New media’s playful future

I’ve recently answered a few questions for the “rapid fire” section on Praz Hari’s blog: he’s put together a nice presentation plus a complete transcript, both of which can be viewed here. I’ve strung together some of the edited highlights below.

What’s next for games, social media and our relationships with technology? For the next billion global citizens to come online, the internet is largely going to be a mobile service, consumed on the move by people without huge amounts of free time or spare cash. This means a huge opportunity for smart, casual, simple games, and in many ways for gaming to go back to its historical roots as a fundamental form of social interaction. But I don’t think the virtual goods and time-intensive resource management games we see dominating social gaming at the moment will necessarily scale for the next billion arrivals.

As significant as the mobile internet is the way that tablets are starting to transform what “personal computing” means. A tablet has an amazing combination of power, playfulness and intimacy which I think we’ve barely begun to appreciate. One of the most impressive displays of a tablet’s potential I saw recently was during a weekend away in the country with some friends. We lit a fire, poured out some drinks, and four people sat around an old-fashioned table with an iPad laid out in the middle playing Monopoly on it while another iPad was discreetly leant against the skirting board playing music. The devices were almost invisible. I think the power of having this sharp, powerful, tactile screen increasingly with you not just in every household, but in every room and public space is a revolution in terms of ease and intimacy; as is the fact that everything else now has to compete with this not just for attention, but for pleasure of use.

I don’t think the home games console is dead, but I do think it needs to work much harder to justify its status as the box that you choose to invest cash in and have plugged into the big screen in your lounge. This means functioning as a media server for the household – playing physical media, streaming HD television – as well having a far more impressive array of internet-based services than any console currently offers. We’re approaching the first generation of consoles for which the standard distribution methods will be digital, not physical media. Technologically, I’m in awe of Kinect, 3DS, and everything the Wii has achieved, but I just can’t see these interface innovations ever becoming the real core of the experience – even if they are essential for shifting units. It’s people’s software and media choices that matter most.

Outside of conventional gaming, education and training are the areas of application for gaming techniques that excite me most. Taking gaming seriously doesn’t mean pretending that it needs to become formal and worthy in order to have merit. What’s really interesting, and what the best educators are already recognizing, is the way in which good games can engage the interest and the imaginations of a huge spectrum of people. They suggest techniques for breaking down social and emotional barriers, and for helping people to engage with the kind of concepts that a working, playfully experimental model simply depicts better than any other form of media.

Games also deserve a critically-engaged, intelligent culture of debate of the same kind that films, books, music and other aspects of our culture have. Not all games are good – indeed, many aren’t even half-decent – and they won’t get better unless the kind of mainstream conversation that takes place around them gets better. Let’s have a few more games discussed intelligently by people who actually know about them on Newsnight Review, please.

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