Not many of us will still be cool with kids at 57 years of age, but what started out as a disagreement in a British pub has grown into a publishing and TV empire that’s not only spanned the last half century but continues to evolve.
In 1951 Sir Hugh Beaver, general manager of a brewery, got into a lively pub debate following a day of shooting about which was the fastest game bird in the land. Beaver guessed – correctly, as it turned out – that similar arguments must be raging across the British Isles, so he commissioned Norris and Ross McWhirter to write a book of facts about similar arguments from all areas of life.
The McWhirter twins, professional fact finders based in London, threw themselves into the task with such gusto The Guinness Book of World Records went straight to the bestseller list and has remained there to this day. Of course, what started out as an encyclopedic collection of facts is today a spectator sport all its own as people pursue immortality among its pages doing anything from holding their breath or French kissing to eating baked beans.
But for the last five years The Guinness World Records (the correct name after the 2000 departure from the parent company that produces the namesake drink) has struck out in a new direction with the publication of a special supplement dedicated to electronic gaming. The 2012 edition contains 748 records about 930 games, from stand-up arcade machines to the mega-sellers of the last few years.
There could just as easily have been a special supplement on the Internet, movies, or household pets for that matter. Why gaming? As GWR Australian spokesperson Chris Sheedy explains, the organisation identified three different reasons.
“In focus groups with boys we understood what an important part of their lives gaming is, so we listened and responded. Also as the gaming industry grew there were more record-breaking achievements and facts for us to recognise and the gaming section in the main book was outgrowing it. There’s also something attractive about gaming because it can be seen as an alternative universe, giving us the same breadth and depth of content we see in the real world.”
When we’re told book publishing is at a constant state of near bankruptcy, it’s an interesting move for any company to publish a book dedicated to a completely digital pursuit – you’d think the target audience is exactly the kind who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book. But, now in its fifth year, it seems the gamer’s edition has been a worthwhile gamble, and Sheedy thinks the company had a good foundation to work from with the main product.
“Whenever you approach a specialised subject you need to be careful how you handle it,” he says. “But we felt being tech-savvy didn’t rule out reading paper books, which sales have confirmed. If you collate engaging and fascinating content it doesn’t really matter how it’s delivered. Plus the nature of video gaming as a hobby lends itself very well to the kind of superlatives Guinness World Records stands for.”
Speaking of which – and particularly as the target audiences for the gamer’s edition has such a treasure trove of factoids at the click of a mouse – how does Guinness World Records stay relevant in the Google and Wikipedia age? Why pay when it’s all over the web for free?
As you know if you’ve ever read one, GWR isn’t just an encyclopaedia of facts any more. As the colourful and kinetic page design (bordering on eye-straining in some editions) shows, it’s about pleasure as much as education, maybe more so. Plus as Sheedy points out – unwittingly pinpointing the web’s enduring and fatal flaw – there’s a lot of rubbish out there.
“We’re known for being incredibly well-researched and graphically illustrated with exclusive photography. Our specialists and researchers scour the globe for new records, update old ones, attend events and maintain networks within their specific industries. You just don’t get that in one place anywhere else.”
So in lasting more than half a century and publishing an offshoot targeted at a traditionally difficult market (and succeeding), GWR might be breaking one record of its own the publishing industry agrees is sorely needed, the battle to keep kids – especially boys – reading. As Sheedy puts it; “parents love it because it’s one of the few books their children will voluntarily pick up and read.”