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Why everyone needs to pay closer attention to the games industry

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Xbox One
Microsoft

Monday morning, Microsoft announced it was purchasing Swedish game development studio Mojang AB, makers of the staggeringly popular multi-platform video game Minecraftfor $2.4 billion. It’s a massive deal, with huge implications. Talk of the deal had been swirling for a week, and the rumored acquisition was a genuine surprise to the games and tech industry; Bloomberg stated that the purchase would be the biggest deal Microsoft has made since CEO Satya Nadella replaced Steve Ballmer as the company’s top executive three years ago.

But the mainstream press struggled to fathom why one of the biggest names in tech would want Mojang, at least for such an enormous price. In keeping with a reporting trend that follows any major happening in the games industry, there was a layer of incredulity to the proceedings.

There shouldn’t have been.

Mojang is a tiny studio with one of the greatest video game success stories in the business. The unlikeliest of hits, Minecraft was created by a single person, the programmer Markus “Notch” Presson, and has blocky, low-fi visuals that a big studio would never greenlight. Presumably in largely part because of these attributes, the wider business world acted puzzled when rumors of Mojang’s acquisition surfaced. This reaction would have been appropriate five years ago, when Minecraft first appeared. Now it’s just silly.

Minecraft is one of the biggest games in the world. You can play it on any platform—Playstation and Xbox, smartphones and tablets, Macs and PCs. It’s not obscure—ask any child old enough to use some type of controller, and they very likely know of, or have played, the game—and its appeal is universal. Minecraft gives players worlds that are a blank canvas for them to make whatever they can imagine using an endless supply of digital building blocks.

There are a number of reasons why Microsoft would want to buy the company that makes Minecraft. Some of them have to do with games—Microsoft’s Xbox One has been lagging behind the Playstation 4 in sales since launch, and owning Minecraft means having a legion of young fans who don’t necessarily have a console allegiance. Other reasons have nothing to do with video games. In fact, that perspective may prove shortsighted. As Stephen Totilo, editor-in-chief of Kotakustates in a recent PBS Newshour piece, the Microsoft/Mojang story is about much more than games:

“You’re not really seeing headlines about big mergers of traditional video game companies. What you’re seeing is an Amazon or before them a Google trying to buy Twitch, which is a service where you watch people play video games. You see Facebook spending on buying Oculus, which is about virtual reality. Yes, it could be about video games. But it can also be about medicine, and teleconferencing, and education. Similarly, if you think about Minecraft, it too — it is not just a video game. As I was saying, it’s virtual building blocks. It’s something that people can use for education, productivity and creativity. So I think what we’re not seeing is no so much an interest just in purely acquiring a video game or a video game studio, but acquiring a technology that could be used for games, but could be used for a lot of other broader applications as well.”

What’s more, there’s all manner of precedent for this sort of thing. Video games are often ground zero for any number of wider trends or issues in tech and entertainment, and now that the people responsible for Minecraft suddenly seem to be worth two billion dollars, the mad dash to break down what might be going on here seems to implicitly acknowledge a shortcoming: we missed something. And it happens all the time.

Crowdfunded projects are now frustratingly ubiquitous, regularly making thousands of dollars for bizarre frivolities, but the first Kickstarter to make a million dollars in 24 hours wasn’t a movie or gadget or trolling stunt—it was a game by beloved developer Tim Schafer that displayed the staggering potential of fan crowdfunding, even if no one took note until Rob Thomas decided to make a Veronica Mars movie. Digital distribution and the decline of physical media? Video games began wrestling with that in earnest with the introduction of developer Valve’s Steam platform in 2003. Cumbersome Digital Rights Management encroaching on your ability to enjoy music and movies? The games world is chock full of case studies on why it does not work, as well as being an area that’s actively pushed for DRM-free media. In late August, when Amazon purchased Twitch, a service mostly used for streaming and interacting with live gameplay and commentary, The New York Times kind of scratched its head and said ‘kids these days.’ Twitch sold for a billion dollars, and the overwhelming response to the news was ‘oh wait, watching people play games is a thing?

To put it in clearer terms: it is not a coincidence that Minecraft is immensely popular on Twitch. There is a pattern here.

Despite the fact that they are a $21 billion industry with a diverse audience, video games continue to be sequestered away from mainstream news reports. It’s a puzzling phenomenon, and the ignorance of mainstream news outlets really starts to show when something game-related makes a billion dollars and everyone scrambles to understand why. Video games aren’t a curiosity, but we treat them as such whenever news comparable to the rumored Microsoft/Mojang deal finds its way to headlines, seemingly out of nowhere. Games are a huge part of how we spend our entertainment dollars and leisure time. We should probably treat them as such.