Are 'Halo' Or 'Grand Theft Auto' Better Than Great Albums?, In Bigger Than The Sound

Our columnist thinks music's emotional pull trumps the best video games.

On The Record: X-Groban 360

Let me begin this by saying that I am by no means a "gamer." (In fact, I don't even know if people still use the term "gamer" to describe one who avidly plays video games.) I am only remotely sure what an MMORPG is, or what an FPS is, and I've never been to E3 or the CES or the GDC. I don't speak "L33T," I've never played "Halo" or "BioShock," and I am comically lost when it comes to this generation of "Madden" games. Basically, my area of video game expertise begins with "Tecmo Super Bowl" and ends with "GoldenEye," an incredibly limited range of about six years and 58 bits.

So, clearly, I am no expert. But for the past three years, I've been lucky enough to sit directly in front of MTV News' video games reporter Stephen Totilo, a man whose knowledge of all things gaming is superseded only by his ability to not choke me to death for blasting the Plastic Constellations' We Appreciate You 15 times a day. So naturally, through some bizarre form of osmosis, I'm beginning to feel as if I know a whole lot about the wide, wide world of video games.

Like, for example, did you know that sometime after I finally retired my N64 controller, video games became incredibly, inexplicably huge? Like, generation-shaping, culturally important stuff, on par with hip-hop and MySpace and things like that? Well, they did. Also, video games are a colossally huge business — last year, sales topped $17 billion in the U.S. alone — one that shows no signs of slowing down in the slightest, which is fairly remarkable when you consider the economic outlook of pretty much everything everywhere.

And neither of those facts is really news to anyone who plays video games. For years now, they've been shedding the whole "geek" mantle. They are athletes and musicians and the heads of Fortune 500 companies. It's just taken most people until now to realize this (myself included). And, now that I do, I'm starting to believe something that I never, ever wanted to believe: Perhaps I've made the wrong career choice.

Because it's becoming apparent to me that somewhere along the line, when I wasn't paying attention, video games might have become more culturally significant — and, dare I say, more important — than albums.

There are several reasons this might be true. There's the raw data. For the eighth consecutive year, album sales fell, while the video game industry posted a 43 percent increase in sales. The top-selling album of last year was Josh Groban's Noël, with sales of 3.6 million copies. The top-selling video game of last year was "Halo 3," which sold 4.82 million units (and let's not even get into the price disparity ... suffice it to say, a video game costs more than a compact disc).

Then there's the rise of franchises like "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band," which would be the most natural overlap between music and gaming. Both were among the year's best-selling games ("Guitar Hero III" alone sold more than 2.72 million copies, about the same number as Fall Out Boy's Infinity on High and My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade combined) and have become so ingrained in our culture that they were famously parodied on "South Park." They've been so successful, it seems, that even actual rock bands have started to take notice: Just last week, aging rockosaurs Aerosmith inked a deal to have their very own version of "Hero," which will hit stores in June.

Couple that with reports like this, which ask if the success of the game would rekindle interest in actual guitar playing, and you start to get the idea that perhaps bands would be better off simply releasing their latest album in a "Guitar Hero"-compatible format, just to help boost sales.

Then, there are the emotional arguments. Last week, news broke of the proposed takeover of game publisher Take-Two Interactive (the folks behind titles like "Grand Theft Auto" and "BioShock") by Electronic Arts, they of the ultra-successful, world-uniting "Madden" line. (Stephen covered the finer points of the situation.) Apparently, this sort of thing happens in the video game industry quite often — in December, French developer Vivendi announced that it was merging with Activision in a deal worth something in the neighborhood of $18 billion — and gamers are none too happy about it. Seems they don't want to see the industry become the playground of multinational corporate behemoths, because, well, they tend to ruin things.

And reading page upon page of stunned reactions, I was stuck trying to figure out just what the equivalent of this would be in the music industry. And, it turns out, there really isn't one. After all, the past two decades have seen merger upon merger, wherein now basically the majority of the industry is controlled by four multinationals — Sony BMG, EMI, the Universal Music Group and the Warner Music Group — and yet, music fans aren't gathering in mobs, lighting torches and storming the Capitol building. Rather, everyone seems content to bitch about the way things have shook out. But, hey, that's just how it is. And even when someone tries to buck the system — like, say, Radiohead — they're roundly criticized for something as seemingly inconsequential as compression rates.

Of course, it would be shortsighted of me to not mention just how much file-sharing has walloped the music industry. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no way to download a promo of "Halo 3," no way of getting a copy before it hits the streets (at least not yet, anyway), so game publishers have fans lining up around the block to buy copies of games at the stroke of midnight. This doesn't happen in the music industry anymore, thanks in no small part to downloading, which is, in no small part, the fault of the industry itself. Why pay $14 for a CD when you can get it for free?

So, are video games more important than albums? Well, both the factual and the emotional seem to be saying yes, but when have I ever listened to either of them? I'm going to say no, if only for one simple reason: I have never heard anyone say that a video game saved their life.

There is an emotional attachment with music. It becomes your friend. It helps you through tough times. It is, for all intents and purposes, the soundtrack to your life, the thing that's with you at every moment of every day. A good album stays with you for a week, a month, maybe even a year. A great album stays with you forever. I cannot think that any of these things are true of a video game, which, by its very nature, is basically created to be disposable. You play for a while, you vanquish some foes, you emerge victorious, and then you move on to the next one. There is no emotional attachment to speak of. Even the best games aren't going to stay with you for life — for example, I swear by "Tecmo Super Bowl." I also swear by Radiohead's OK Computer. But guess which one I reach for at least once a month?

And basically, just because of that, I don't think video games will ever carry the cultural and emotional impact of music. I might be completely wrong about that — and the numbers certainly seem to be pointing to this — but that's what being a music fan (or a music journalist) is really all about: saying to hell with the rational and dealing almost exclusively with the intangible. There is magic in that, and there is magic in music, and no matter how terribly the industry continues to falter, that will never really change.

And I will always believe that. I sort of have to, at this point. After all, I made a career out of this.

Special Bonus Coverage (Of Me)

If you didn't get enough of my inane ramblings in this week's BTTS (or if you want to see a borderline-incriminating photo of me), then perhaps you'd be interested in this quick interview I did with the folks who run the South by Southwest blog. I take potshots at George W. Bush and Flight of the Conchords in it, so have a look. After all, my burgeoning ego needs all the stroking it can get.

B-Sides: Other Stories I'm Following This Week

Avril Lavigne on her upcoming tour: "The theme is pink! The theme is like a party!" Sometimes these things just write themselves.

Lil Wayne is a rock star, as evidenced by his mastery of the Axl Rose "make 'em wait" policy. Up next: setting off full-scale riots in Montreal!

For those keeping score at home, Madonna will soon be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Black Sabbath are not.

Questions? Concerns? You suxxors? Send to me at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.