Scanning the Enlarged Horizon: the Future of Games
At the recent DICE 2010 summit, video game executives from all over the world gathered in Las Vegas to discuss the business of games. Since then, the internet has been buzzing about game designer & academic Jesse Schell’s talk about “Design Outside the Box”, in which he spoke about how he sees the future of games. If you haven’t already watched the talk, then I recommend that you do so.
However, to summarise, Schell looks at all the unexpected trends in gaming over the last couple of years; particularly, the explosion in popularity of Facebook games, attributing this to the fact that they involve your real-life friends. Indeed, he asserts that consumers are being increasingly drawn towards reality, and authenticity in their every day lives. He therefore predicts a future in which games pervade, and indeed, mediate, our real lives.
The Game of Life
The general concept of blending real life and game mechanics has already been advocated by a few game designers (such as Jane McGonigal), and, is also represented by the Come Out & Play Festival, and, to an extent, apps such as FourSquare & Gowalla; however, the particular example Schell presents is a future in which sensors monitor all of our mundane actions (for example, brushing our teeth), and reward us with points for doing so correctly.
Although some are excited by Schell’s future in which everything is essentially, a game, there has also been some criticism of this idea; particularly that this leads to a dangerous dependence on external rewards, rather than doing things, such as reading books, for their own intrinstic value. Game designer David Sirlin, for one, wrote of this, and describes Schell’s example of the future as being ‘dystopian’. Whilst one can easily see why this is, the premise of blending real-life and game mechanics is potentially very exciting (and, it should be noted, Sirlin points out the positive benefit of Wii Fit, for example).
However, one may wonder (and, indeed, worry) if this is indeed where we may be headed; are games to transform into something that pervades our lives through technology, and become increasingly invisible, yet evermore watchful. Is this, then, the future of games, with games as we know them disappearing? (In more ways than one.)
The spectrum of what games can be and what games mean to people has already become so much wider than it used to be. Indeed, perhaps it’s useful to think about your own current playing habits; what is the first game that comes to mind? If you’re reading this, perhaps it is a ‘core’ game of some kind, perhaps it’s a first person shooter such as Left for Dead, perhaps it’s an MMO such as World of Warcraft. Of course, it could instead be an iPhone game, or a DS game; it could even be a so-called Facebook ‘social game’ such as FarmVille. Games already mean so many different things to different people, and this will only continue to be so. Twenty-five years ago, your options would, of course, have been much more limited; at the inception of Dragon Warrior (NES, 1986), the concept of a graphically-rich, massively multiplayer online role-playing game would have seemed the stuff of dreams. And now that dream is realised, it does not mean that single player RPGs have disappeared (observe my own fervent attempts at finding time to complete Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, for example), but instead, the spectrum for what is possible has widened.
Heralding the Holodeck?
In addition to the kind of games Schell speaks of, we may also think about the increasing degree to which innovations in controller technology are ‘mapping’ our physical actions, and indeed, your physical selves to the game; the gestural interface of the Wii already does this to a degree, as will Natal. Will this continue, in small increments, to a point of technological immersion? Indeed, Janet Murray, in her seminal book Hamlet on the Holodeck, writes of the Star Trek ‘Holodeck’ concept, something that is somewhat of a ‘Holy Grail’ for many gamers and developers alike. There are of course many criticisms of this idea; after all, the fun of games does not necessarily come from better graphics (despite how games are marketed), or from being swamped technical innovations to such a degree that you’re “transported” to a simulated world. After all, if you think about it, playing Galcon on an iPhone, for example, can be just as engaging and enjoyable as playing a full-blown first person shooter in a multi-million pound virtual reality CAVE system.
Of course, many classical gamers would assert that there is a beauty to low-tech, abstract games; if we look to the forthcoming IGF, Ian Bogost’s entry ‘A Slow Year’, developed for the Atari VCS, and Daniel Bergmui’s ‘Today I Die‘, a flash game, are both just a couple of examples of games which are expressive and artistic thanks to their abstraction. More people are becoming interested in making games as meaningful artistic expressions of the human experience, and abstraction is needed for this purpose. However, innovations in technology (leading us down the route of ‘simulation’), will not replace abstract games but, may instead widen the scope of the kinds of experiences we may have with games.
Designing the wide, open future
Therefore, if we are to envision what games will mean in the future, I see a what is a flat, open, and very wide playing field; games may indeed remain as we know them now, yes, but increasingly, more and more people are acknowledging the possibility of games to be meaningful artistic expressions of some part of the human experience. This will no doubt continue. Therefore, games can be, and will continue to be, abstract. They can also, enhanced by technology, be closer to simulation. They can be Facebook ‘social’ games. They can, as asserted by Schell, be pervasive and integrated with real-world actions. Just as there is a difference in the kind of enjoyment and experience of playing board games & pen-and-paper RPGs, so each of these different formats have their own particular kind of experience too.
It will be, as it has always been, up to the individual game design (and the designer) to ensure that the experience is meaningful in some way. The problem with Schell’s example of ‘simple points for mundane real world activity’ is not in the concept of integrating game mechanics into real life — it is that it’s simply a bad, oversimplified game design; as Sirlin urges, we should be wary of “letting others manipulate you with hollow external rewards”. There are plenty of great examples of blending game mechanics with real world activity already existing, and Jane McGonigal’s upcoming EVOKE game promises to be another.
Games can be so many different co-existing things on this ever-widening spectrum, in which one format will not necessarily supersede the other. There is room for all, and that is very exciting indeed. We’re currently at the estuary; what awaits us is an exciting sea of possibilities.
“A dream is the bearer of a new possibility, the enlarged horizon, the great hope. ” – Howard Thurman