[From the Red Herring blog, 2005]
I was about ten when I saw my first video game. As a kid obsessed with science fiction, astronomy, and computers, Nolan Bushnell’s Pong seemed like the coolest object this side of a telescope clock drive. Growing up, I would spend more hours (and quarters) playing video games than I like to think about: the worlds of Defender and Xevious came be to as familiar to me as my backyard, but a lot more exciting.
Like most kids of my generation, I thought of video games as an alternative reality. Not only were the games other worlds: arcades were inevitably dark, slightly space-agey places populated entirely by teenagers.
Of course, games have come a long way since then. In technical terms, video games are more complex, realistic, open-ended, and intense than in my boyhood, but they’re fundamentally conservative technologies. Despite all the changes around the edges—the better graphics, the spectacular violence, the five hundred-button controllers that you have to learn to use in utero—they’re still worlds in boxes, ultrasophisticated versions of arcade games or personal computers of old. Playstation and Xbox are incremental improvements over Galaxian and Pac Man: granted, they’re very big increments, but my 10 year-old self would have no trouble grokking a Playstation.
But the game world is poised to undergo a revolution. In the coming decade, everything that I took for granted about video games will change. They won’t be alternate realities; they won’t be confined to edgy spaces with names like Station Break; and they won’t be arcade-like experiences. We’ll have games without frontiers.
To appreciate this revolution and what it’ll mean, we need to take video games serious. Too often, games don’t get no respect. They’re easy to dismiss as a social problem, to criticize as a waste of time, or insult as the lowest form of pop culture. But games matter. Video games have driven innovations in hardware, software, and interface design. For better or worse, they’re big business, and major sociological phenomena. (This isn’t just the case in the United States: the Korean multiplayer game Lineage has about 4 million subscribers—almost ten percent of the population.) Games metaphors are woven through our language, and structure the way we behave at work and approach relationships.
And playing video games isn’t always the isolating, alienating experience that some critics make it out to be: LAN parties bring together game players, and Lineage clans will take over Internet cafes for an afternoon, playing together in both virtual and physical space. People can be just as creative around games as they are within them.
Multiplayer games have already capitalized on this fact. There are hardly any successful PC games that don’t have multiplayer capability, and massive online games like Everquest are creating a new art form out of persistent, open-ended worlds. They show just how much farther we can take video games before we exhaust their potential.
The future of video games will be driven by two kinds of changes: a proliferation of interfaces between games and players’ bodies; and an integration of game-worlds and the real world.
It’s strange that video games and exercise equipment have never gotten together. There have been a few exercise bikes with cycling video games, or video game controllers that attach to exercise equipment. But only in the last few years have we seen games that involve players’ bodies, not just their thumbs. Dance Dance Revolution, in which players copy dance moves on a sensor-laded pad rather than a handheld controller, was the breakout game in this genre. Previous attempts to marry exercise and video games had been failures: exercise equipment companies couldn’t make compelling games, video game companies couldn’t figure out how to build interesting alternative input devices, and early products remained too expensive for the mass market. DDR showed that there was a serious market for games that involved more of our bodies, and that such games had an attraction that went beyond video games’ traditional young, testosterone-heavy core market. In fact, for some players, DDR isn’t a «video game,» but serious exercise—a substitute for health clubs, not a competitor to Halo.
Other companies are building on the concept of video game as an exercise machine. Yourself!Fitness, which was released this fall, is aimed squarely at women. Some of its elements are drawn from exercise videos: it has a peppy soundtrack, encouraging instructor (Maya), and a variety of exotic workout locations (a desert resort, a Matrix-like dojo). But it also creates an exercise program based on your physical shape and fitness goals, chooses exercises that use exercise equipment (hand weights, Pilates ball) you already have, introduces new routines over time, and adjusts its difficulty depending on your performance. It’s not a deeply interactive game in the way DDR is, but it uses customization to create an interesting variety, and to deepen the relationship that players have with Maya and the regimen.
Some electronic games are recasting the relationship between bodies and game-play. Others use things in the real world as resources for games that you play partly in the real world, partly in game space.
The great example is geocaching, a game that draws on GPS and the Web. Shortly after the U.S. government sharpened civilian GPS signals (they had previously been kept purposely fuzzy for security reasons), people began hiding «caches»—usually just a few simple objects in a box—in various places, posting approximate geographical coordinates and hints about a cache’s precise location on the Geocaching Web site (at www.geocaching.org). People who find a cache may take an object, leave an object, and note their find online.
The game is completely unregulated and unsubsidized, anarchic in the classic sense. It’s also growing like mad. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of players and tens of thousands of caches worldwide. The caches themselves now constitute their own field, and are supporting the growth of new games: geobugs, for example, requires players to move marked tokens between caches, with the aim of fulfilling some goal—having a bug visit all 50 U.S. states, for example, or every country in the EU.
Interestingly, in its early days, geocaching was described as a kind of nerd treasure hunt, an activity that would appeal to gadget freaks, or the kind of sportsmen who buy radar for their fishing boat or military surplus laser sights on their deer rifles. More recently, however, as the cost of GPS units has fallen and the number of geocaching sites has grown, the game has been redefined as outdoor family fun—a way to get kids away from the Playstation and into the world.
Other games combine the power of the Web with information that resides in things. In Where’s George (www.wheresgeorge.com), players tag dollar bills with a message to register a bill’s serial number online, and to record the date and place they found the bill. The result is a kind of travel history of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even more fanciful is Skannerz, a handheld game based on the premise that warring alien species inhabit bar codes, thanks to an out-of-control nanotechnology weapon (I know, not the world’s most linear plot line). Players build characters by scanning UPC codes, which are on virtually everything, and «collecting» weapons and talents (a quest that anyone exposed to role-playing games will immediately recognize).
Geocaching uses the Web and GPS to help players find (and find out about) objects in the real world. Other games treat the physical world as a kind of game-board, and make physical proximity an element of the gaming experience.
Not surprisingly, the most popular of these games are played on cell phones. Mogi is a treasure hunt game in Japan, in which players navigate their way through Tokyo to locations where they can pick up electronic prizes. There’s no physical good to collect—the prizes are virtual—but you can’t get them sitting at your computer. Scandanavia’s Battlebots, in contrast, operates not in specific physical places, but in social spaces: players cluster into cafes or parks to pit their bots against each other.
From a technical standpoint, these are relatively simple games: no one is hooked on Mogi or Battlebots by the bleeding-edge graphics, or the compelling storyline. What seems to be appealing about them is two other things. First, they fill idle time. Lots of Battlebots games happen on trains or buses, and Mogi prizes tend to be near public transportation stops. Second, they find serendipity in the random, often anonymous experience of traveling and living in modern urban cities. The person three seats down on the morning train may become your sworn digital enemy, but at least you’ve connected.
So what will games look like in the future? Some people will continue to prefer the world of first-person shooters, and will look to their Playstations or Xboxes as a retreat from the world. On the other hand, other players will take electronic games more deeply into the real world, and create new kinds of games.
One obvious move will be to map video games into physical places. Imagine, for example, college students creating Everquest spaces that are only accessible on-campus; overlaying Doom 3 on a building, turning a student center or parking structure into a monster-infested death zone; or creating game challenges that can only be played in subway stops when more than four players are present. Games like Everquest and the Sims have shown that players are capable of exercising remarkable ingenuity creating online spaces and resources; giving them the ability to apply these skills in the real world could exponentially multiply a game’s variety, difficulty and appeal. It would also broaden a franchise beyond the console, and bring in players who would never consider sitting down in front a screen.
Another move will be to create games that blend virtual and real economies. As economist Edward Castronova has discovered, players in massively multiplayer games may create thousands of dollars of wealth, and build elaborate underground economies in which they trade virtual goods—often using real money. There economies are currently black markets—game companies claim to own everything in their games—but eventually, a smart company will realize that this phenomenon is a feature, not a bug. But this doesn’t have to be confined to trades of money for virtual goods: you might redeem frequent flyer miles for Elven chain-mail, earn strength points for your avatar by reaching your real-world fitness goals, or be awarded secret powers after making the dean’s list.
The examples of geocaching and Where’s George show that we should also take a broader view of what a successful game can be. They needn’t be like board games of sports, with end-points and clear winners; geocaching isn’t a competitive sport. For example, imagine a courier game consisting of teams of players scattered around the country. The objective of the game would be to get a digital package—which can only be passed between players via Bluetooth-enabled PDAs and cell phones, say—from one end of the country. Each player would be required to make contact with the package (so I couldn’t just take it with me on a trip I’d already planned); but teams can recruit others to carry the package from city to city. In such a game, the fun wouldn’t be in the rapid-fire play, but in the challenge of enlisting and organizing teammates and friends.