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What the future of gaming might look like

From left to right: Brandon Sichling, visiting professor, Jack Lawhorn, S/AMD'19, and Kayla Lavelle, SSH'19, hangout in the Curry Student Center Gameroom. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

On Wednesday nights, a few dozen Northeastern students convene in 346 Curry Student Center to hang out and play video games like “Mario Kart” and “Super Smash Bros. Melee.” They’re members of Northeastern Entertainment System, the university’s video game club, and they’re part of a growing trend that’s seen video games become a ubiquitous part of pop culture.

In fact, video games now generate more revenue than music and movies, eclipsing $23.5 billion in 2015.

There’s even a day dedicated to the art form. It’s called National Video Games Day, and it’s observed on Sept. 12 of each year.

Jack Lawhorn, the president of NES, attributed the growth of the gaming industry to the rise of mobile gaming. Instead of being forced to sit in front of their TVs, playing Xbox or PlayStation, gamers now have the option of using their tablets and smartphones. Think “Candy Crush” or “Clash of the Clans,” whose developer, Supercell, is worth more than Evernote, Eventbrite, and Buzzfeed combined. “Gaming is becoming more accessible year after year,” said Lawhorn, a third-year student studying computer science and interactive media. “It’s much more portable now.”

The numbers bear this out: According to the market research firm Newzoo, global mobile game revenue will grow from $38 billion in 2016 to $65 billion in 2020. If you’re doing the math, that’s an unprecedented 66 percent increase in just four years.

Brandon Sichling, the gaming club’s faculty adviser, is a particularly big fan of “Fire Emblem Awakening,” a tactical role-playing game for the Nintendo 3DS handheld console. In fact, Sichling recently submitted a paper to Select Start Press on gender performativity in the popular mobile game, which has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide due in part to the episodic nature of its downloadable content.

Lawhorn plays video games in the Curry Student Center Gameroom. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

He used the language of literature to suggest that certain game developers would do well to follow in the footsteps of “Fire Emblem Awakening,” shifting their focus from the sprawling epic to the episodic. “Game developers need to be thinking less about novels and more about poems,” said Sichling, a visiting professor in the College of Arts, Media and Design who counts “Final Fantasy VII” and “Batman: Arkham Knight” among his favorite console games of the past 20 years. “I would hate to see the 200-hour game go away, but I’d love to see more bite-size games.”

According to Lawhorn, trivia-based smartphone games are especially popular among NES members. It’s not uncommon for up to 12 Wednesday night gamers to play simultaneously, he said, using their iPhones and Androids to select their answers in raucous jubilation.

The makeup of the club is diverse, with almost a perfect 50-50 split between men and women. But that’s par for the course: According to SuperData Research, a data provider on the gaming industry, 46 percent of gamers in the U.S. are female. “It’s nice to have a wide variety of people, both in terms of gender and majors,” said Lawhorn, referring to the group’s diversity. “It makes the club a better place to make friends, which is a huge part of what makes it so great.”

Sichling’s first unit in his “Games in Society” course focuses on feminism in the gaming industry. It’s a pretty popular topic, especially in the wake of the so-called “Gamergate” controversy, which The Washington Post once described as an “Internet culture war” pitting women in the gaming industry against a “motley alliance of vitriolic naysayers.” “Gamergate speaks to people trying to project their perceived normality as objectivity,” Sichling explained, “and that is super toxic.” Lawhorn agreed, saying that gaming is built on the premise of diversity and inclusion. “Bigotry, racism, and sexism really take away from the point of gaming,” he explained.

As for how Sichling and Lawhorn will spend National Video Games Day? On his commute to campus, Sichling plans on playing “Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon,” an action-adventure game for the Nintendo 3DS. Lawhorn will likely play “ARMS,” a fighting game for the Nintendo Switch. “I’m focused on web design,” said Lawhorn, who completed his first co-op as a user design intern for John Hancock Investments. “But gaming will always be one of my favorite hobbies.”

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