Seattle is a gaming town. Not just because we have a lot of people who play video games. Not just because it's easier to find a box of Catan or Scrabble than order a drink in a Seattle bar. This is a gaming town because we make billions of dollars a year from the business itself.
We don't just play games in Seattle—we make the games the rest of the world plays.
In case you're not aware, the Pacific Northwest is home to some of the biggest names in the gaming industry. Logos of local companies are displayed on the loading screen for gaming devices around the world. Microsoft's Xbox Game Studios along with Bungie created the blockbuster Halo franchise here. Valve, which created the enormously popular Steam service and games like Half Life, is here. Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of hugely popular card games like Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and the Pokémon Trading Card Game is here. Nintendo's North American headquarters is here.
Even Amazon, our local digital-business behemoth, has announced that it is "all-in on games" after spending $970 million on Twitch, a live video-game streaming site that has become hugely popular with people who like to watch other people play video games.
Any way you look at it, these companies create a big economic impact in the local area. A 2016 study commissioned by the Washington Interactive Network (WIN), a nonprofit that advocates for the local gaming industry, found that there are more than 430 local gaming companies that employ 20,800 people and give work to an additional 2,400 freelancers. These companies generated $21.4 billion in revenue in 2015 and paid $7.6 billion in labor income.
This industry is no secret in Eastside communities like Bellevue or Redmond, where at least one McMansion per block must be getting its mortgage paid with video-game money. Most of these video-game workers are professionals in fields like computer science, software engineering, law, or executive management.
If we really want to understand how geek culture affects our local economy, we need to look at how these gaming salaries pay for everything from groceries to weed to cars. WIN added up the impact of these salaries and found that the gaming industry supports 94,200 jobs through "direct, indirect, and induced impacts."
That's a big influence all from one industry—so why is it here? Did our gloomy winters bring all of these gaming experts to the area? Nope. It turns out the very non-virtual world of aerospace engineering had more to do with launching our local gaming industry, according to Kristina Hudson, the executive director for WIN.
"It all goes back to Boeing," Hudson said. "Boeing had a wealth of engineers, and there was a time when they were doing flight simulation work. And that was when you started to get interactive software creation and media development."
After Boeing put engineers to work on creating flight simulation technology, other companies followed. Nintendo opened its North American headquarters in Redmond in 1982. Microsoft expanded from just personal computing to personal video gaming in the late 1990s.
The local industry kept growing until it attained enough momentum that it became known worldwide. Gaming companies now want to move to the Seattle area because they know that the gaming "talent"—the software engineers and computer scientists who know how to build games—is here.
"When you're looking at drawing companies to the region or when companies are expanding, it's all about the talent. Companies want to be here to take advantage of that talent," Hudson said.
Seattle's hotbed of engineering talent is helping our local industry spearhead the future of gaming: augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
Oculus, Facebook's VR arm, has an office in Redmond and has been pushing other local companies to create products for their VR platform the Oculus Rift. Jeff Pobst, the CEO of Hidden Path Entertainment, said that his company "had no plans" to get into VR when it started in 2006. But Oculus convinced Hidden Path to produce VR games, and the Bellevue company now has seven VR titles.
"The Seattle area in general is one of the top places for game development in the country, and because of our confluence of artists, designers, and technologists... that opens up the opportunity for working in VR and AR, where you have to be creative but you also have to be very strong technically," Pobst said.
Most people connect VR technology with gaming, but it's already starting to transition into a vast array of other industries. Pobst said VR technology is already being used by industries as disparate as government, medicine, and real estate. VR technology is still relatively new, with lots of room for technological improvement, which means one thing for Seattle: There's plenty of work in the future for the local gaming industry.
And Seattle is going to keep being part of the future of gaming—and tech itself—worldwide.