The Games Industry: Changing Times Ė Reaching New Audiences
Speech by Adam Singer and Daniel Singer at a British Screen Advisory Council Games Event on 3 February 2005 at SJ Berwin, London
When the Vikings conquered Normandy they ended up speaking French. When the Mongols conquered China they ended up dressed in silk and speaking Mandarin, and thatís the problem with being the Barbarian at the gate, win or lose you get assimilated.
Thatís why the Borg were the best metaphor on the next generation of Star Trek; they were the embodiment of assimilation, they connected us to our darkest fear that we are all just spilt milk meeting the paper towel of life, that we are doomed - to mix space soaps - to be osmosed by the dark side of the mainstream.
This curse of the establishment is haunting the games business, not least because they know that Ďresistance is futileí. They know that when the Daily Mail eventually screams itís Ďa scandal that the Government are failing to provide every classroom with ĎGore Fest 3í, where you learn French with a chain saw, it will be game over, and the death of gaming cool.
You donít think we will get there?
Well, technology is just a falling cost line and everything happens when you hit the right price. At the right price games become establishment and mainstream.
Who assimilates who? The Indian Subcontinent absorbed cricket while we absorbed chicken tikka masala: both became cultural norms in alien cultures. Thatís the point: games are already like chicken tikka masala, they are on the shelves of Tesco, and part of everyday life.
Games-playing devices are the norm now: almost 90% of the population have mobile phones Ė thatís over 50 million handsets out here and every one of them has a game on it. If in the last couple of years you have bought a mobile phone, a laptop, a PDA, or a Sky box, you are a game owner if not a player.
So every member of the Establishment already has a game in their pocket. Itís an interesting thought that if Tony Blair has a Blackberry then Brick Breaker comes bundled with it, but he clearly doesnít have a Blackberry or else he would actually understand that ID cards are proto network devices. If he has a mobile phone, then he has at least two games on that, maybe Skydiver or Snake.
As traditional analogue - with its strict delineation of telephone, telex, fax, radio, television - fades, a universal language of digital content begins to take shape.
Most of us have a tendency to blank out on convergence and think itís about fused and fanciful hardware, where you get e-mail on your toaster via a marmite-based inkjet printer. The hardware convergence debate is over, just look at your mobile phone that combines speech, text, e-mail, video camera, games, alarm clock and diary! Convergence is not about hardware, itís about the merging of the underlying digital information.
That we are on this path can be seen in the nascent merging of some digital concepts, as mainstream begins to borrow elements from games, incorporating their techniques, and adding interactivity to passive entertainment. For example, Televisionís Big Brother and the game The Sims are not so far apart. BBC2ís Time Commander doesnít quite work but it shows the potential of TV based on games engines. The rise of the red button steps television towards games - be it on commercials or Ann Robinsonís Test the Nation.
Games are everywhere. The Interactive TV Company Two Way TV serves up 1.5 million games per month to cable viewers, an average of 1.2 games per connected household. 20% of Skyís almost 8 million subscribers play an interactive game once per month and even the iPod mini plays Patience.
Games may be ubiquitous but they are primitive. In evolutionary terms we are in the games equivalent of the Cambrian era. That point 500 million years ago where life went from the simple bacterial forms, the equivalents of Pac-Man and space invaders, to the complex, Doom 3 and Grand Theft Auto, which could be described as the first invertebrates of games.
It took life about 3.2 billion years to get to the Cambrian era and itís taken games 40 years to get here. With platforms like Atari and Sega, we have seen our first extinctions, and we shall now see the rise of super complex gaming life. Eventually the interesting question will be: is the only difference between games and reality the level of pixels? Discuss.
You know that the mainstream is blurring when you see direct competition between games and TV. Nielson Media Research report that TV viewer-ship dropped by about 12% last year amongst 18-34 year old men, whilst that same group spent 20% more time on games.
Advertising is another indicator, and DFC Intelligence predict that advertising in games is going to grow from $200m to $1bn by 2008, and CBS reports in the last four years Chrysler has gone from 0 to 10% of its advertising budget on product placement in games. Well placed jeeps in a video game can mean as much to a companyís bottom line as James Bond driving an Aston Martin in a movie.
Consoles are becoming mass-market multimedia devices. The PlayStation played CDs, the PS2 DVDs. The PlayStation Portable will soon be able to handle e-mail and web browsing, the Nokia N-Gage is somewhere between phone and GameBoy. The next generation of consoles will build on the PlayStaion X experiment, combining PVRs and DVD players, forming set-top box media computers.
In this world Windows XP is dead. Long live Windows Media Centre.
In the converged world itís all digital Esperanto, there is no such thing as music, or video, or films, or games; there is only the one and the zero that entertains you on a given device at a given moment.
As more people become exposed, new uses for the medium start to turn up; ubiquity spawns invention. Television has a vast array of genres; it can be comedic entertainer, purveyor of news and current affairs, and educator. Now that games are common is it possible for the games industry to be equally diverse? Are there new genres of game waiting in the wings?
Thereís a fine line between game and simulation. Game technology, the polygons that form San Andreas, or The Sims, can be turned to anything. Consider education. IDC predicts that roughly 40% of the US corporate e-learning market will be using simulations by 2008, placing that marketís value at £6bn by 20071, and the value of a good training simulation is significant enough that the U.S. Army saw fit to invest $7million in developing Americaís Army. Americaís Army is a training simulator available for free download, which offers American military philosophy alongside first person game play and positive recruitment messages.
The advantage for the Army is obvious; itís much cheaper to put potential recruits in 3D tanks than it is to give them real ones. However, the army is only one group using simulation for education. Just as TV can produce good history documentaries, video games can produce good history immersion. The Education Arcade are constructing a multiplayer online role-playing version of the American Revolution, using the Never Winter Nights Engine. Meanwhile, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Foundation has endorsed Brothers in Arms, a re-creation of the D-Day landings, mixing video game combat with an environment based on aerial reconnaissance, photos and eye-witness accounts.
Such painstaking recreation creates the interesting contradiction of a first-hand simulation of history. Whilst the academic learning might not be as high as that provided by traditional teaching, the experience can help anchor understanding. Just as documentary movies make their way alongside Hollywood blockbusters, so too there is a place for educational simulations alongside entertainment gaming.
Here we come to an important point: the education system is essentially an industrial system with an industrial age curriculum. Most education is just-in-case-you-need-it knowledge. If, as a 21st Century human, you are constantly connected to the network, what knowledge do you need? Our current education system is like preparation for going on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and what would be the point of that programme if every contestant had access to Google?
The education system is an industrial process that tolerates a level of wastage, and essentially those that get flung out are those who find it hard to assimilate information through classic forms of literate learning. Just look at the level of illiteracy in the prison population, or young men who hate school Ďcause itís boringí. Games are a good way of engaging this group. Games can be inclusive phenomena.
New recruits to the catering trade have to pass a basic exam to get a certificate to work. The knowledge needed is essentially hygiene and what germs die at what temperatures. Many fail not because they canít learn it, but because they feel that exams set them up for failure. This is a case where a game would be much better; kill the final boss germ, and you get the job.
This will become common as the barriers to games creation fall. Of course right now the software tools are too complex for most home-users to make video games. However, itís only a matter of time before any Media Studies course will look woefully inadequate if it doesnít include a games creation class. Apple market their computers through the glamour of the home video editing suite; how much longer before game editing suites are equally appealing?
This is already happening. Immersive Education has made Media Stage, a 3D video editing suite for schools, using computer generated characters, and you only have to look at the strength of the modding community with games like Half-Life Counter Strike or places like The Sims Resource, which is full of fan-made and traded objects, to see what happens when fans get tools.
This leads to another thought: once, reading and writing were literacy; in this world they are components of literacy: in other words just part of the skill you need to interact with the modern world around you.
So if the cost of game making is falling why is the cost of making games sky rocketing? Itís all part of the entertainment business; itís all a question of risk and return. Hollywood lives on the hit or miss blockbuster model. Similarly, Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto are Hollywood Blockbusters costing fortunes and gambling on a hit. In contrast, web-based Flash games, aggregated by sites like Littlefluffy.com, or fan-traded mods, are the small TV shows Ė cheaper, less spectacular, but with their own scale and charm.
So with games, like movies and television, some will be blockbusters, and some will be happier as humbler things, and with humbler things come other genres.
The effects of falling costs will be applied to anything that can benefit from powerful 3-D simulation. Surgery simulations allow doctors the chance to practice without risk. Simulations are games, and there are already two medical titles for the Nintendo DS handheld, which has a stylus - which is like a scalpel - and hence two surgery games. Other genres may not transition so well: traffic management simulators are unlikely to have mass appeal, but then who knows what Ken Livingstone might have learnt if they had built congestion charging into Sim City!
Another example of falling costs sees the creation of Virtual Reality Medical centres that can treat phobics through the comfort of their own VR head sets. At a San Diego clinic the San Diego airport is being recreated, allowing those afraid of flying to be treated in the safety of VR. Exposure therapy is far more comfortable this way, although itís not clear if they charge differently for business-class phobics!
Falling prices also mean that games become political tools that influence the gamer. Here lie the Advergames, equal part propaganda and video gaming. Hezbollah Special Forces is a game that places you as part of an operation against Israeli forces in the Lebanon.
The first 100,000 copies sold out immediately across the Middle East. The creators see it as an educational tool as well as entertainment, redressing the balance of Western-made Arab hunting shooters.
Not all political games are military. Persuasive Games has made Activism, sponsored by the Democratic National Campaign Committee in the US, where you try and get 10,000 activists on the ground before the US election. Activism allows players to share their activism plans and demographic information with each other, meaning that they can experiment with their own theories and also see other peopleís plans in action.
In South Korea, video games have become a sport, as they have 8mb broadband speeds that encourage high-resolution network games between players across the country. The final is between two contestants, played out in real time on a screen in a football stadium, and is televised across the country.
Electronic video games become crucial to any economy as they essentially enable open source problem solving. Games can be applied to environmental planning, terrorist scenarios, health service expenditure Ė anything, so long as the processing power is cheap enough and the creators of the simulations can agree on the appropriate rules.
A recent book called the Wisdom of Crowds makes the point that crowds are repositories of aggregated knowledge, which is why Ďask the audienceí is always the best bet in Millionaire. The reason why network games become crucial is that they allow you to harvest the inherent wisdom of a crowd.
So, two last thoughts:
Games are a serious form of communication, they can simulate, engage, educate, and include. Games will become increasingly important, and what is the point of a Public Service Publisher or a Public Service Broadcaster that does not address the concept of public service games? In a world where all public content is digital content why would one exclude the ones and zeros that make up games?
The DfES is contemplating games in education and is wondering about some form of seed fund to encourage this. The understandable fear is that the Daily Mail will scream ĎConsoles that can play Manhunt (a game that allegedly incites murder) are being used in schools to dumb down educationí.
Doubtless, the day after such a headline, Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail, will fly away on his hols entrusting his life to pilots who have been taught by simulators and so can land him safely, because of games.
1 The Financial Times, ďHow playing power drives lessons homeĒ, page 12, 8th September 2004. See also Serious Games website: http://www.seriousgames.org/
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