Reality: Coming Soon to a Games Platform Near You
Keynote Speech by Adam Singer, Group Chief Executive The MCPS-PRS Alliance and Founder of Cordelia at Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival, Edinburgh on Thursday 11 August 2005
Good morning. The following are the merely observations, as I am not a participant in the games industry, and these comments were a joint collaboration with my son Daniel.
I’m watching news footage of politicians concluding a conference by coming to the microphone, and saying with that one-sincerity-fits-all voice that only senior politicians can muster, “We should accept that it is a time of change, and the world is changing and so we must adapt our policies to this changing world.” The footage is of Stanley Baldwin, in black and white, from the early 30’s.
Earlier this year, I’m sitting in a conference hall listening to a group of CEO’s who head up about a hundred billion of market value saying: "Change is inevitable, we must respond to change, and face the challenge of change, by embracing the need for change, while sticking to our unchangeable core values.”
So no change there then. It’s amazing: these people run huge, successful companies, but are so idea-poor they go to www.globalbollocks.com and use Stanley Baldwin’s change speech of 70 years ago.
But this makes one realise that running large, successful corporations is not about vision or adapting to change, it’s about stretching the status quo ‘til it breaks: the winners being the ones who achieve the longest stretch. In other words, most companies exist in the gap between two changes in the market, the one that allowed them to enter the market in the first place and then the one they couldn’t adapt to because it was a stretch too far and killed them off.
The rise of corporate conservatism is a natural, inevitable law that affects all companies and all sectors, and will affect gaming companies as they get older. As a company, if you invested in the circumstances of one era, it’s very hard to let go of that historic investment and invest in the circumstances of the new era.
Examples are the lack of steam-engine companies that made it into cars; the demise of the British watch-making industry in the face of cheap lever movements; the inability of valve-based companies, like Zenith and RCA, to make it in the transistor world; the slow demise of IBM, as it never quite adapted to the end of the main frame; and of course the waning of Kodak in a digital age. As your level of investment in the past goes up, the harder it is to change.
This of course explains why those of us who are fifty+ find it hard to adopt new technology - we just have too much of our brain invested in the old stuff - and it’s the same for companies. I say all this because I think the games industry is about to change, and the new winners may not be the established games studios, as they may well be caught in the conservatism of historic success, and so the new winners are most likely to be new entrants.
The games industry is facing an opportunity to be more than entertainment, and more than education. It has the opportunity to be a medium. Games are currently not a medium.
The last episode of Blackadder made you laugh for 28 minutes and then in the last two minutes they literally go over the top, and the camera pulls back to a field of poppies, and it made you cry. Where is the game that does that? ‘Cause when games can do this, then games becomes a mainstream medium.
A medium makes you laugh, cry, aroused, gives knowledge, induces epiphany, and creates excitement. When you can do all of these you are a medium. Film can do this, television can do this, radio can do this, print can do this, and even comics, graphic novels and Manga can do this, but can games?
I see no reason why games shouldn’t be a major medium that can convey all moods and emotions, and why games shouldn't be the equal of movies, not just in terms of image quality, or box office takings but in terms of art and emotional catharsis.
You can also tell that games are not a major medium because there is no such thing as a major medium that is not involved in pornography. The lack of platform porno games shows that games are two upgrades short of the full medium. Nice try, Grand Theft Auto, but no cigar!
Whether one likes it or not, good vital signs in the porn area show that your chosen medium is healthy. Pornography does exist in video games, especially for the PC, but the nature of platform licensing means they are rare and seldom on the major systems. PSP’s UMD format means that it’s hard to control and Sony are deploring the fact that you can now download porn for the new PSP; a Sony spokesman describing this as "utterly undesirable”.
Thus illustrating three great lies of life: the cheque is in the mail; broadband providers want to stop download piracy; and games platforms want nothing to do with sex.
So the definition of a medium is to be able to communicate three things: stories, truths, and eroticism, or as I would call it, the three F’s… Fiction, Faction, and?!… You can work out the last one. If you can’t do all three you are not a medium.
Of course there are games that are striving to engage emotion on all levels, to be more than shoot ‘em excitement, and many of you are trying hard to get games into new areas, but it has not been widely detected by the outside world. You know you are a medium when Channel Four can spend an evening doing the top one hundred of you, and I don’t think games are quite there yet.
This illustrates a point the Economist was making this week. They were saying how games have the ability to be significant, and make a contribution to society, not just through entertainment but also education. They too were reflecting how games were the new Rock and Roll, not as a crass lifestyle expression but quite literally, in that games seem to induce the same cross-generational incomprehension as Bill Hailey did when he Rocked Around the Clock. Games only seem to register with the ‘outside’ when they induce a collective censorious tutting among the affluent, regulatory, post-45 governing generation.
Rock and Roll, or what became ‘pop’ music, needed two things to become a ubiquitous phenomenon. It needed its audience to get older, and have kids, and most of all it needed to move from a language of pure excitement into the ability to express a whole range of feeling. It took time to develop this language; it took time to get from Roll Over Beethoven, and Tutti Frutti, to Yesterday, and Mr Tambourine Man.
Film too took its time to develop its language. In 1896, at the showing of the first films, the New York Times said, “The picture showed breaking waves upon a seashore, wave after wave came tumbling on the sand and as they struck, broke into tiny floods just like the real thing. Some of the people in the front row seemed to be afraid they were going to get wet and looked about to see where they could run to in case the wave got too close.”
This was the same amazed ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ we all felt when we saw the first paddle based video games.
Film started its commercial life in end of the pier slot machines, and let me quote Ken Barlow’s work on Hollywood, a paragraph that ought to strike a chord of resonance with some of you: Edison restricted “the new invention (moving pictures) to slot machines placed in arcades… Edison who was devoted to the idea of machines in boxes, was anxious not to kill the goose that lays golden eggs by rushing into projection. Too many people would be able to see the film at once and this would undoubtedly reduce profits.”
In other words, the growth of games and their containment in an arcade, a console, or a cartridge is analogous to the early growth of films, and broadband is for games what projection was for movies. Which early films are the equivalents of space invaders, Pac Man, Super Mario, you can decide. But a crucial early film was a 12-minute feature made in 1903 called the Great Train Robbery; this showed that dramatic stories were possible.
Films got longer, initially theatrical in style, rather than cinematic, and major actors refused to be in films, as they believed that appearing in them was akin to ‘street walking’. So film took time to finds its voice, and games are going through similar struggles to find a voice.
Likewise British television did important pioneering in the 50’s, but television was then basically radio with pictures, TV didn’t really hit its stride as medium ‘til the 60’s.
There are clearly games that are seminal and important, a step along the way to mediumhood, but I think the industry is yet to find its Birth of a Nation, or the W D Griffiths of the X box.
The birth of the movie industry quickly created powerful corporations like Vitagraph, Famous Players, and a host of others, but by the 1920’s most were gone or eclipsed by the birth of the major studios, i.e. Fox, Paramount and MGM. Are EA, Ubisoft, and SCI, like the early studios in Hollywood, powerful but doomed to be eclipsed by greater powers, or like MGM and Universal fated to last 80 years and still going? I don’t know but I suspect that the studios that won and survived in early Hollywood were the ones that really made film a powerful universal medium, and I think this will be true for games.
How does one create a games sector that is a total medium of information and expression? For those games studios successfully stretching the status quo, there will be little interest in pursuing the broader medium, but for those who want games to have a broader impact on society and see games develop an independent sector, and alternative revenue streams, then developing a broader range of expression will be important.
The reason for this is simple. Video platform games, as we currently know them, are a mature sector: for those wanting to do something new in games you may need to move into a new, uncluttered savannah, and create new forms of game.
So how do games break out of just entertainment? How do we get games to be taken seriously?
The first problem is the word ‘games’: I was discussing this with a friend, who is a full time player of two famous games, Puritan Ethic and Daily Mail Reader, and he sees the phrase ‘educational video games’ as some form of evil oxymoron that has to be defeated on level three. As he said to me, “When I hear the phrase ‘video games’ I automatically assume it has no importance and no relevance to real life.”
This is typical but strange: ‘video games’ make the Luden Ignoratti froth at the mouth, yet they have no problem with the word ‘simulation’. They see children taught by games in the classroom as bad, yet pilots taught by a simulator as good. What’s the difference between a simulation and a game?
English is a language spiced with French and Latin. Both the word ‘game’ and ‘player’ are Anglo Saxon words, and back then were associated with chess, war, and licentiousness. So nothing new there then, and the problem with the word ‘game’ is that in a language rich in synonyms there are remarkably few for ‘game’ and ‘play’.
The words ‘game’ and ‘player’, with their connotations of frippery, fun, and frivolity, have a tendency to make brains default to the nearest prejudice before we can catch them. The games industry has so enjoyed playing teenage rebel, as a lifestyle choice and a marketing ploy, that it has helped foster and sustain these prejudices and has lost sight of the fact that to grow it must communicate the serious potential of games.
We have to end the lunacy of the debate where one talks about video games in the class room and the Daily Mail hears Splatter Fest Three, which is odd because if you said you were running an educational video you wouldn’t automatically think the teacher was showing Pulp Fiction to five year olds.
Like other medium, be it literature or art, games have to have their fun and serious sides.
The Serious Games Conference is in its second year, and this year there is a Games for Health conference, and we are seeing games like:
The Fantastic Food Challenge, a US package of four computer games, designed to teach people who get federal food stamps how to make better use of their food.
My Dream and Bank, a Japanese Flash-based advergame intended to teach high school students about the basics of finance and starting a business. The Japanese Bankers Association produced the game, and 100,000 copies were distributed for free on CD-ROM to schools and home users.
Foodforce – a game produced by the United Nations to show the player the different aspects of a humanitarian relief mission.
We are seeing Cultural games from IslamGames.com with titles like Arabic Letter Bazaar, where you can learn Arabic letters and sounds. And Maze of Destiny where, and I quote ‘Armed only with your wits, and your faith in Allah, you must dare the depths of Darlak’s dungeon, and recover the missing letters of Surah Fatiha, rescue the teachers of the Quran, and re-establish the true worship of Allah on Earth’.
They also have Ummah Defence, a first person shooter set in 2124 where you have to battle robots built by unbelievers.
Brian Appleyard of the Sunday Times said on the Today Show on Wednesday morning that games ‘can’t teach who you are, where you are, and about the world you live in.’ Clearly, Islamgames.com would not agree with him, as this group see games as a serious act of cultural reinforcement.
What the Ludens Ignoratti fail to get is that no-one is saying that games should be the only source of education, but rather that, like books and blackboards, they can enhance, and reinforce, teaching. Modern literacy is about the manipulation of information: traditional literacy reading and writing is a subset of this, and if books bred historic literacy, then games encourage the modern literacy of a network world.
Education has traditionally been about preparing you to win at the game Who Wants To Be A Millionaire by stuffing your head with just-in-case-you-need-it knowledge, for that left of field question: In 2015 would Chris Tarrant get any viewers if every contestant had access to Google and the net? In a network world the traditional education of just-in-case-you-need-it knowledge, combined with the necessary tribal information (i.e. knowing the date of the Battle of Hastings) no longer makes sense.
All video games teach, as a metaphorical and collateral act, how to gain knowledge in an electronic world. Games engage and the DfES have noticed that their hardest to reach group, teenage boys, provided 95% of the bear pit audience at Gamestars Live in 2004.
The DfES has commissioned Sonica, a Spanish language teaching game, which is being released in May. It includes a variety of mini-games, including a dance mat.
TEEM report that, from their study, 85% of parents who evaluated games with children believed that games offer education as well as entertainment1. The Ludens Ignorratti miss the point: when they see their children playing the games for hours, they fail to see the power of engagement.
This is why Educational games are gaining momentum. From the Education Arcade there is Revolution, a re-creation of a town during the American War of Independence, which allows you to explore the history and attitudes of the time. If you can do this then games can be the equivalent of Documentaries on television. You can have games doing current affairs, you can have a game showing what it is like to be an oppressed minority, or how Enron-like corporations can stray into corruption. You can have games that deal with difficult issues like AIDs, or where you learn compassion by suffering loss.
There is no subject a book cannot tackle, and all novels are simulations and, likewise, there is no subject too big for games, there are only gamers not big enough for the subject.
There is no reason why we cannot have the equivalent of public service gaming. As the gaming generation goes forward does the license fee just fund TV programmes or does it fund interactive information? Let’s get one thing straight, anyone who thinks the red button is interactivity also thinks that Elvis is Father Christmas. The red button is a choice multiplier, it is not interactivity.
Ofcom is talking about a new service, the Public Service Publisher, and if it gets through Government, it has a faint chance of being in action by 2010. Surely by then we don’t need more TV programmes, we will need pubic service games.
The phenomenon that is World of Warcraft shows that conceptually you could go from fantasy to reality and have on line reality soap games, where players interact with significant fictional characterisations: all cross-promoted by Channel Five. At some point the techno tarot of Moore’s Law predicts that TV and games start to merge.
In other areas you could have corporate training games, where in an online world you could be trained in corporate skills in a simulated corporate environment and in this world you would not pay £30 for the initial software but £10,000 and the subscription would be £100 per month per player, and your company wouldn’t give you a pay rise until you had completed certain sections of the game.
This is the point: games have the potential to be a fully-grown up, all encompassing medium. I predict that television will one day surrender the watercooler moment to on line games. This is where the future of gaming lies, and it’s so much bigger than anything games have achieved so far.
As bandwidth and storage increase, and video games become an increasingly powerful metaphor for life, it will get harder to differentiate between reality and games. I really do believe that reality is just an information rich game… but my psychiatrist doesn’t agree. “Ah, Mr Singer, how long have you had these delusions that you are trapped in a game where to get the crystal sword of Avalon that will slay the dragon of doom, in the key master’s cave, you have to address a conference in Edinburgh?”
The line between reality and games is almost impossible to define: where you place that line is a personal and religious issue and it’s different for us all.
1 p.19, http://www.teem.org.uk/publications/teem_gamesined_full.pdf
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