Technology / 

18 Apr 2008

Games in 50 Years

After reading about game designer Steve Gaynor’s bet about the art of interactive games in half a century, I wrote my thoughts in a MetaFilter comment. In it, I made my own prediction:

In 50 years, I fully expect interactives to be defying comparison to any other art or entertainment form, except maybe hallucinogenic drugs. Of course, there will still be “games” in the way we think of them today, because people like light entertainment and they’re fun. But I also think there will also be computer-mediated ‘experientials’ that involve you going into a room and sitting down, and coming out three or four days later wondering how bad the flashbacks are going to be.

I really don’t think it’s that much of a stretch.

Nobody would question today that a filmmaker at the height of his craft can provoke an intense emotional response from his audience; in fact, the ability to do so might be the greatest indication that a filmmaker is worth his salt. But really, a film is just a series of rapidly flashing still pictures accompanied by a pre-recorded soundtrack. It’s not interactive; if anything it’s impersonal: close your eyes or walk out of the room and come back, and it will have moved on without you. It’s just a recording. That we can be so emotionally affected by movies – brought to heart-pounding excitement or to tears – is a testament to our ability to concentrate on and immerse ourselves in artificial worlds through limited sensory input.

Interactive media have the possibility of being so much more than they currently are, which is just barely approaching the narrative depth of film. Most modern games – and yes, I know, there are exceptions; but most major-market ones in the US – trade on only a few emotions: largely fear, excitement, surprise, and anger. It’s an understatement to say that there’s a huge amount of headroom for improvement.

Future games could combine this creative, narrative latitude – the stuff of the very best film cinema – with the immersiveness and interactivity of games, and I think the results could be really astounding.

What’s missing, today, is the audience. It’s hard to make a big-budget game that doesn’t fall into a couple of well-defined categories (first-person shooter, maybe god-mode RTS, or open-world third-person explorer) and cater towards a market dominated by a young, male demographic. This is largely because older consumers didn’t grow up with video games, or grew up with games that were so primitive – arcade-style “twitch” games – that they don’t take them seriously as anything but momentary entertainment, and thus aren’t willing to spend the money to purchase a platform capable of delivering high-quality interactive entertainment. That’s something that will almost inevitably change in the coming decades, as people who have grown up with narrative games get older and push the boundaries. As long as Moore’s Law holds, the capabilities that a designer can bring to bear to tell a particular story for a certain amount of budget will probably only improve over time, as well.

Time to set a reminder to come back in 50 years and see how we all did.

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