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Why Aren’t There More TV Shows About Video Games?

Adam Mason is the producer of <i>Videogame Nation</i>, the only free-to-view UK TV show dedicated to games. But he wants to see more.

by Mike Diver
20 February 2015, 3:09pm

'Videogame Nation' presenters Dan Maher and Aoife Wilson, on set at London's Loading Bar

The video games industry will soon be worth more than $100bn worldwide, making it larger than Hollywood, the popular music market, and almost certainly Game of Thrones. Iron Man 3 grossed over a billion dollars globally in 2013, making it the year's biggest movie. But the same year's Grand Theft Auto V made that amount of cash in just three days. Slip that up your titanium-nickel slop-hole, Mr Stark. Put simply: video games are no niche concern, no hobby in the margins of mainstream society. They are everywhere, surrounding us, always.

British television has a funny way of representing this. In the 1990s, gaming shows were everywhere. The pioneering GamesMaster on Channel 4 begat ITV's Bad Influence!, and by the end of the decade some properly adult programming for gamers was introduced with 4Later's Bits and, a few years after that, BBC Two Scotland's VideoGaiden. Since then: next to nada. But is it not odd that today's broadcasters are reluctant to engage with an audience expanding faster than the waistline of anyone attempting Britain's Biggest Breakfast?

Yes, it is. While there have been a couple of one-offs from gaming culture champion Charlie Brooker, 2009's Gameswipe and 2013's How Videogames Changed the World, no major terrestrial channel has approached gaming with any real commitment. Right now, there is just one free-to-view TV series devoted to games in the UK: Challenge's Videogame Nation, made by international gaming production company Ginx TV and hosted by John Robertson, Dan Maher and (VICE contributor) Aoife Wilson. It's out there on its own, in the terrifying wilds of Freeview, sharing EPG space with repeats of Bullseye and Pointless. Surely gaming deserves better than this. The producer of Videogame Nation, Adam Mason, certainly thinks so.

Presenter Aoife Wilson and her big comics

VICE: Talk me through how, while Ginx makes plenty of programmes for telly in other territories, we've only got the single free-to-view show here in the UK?
Adam Mason: Ginx has been running since 2008, and has aired through Virgin in the UK since 2013. Internationally it goes out in over 30 territories, hitting something like 26 million homes. It's a big, 24/7 gaming TV channel, similar to the music channels, really. Videogame Nation is made by Ginx specifically for Challenge, and they approached us about it after we'd originally been making a show called The Blurb. Videogame Nation began in March 2014, and the way it is now, it's kind of been rebooted from what it first was.

It's interesting that Challenge came to you for the show, given what we know from people like Charlie Brooker, who's talked about the difficulties in getting commissioners to take gaming seriously.
Gaming is seen as this really young medium still, even though we know, realistically, its audience goes into people in their 50s and 60s. But we are starting to see more commissioners coming on board with games, and I know the BBC have started creating content on it, albeit leaning towards the CBBC audience. Channel 4 has picked up stuff in the past, so there are pockets of gaming on television, but it's weird that such a rapidly growing market, that this huge industry, isn't taken more seriously. I guess some commissioners assume their audience is older than what they perceive the gaming market to be. But then, the way people even watch TV has changed – TV as a linear format is still useful, but you look at online spaces like Twitch and YouTube, and they pull huge gaming audiences. But I think there's a market for proper television programming on games. There are people who watch TV, who are active gamers, who aren't interested in Twitch or watching coverage online.

Does the reluctance among television commissioners to really go for gaming again stem from the out-dated idea that TV and games are natural competitors for living room space? Like you say, we watch TV differently today to how we did even five years ago, with lots of catch-up options, and live streaming to portable devices.
Yeah, the idea that you don't want to watch games, that you just want to play games, was certainly the argument five years ago. Now I feel like there are interesting stories to be told around games, which you won't get from online playthroughs, as popular as they are. TV has history and heritage, and if you speak to YouTubers, it's really funny how highly they regard programming made for television. Even these young guys who have millions of YouTube subscribers, they get so excited about the idea of being on TV. And you can get more in depth with television, I think. Recently we interviewed the guys who made Lumino City, State of Play, a tiny studio in south London, and they had so many interesting things to say that we ended up with 40 minutes of interview footage, which we had to cut to six minutes. It was heart-breaking, really, but it made for such a vibrant feature, that sat on the show perfectly. So there's room to get more into the personal touches of these games on TV, I feel.

'Videogame Nation' promo for its recent 'Majora's Mask 3D' episode

A big part of GamesMaster's appeal was the competitive element, the contests before its studio audience. Is that a side of games broadcasting that has moved over to online, never to return?
I think there are so many TV genres that could work for games. Videogame Nation is what TV people call factual entertainment – it's a bit of a magazine show, with elements of documentary, and we have talking heads interviews. It's a little bit of everything, a weird hybrid of several different ideas we've been working on at Ginx. But in terms of competition, that's something that can be done for television. Now, more than ever, I'd say it would work on TV. Those elements of GamesMaster would work better now, because the show would be able to respond to an online audience and its interaction, giving it a real immediacy.

You think of competitive gaming today and you think of eSports. As massive as that market is, it's something that the mainstream isn't seeing on its TV. Does that need to change for the general public to really get a handle on just how big competitive, professional gaming has become?
I think it's begging for a "proper" broadcaster to come on board. We've just heard about the new eSports arena that's coming for Fulham, and a whole ensemble package that really did justice to eSports would make for, in my opinion, great TV. There are millions of people watching eSports online, so it's a matter of who does it for TV, and when, rather than if anyone does at all. The main hurdle it'll have to get over is when it's broadcast, if it goes out live, because a lot of the games – the shooters, like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike – can't really be shown until after 10pm. FIFA would transfer well, though, and perhaps the battle arena games like League of Legends, with the right formatting and presenters. You've got to have passionate presenters, which is why we're lucky on Videogame Nation with Aoife, Dan and John, as they're all mad about games, and that's so important when you want to reach an audience.

Presenter John Robertson and his big clock

Speaking about your audience, the show has to consider that some viewers might not have the first clue about gaming, beyond the actual pointing and shooting or kicking and scoring. It must be tough, balancing accessibility with the need to not patronise the more games-savvy viewers.
It is a difficult balancing act, and I hold my hands up as in the past we've definitely failed at it. It's taken time to hone this balance, and to find the right people to be on screen, who can present their knowledge in a way that's not alienating. Dan and Aoife are from the games industry, and John is a comedian, a natural entertainer, with a good knowledge base. He can find the humour in something, to make it appealing to a non-gamer. Dan and Aoife find ways to cover games, like Evolve recently, in a way that gets into what the games feel like, so it's less about the technical details. There are sites online where you can find that, but TV should be accessible, and I think our guys are great at finding those emotional angles, while explaining what the particular game is in entertaining terms. You can't patronise the gaming audience, as they will smell anyone who doesn't know what they're talking about straight away. In the past we've had people on screen that weren't so passionate, or as knowledgeable, but we've lucked out with our current presenters.

Videogame Nation is the show available to Freeview viewers in the UK right now. When GamesMaster was in that position, and became popular, it spawned rivals. Do you think new shows will crop up in the wake of what you're doing?
That's a tough one. Right now, there are multiple TV genres that would work for games that haven't even been touched. There are game shows, panel shows, comedy programmes – there are so many different formats that would suit a gaming angle. And Ginx only airs on Virgin, so it's not free, and not everyone can see it. We're experimenting with genres ourselves, but it's really a case of finding that wider audience. There are loads of opportunities, but I couldn't predict where gaming on television is going to come from next. I'd like to think that TV is still a relevant medium for games, or else I'm out of a job! As long as the content is good and people are watching it, there should always be a space for it. So yeah, it'll be interesting to see what some of TV's bigger players have planned for gaming. We've seen bits and bobs, but nobody's really gone for it. I can see E4, or ITV2, commissioning a gaming show. It's a big market that they're missing, considering their audiences, which run from teenagers through to people in their mid- to late-30s. That's the main gaming market, right there.

The current series of Videogame Nation airs on Challenge at 10am on Saturday mornings and at midnight on Sundays.

@MikeDiver

Previously:

This Was the Week in Video Games

These Video Games Are Categorically Fresh to Death

If a Game Is Great, Who Cares That It's Short?