It’s twenty-five years since the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the best-selling album of all-time. There’s a big article about it on the BBC News website. Sixty-five million copies sold, according to Guinness, which must make it arguably the best-selling single piece of popular culture ever. It’s certainly several times more than the best-selling DVD (reports vary but generally agree nothing’s sold more than 20m).
Of course, that’s not quite fair, because when we say ‘copies of Thriller‘ we’re not talking about copies in one format: we mean vinyl, cassette, CD, minidisc, MP3 and all the various esoteric music formats that have fallen by the wayside since 1982. So to compare it to a movie, really we’d have to add the DVD and VHS sales together, and since nobody seems to bother compiling either it’s a bit of a moot comparison.
So comparing it to video games is going to be even more moot. Video games are tied to a handful of platforms, and when those platforms become obsolete then the games disappear, at least in retail terms. According to Wikipedia the best-selling video game is Super Mario Brothers, which had a retail lifespan from 1985 to 1995, or in other words as long as the NES was available (though it was also released for the Gameboy Color and GBA, and is now downloadable on the Wii). And it notched up just over 40 million copies in those ten years, which is pretty impressive, though of course a large percentage of them were bundled with the NES itself. Still, it’s not even close to 65 million. What would it take for a game to reach those kind of…
Stop. Tetris, in its various iterations, incarnations and reboots, has sold 60 million copies.
Or at least it had according to this press release, which you’ll notice is dated five years ago, or in other words before it had been ported to mobile phones. And like Thriller it’s still selling.
Which means our best-selling title is almost exactly equivalent to the music industry’s best-selling title, despite being three years younger and rather more expensive per copy.
So why isn’t it as feted as Thriller is?
Several reasons. Music is ambient, pervasive and persistent. To experience it, you simply need to be near an audio device that’s playing it. You don’t have to be concentrating on it; in fact you can be concentrating on something else. None of these things are true of video games. Which means that even though the sale levels of the two titles are close to each other, many more people have experienced Thriller than have experienced Tetris. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever held a copy of Thriller in my hands (what a very last-millennium concept, eh readers?) but I believe I would recognise every track on it within ten seconds of the song starting up. Would a non-gamer be able to name the pieces of Tetris (or alternatively be able to say what LOSTJIZ represents)? They might recognise a screenshot of the game, they might even be able to remember its name. But what percentage of them wouldn’t recognise a photograph of Michael Jackson?
Put it this way: video games are by their nature not a pervasive part of human culture. Anything that demands actual interaction requires focus and concentration, and while you can record a game of Tetris you can’t record what’s important about it: the experience of play, of interaction, and you can’t reproduce it without having a copy of the game and whatever you need to play it on. What I’m saying, fundamentally, that—the Tetris effect notwithstanding—you can’t hum a video game.
So while Tetris and Thriller may have sold about the same number of copies, Michael Jackson has touched many more people than Alexey Pajitnov.