“The game industry is going through this amazing diversification,” says Will Wright. “It’s something like what happened five, six hundred million years ago in the Cambrian explosion.”
Wright, the much-celebrated creator of the groundbreaking urban-design game Sim City and the highly ambitious universe-creation game Spore is not exaggerating. He says the prehistoric planetary bloom in the variety and complexity of species is matched today by an explosion in the virtual world. New notions about gaming, he says, will transform the future—not just of games, but of our relationship with technology, entertainment and the imaginary.
We are in Milpitas at a symposium called “Inventing the Future of Games,” and Wright is delivering a dizzying stream of ideas. There’s a lengthy and completely off-topic diversion into the story of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun somewhere in the middle of it. It’s hard to precisely locate Wright’s topic, let alone his point, but nobody here seems bothered by that.
To illustrate the direction in which games are headed, he offers a surprisingly mundane image: an enormous magazine rack. Just as there are periodicals devoted to every arcane niche interest of every community and demographic, there will, Wright says, be games for everything and everybody. And everybody will play them.
The symposium was organized by UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Games and Playable Media, one of the few university programs where students engage in PhD-level research into gaming. Among the video game designers and theorists here are some of the biggest thinkers in the virtual world.
Now is a good time to be thinking about the future of games. Despite critical resistance, games are now regarded as an art form—game designers are now officially eligible for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. The $15 billion industry now reaches 65 percent of American homes, and those numbers continue to grow. Frankly, that fact makes the hardcore distinctly uncomfortable.
During a panel on “Games and the Future of Culture,” Ian Bogost, a noted critic and designer, addresses the broadening of the games landscape referred to by Wright. Bogost describes a world in which the medium has become as ubiquitous and mundane as photography, and is being used for as many purposes. “Like it or not, what we really do when we work to advance video games is to make them more ordinary and more familiar.”
Robin Hunicke is a producer at thatgamecompany (TGC), a studio whose games include the much acclaimed Flower. This game would blow the mind of anyone whose concept of gaming is limited to World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto. In Flower, the player steers a breeze through a meadow, picking petals and spreading life. Like other TGC games, Flower aspires to reach a wider market, and even to be high art.
Hunicke says her studio’s philosophy involves making elegant, expressive games that are accessible in their simplicity, and provide a venue for emotional experiences. Hunicke says she believes this is the path to broadening the audience for games—and Flower has already shown that her studio’s beautiful little games are somehow able to attract a large audience.
Revenge of the Nerds
At the Milpitas symposium, many of the speakers seem to take for granted that the growth of the medium will be mean outgrowing the community that traditionally supports it. But the audience here seems to be uncomfortable with that idea.
This is a crowd of gamers. At the end of the culture panel, during the Q&A, an audience member brings up the notion that in the future everyone will be a gamer. Bogost responds that, on the contrary, the total victory of games would mean that in future there are no “gamers.” It will make no sense to talk as if a tendency to play games is noteworthy.
But here in the present, the barriers that limit and protect the community are still in place, and they still matter. As a member of the press, I am looked at with slight suspicion. When I tell one young aspiring game designer that I am here representing Metro, she asks me, skeptically, if I am a gamer. The implied other half of this question is “or are you a phony?”
The truth is that I am a gamer. But I am most definitely a part of the broadening that will make that word almost meaningless.
Noah Waldrip-Fruin, and co-director of the school’s Expressive Intelligence Studio, defines “culture” as “what we can say to each other, and who can say it.” His studio is currently working on tools to enable that, and he demonstrated the Kudo AI Lab, a highly accessible program designed to help children create games based around relationships, social dynamics and stories.
Now that games are a major cultural product, Waldrip-Fruin says he sees something like a moral imperative to make the tools of game design more accessible, to expand the range of not just who plays games but also who can say things with games, and what they can say with games.
This would be a broadening more radical than any other imagined or proposed today. If Waldrip-Fruin has his way games will not just be for everyone, but by everyone as well. The games of the future will not be made by gamers.