horde. Cut to intertitle: Who will save the girls? Will it be... international hottie soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo? (Cut to CGI shot of Ronaldo kicking a gnarly looking spiked ball straight at a big green orc goalie.) Cute little punkette singing star and "Chinese Idol" winner Li Yuchun? (Seen riding to the rescue in stylish Alliance armor.) Or will it be, perhaps, the girls of SHE themselves? You decide! Go to this website and yadda yadda...
The commercial played twice during my ride and left me incapable of any comment except, perhaps, for this:
Sweet and caffeinated number-one brand in the world? Check.
Record-industry celebrities? Check.
Television idol? Check.
Sports world hero? Check.
Geeky role-playing game characters? Check.
Movie star of the moment? Uh-oh...