Games: two levels short of a medium

Keynote Speech by Adam Singer at the TIGA conference as part of The London Games Festival: on Tuesday 23 October 2007 at BAFTA.

The BBC has over £3 billion a year of guaranteed income but is short of money. ITV solved this by theft, but it's all right, it's not really theft, as they didn't intend to steal, they just wanted to make good programmes.

So my career advice is to take up mugging: if you are caught, say you have no intention of stealing but are 'executive producers, doing live action role-playing'. Any self-respecting policeman would say 'On your way sonny, it's only taking an audiences' cash under false pretences and warrants a clip round the ear.' It's not serious like the heinous virtual crimes committed on Grand Theft Auto'.

I hadn't realised the serious moral threat of video gaming until this year's Royal Television Society biennial conference at Cambridge, when John Riccitiello, Chief Executive of Electronic Arts, showed scenes from latest releases, with spumes of blood, torture and decapitation, mindless violence, but that was just the clips from the latest movies. That was John's point, there was seldom anything in a game more violent than that which you can see in Saw, Hostel, The 300, or in a host of similar 'flics'.

But Michael Grade countered with this thought, 'that the difference between games and movies is that violence in movies and television happened within a 'context',' implying (my words not his) some form of moral framework, but in games there was no context for this violence and, by implication, no morality.

Nothing illustrates better that Michael Grade does not play many video games than this statement, and here lies the problem. Most TV programmes get complained about by those who actually watch them. Some TV programmes get sack loads of complaints from people who have never seen them - Jerry Springer The Opera to name but one - and the classic TV defence from broadcast executives like Michael is have you watched the programme? If no, then go away; if yes, let's debate. This basic act of fairness seems to exist for TV but less so for games. The debate about video games is influenced by those like Michael Grade, or the Daily Mail's Paul Dacre, who don't seem to play them. As any innocent girl convicted of witchcraft reflected as the faggots at her feet were lit, trials are so much more fun when they are unhampered by knowledge.

Every time there is a significant increase in bandwidth you get two things - an information divide and increased level of engagement in the medium - and in a funny way, what we find most threatening is the engagement. Books engaged, books with pictures engaged a bit more, films and telly engaged even more, and nothing currently engages more than games.

This sense of divide and anxiety happens at every major change in technology. For example, the printing press was a huge increase in bandwidth and highlighted the divide between those who could and could not read. In the wake of literacy driven by the printing press you had the rise of seditious pamphlets, the growth of erotica you would not want your servant to read and fiction, which for years was condemned with phrases like, "Get your nose out of that book and do something useful". Books were seditious, solitary occupations, and no wonder we once had a Stationary Office to censor and control them.

Films were too engaging not to have censors and in the 30's it acquired the Hay's code, with its moral guidelines, let alone the BBFC. Comics were also deemed corrupting of innocent minds in the 1950's: Dr. Fredric Wertham published "Seduction of the Innocent", a book purporting that comics caused juvenile delinquency. The U.S. Senate held hearings to investigate Wertham's claims and the Comics Code Authority was formed, prohibiting controversial comics.

The more it engages, the more powerful the medium, and the more people want to regulate it. So given the normal anxieties of a fresh parent with a strong Christian upbringing, and two young children, who happens to live at number 10, it's not surprising that the call went out for Tanya Byron to look at the impact of games and the Internet on the young.

I suspect the major message for the games industry to transmit is that most of the regulation works: you only have to look at the Manhunt saga to see that the system seems to function, and what works best (or worst depending on your view) is of course not the regulation but what Walmart is prepared to stock.

However, it is normal for any society or tribe to want control over the information available, especially for its children. Taboos - that which is not acceptable - are a crucial part of the operating software that makes us tick, a formidable part of how we define our identity, and most of the great clashes are ones of identity, as in I am communist, I am Muslim, I am French; so play with identity and taboos at your peril, as they are the stuff of us.

It's perfectly possible to regulate the internet if you are prepared to deploy sufficient economic resource, but most liberal democracies will look for some balance between resource and perceived harm. Traditional forms of proscriptive regulation are going to be difficult, as, if you can't solve mass music piracy, how are you going to solve any other form of control on the net?

So traditional banning is unlikely to work, as the issue is about the economics of policing a network with billions of connections. The solution to regulation on the internet is likely to take two forms: one will be economic - to stop people collecting money in this country from sites that are deemed unacceptable (a modern version of how pirate radio was stopped) and the other will be some form of wiki approach. In other words, you need to harness self-organising community-driven regulation.

Self-organising regulation is not the same as self-regulation. The problem is of detection and making the community aware of what's available and harmful, as the internet is far too big to be policed by police; it needs to be policed by all of those who use it. Once sites are located that are purveying inappropriate information for an audience, you can then deploy what is an appropriate labelling or punitive regime.

We need a sort of Face Book for bad things. The way you do this is to take advantage of the fact that every digital asset can have attendant meta data, and label. Then you only need one offence, 'failure to adequately describe'.

My colleagues bridle at the split infinitive, but the core concept is that everything in the digital world can be labelled and as a consumer you should know what the contents are before opening the package. As for jam and breakfast cereals, so for Bambi: if you describe it as a film about a deer with bereavement issues then you have adequately described it. Clearly, such a description would not adequately describe the adult version, 'Bambi Forest Stud: now that's what I call an antler'.

The point about the wiki concept is that it is an iterative community process and you need the same if you are going to have self-organising regulation on the internet. It's not the regulation that's important, but the content definition: if the content is accurately described then you can make your own informed choices as a parent, or as a consuming adult, and filter accordingly. Once this obligation to describe and label is abroad and becomes universal - as you won't want to access anything that is not labelled, as that would be like opening an attachment from an un-trusted source - you will then start to have sufficient labelling information to create standardisation and automated filtering.

Over time case law would build up, like coral: give enough time for millions of tiny creatures to aggregate and you get a tranquil lagoon. Self-organisation works, after all, you can have an immensely complicated system like feeding the population of a city but there is no-one in charge of running it, and a crucial part of that system is accurate labelling. The digital revolution democratises everything it touches, it allows us all to participate, so what form does democratised regulation take?

The key issue affecting all media at the moment is generational and the generation gap is probably the widest it's been since the 60's. The generation gap can almost be defined as a media divide, it's where one group does not subscribe to the media of the other, and in its incomprehension feels threatened.

Every time technology creates an increase in bandwidth, it creates a generation gap. There is a simple generational truth at the heart of this: you can live without new technology because you have lived without it; and the second great truth is that your children can't live without it because they haven't lived without it.

This is why every time you get an increase in bandwidth and the concomitant increase in engagement, you get a repeat of the information access debate - i.e. how do books, comics, movies, games corrupt our children - this debate is invariably led by the generation for whom the technology is new and shocking, and it's eventually ignored by subsequent generations who find no shock in the technology as they were raised with it. In other words, the information access debate is a perennial one but in a fit of temporal parochialism every generation believes it is unique to it.

Given that we are riding an exponential technological wave, this is going to get worse. The only difference between video games and reality is the level of information. Given three or four more doublings of display and processing capability driven by Moore's law, and the gap between reality and games is going to get very slim, and if you think there is anxiety now about games, just wait for Play Station 6.

This generational gap is everywhere, as those that legislate and regulate are by and large of a generation (and that includes me) where technological change was relatively slow. We were brought up to believe that you could regulate screen based media, that you could dictate a universal level of telephone and broadcast service across the country as an act of common social infrastructure, that you could mandate a universal poll tax of television receivers to support a broadcaster, and that copyright in recordings would ensure a permanently healthy record business.

All of these are concepts that if invented today would be ridiculed as out of touch. For example, we are almost the last generation to be nurtured by the BBC: as we pass so will attitudes towards the licence fee change, as it only looks normal because we are used to it. For example, how would a £50 pound a year compulsory tax on mobile phones to pay for an educational text service look? Or a £100 a year tax on games consoles to pay for serious games that because of market failure do not exist?

Hang about, that last one's not such a bad idea: it may be a bad way of funding it though, but there is a market failure in games. Games always seem to be two levels short of being a fully grown up medium.

There is no subject games cannot do. What better way to teach history than through games? What better way to explore the multi-layered complexity of a current affairs issue than games, as opposed to the singular perorations of a journalist. Games are always two levels short of a medium because they linger in the shooting arcade and are reluctant to take on the diversity of subject that makes a medium.

I am learning the full history of Mariko and her clan as she battles to save the Heavenly Sword from Shen on Play Station 3. It could as easily have been a de-narrativised version of Macbeth, with cut scenes by the Bard, or the tragedy of Palestine, or how Heisenberg discovered quantum theory, but it isn't.

The medium of books balances the frippery of fiction with knowledge, or by using serious fiction to explore issues of emotional catharsis. Films and TV balance the frippery of Dr Who, or Dr No with news, documentaries and drama about serious issues, even Battlestar Galactica found a way of exploring the nature of insurgency and suicide bombers.

I love frippery and escapism but where is the 'serious' in games? Now I know full well there is a large, important, serious games movement, and there may well be serious games that are on the shelves at HMV that have mass appeal, but I am not aware of them. That is partially to do with my ignorance, and partially with the fact that if they exist they have failed to attract broad awareness. To be fair, it took comics years before books like Art Spiegleman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, or Neil Gaiman's Sandman series arrived and won broad acclaim.

In my view, the destiny of games is to be a medium capable of doing anything; the destiny of games should be to eclipse current forms of story-telling. The lack of redemptive seriousness detracts from what games could be, and that is a serious medium, and a serious medium touches everybody and provides more than escapism.

The joy of games is that they can teach, pass knowledge, without the dictatorial pedagogy of the literati. In plain English they allow all of us - be it the young, unengaged male at odds with school, or the dyslexic - who get thrown out, tossed aside by traditional academic curricula back into the game! Games challenge old ideas about literacy: they allow us to absorb ideas in a non-literate manner and that is a good thing.

I believe that games are pretty much where Hollywood was in about 1915 and the great age of games is about to come. The reason why I believe this is not because of the games industry but because of a tectonic shift in media economics. We are moving from the era of transmit to the triumph of the return path - something that games were born to exploit.

The economics of mass media are changing, CD sales have fallen, DVD sales have plateaued. Hits are smaller than they were; individual music albums and TV shows are consumed by fewer people. The BBC's Dr Who in the 70's regularly achieved 12 million viewers, now it averages 7ish million and is considered a major hit. ITV1 has half the audience share it once had. Digital audiences in the UK are fragmented by literally 500 TV channels and the top viewed shows, top selling records, and top box office movies all happened twenty years ago.

The price of music is no longer set by record companies and record stores, but by iTunes, and piracy is nature's way of saying your pricing model is wrong. The hope is that the countervailing volumes of the internet will make up for a fall in price, but the increased volume of the internet merely fragments audiences and spreads the revenues over a much wider base of material. The dark truth at the heart of the digital revolution is that cheap distribution and low cost storage means 'there is no scarcity in a recording'.

No scarcity means no value. All those things that made a recording scarce and maintained values, i.e. the cost of retail space, the frictions of the distribution chain, the imperfections of copying, manufacturing costs, rationed bandwidth, have gone. Recordings are a commodity.

Recording means records, TV programmes, movies, books, any form of one-way information from stored source to audience. As the value of recordings falls, so does the value of all those dependant on it. This will not happen instantly, as television and radio will have value for a long time: old media never dies it just loses is primacy.

So if the values are not in traditional recorded media, where are they? They are moving from recorded to live. In television ITV has outbid Sky and the BBC to get rights to the scarcity that is live football. On the net, mammoth multi-player role-playing games like World of War Craft, with its 8 million plus paying subscribers, does well because it is non-recordable: if you were not online when you and your companions raided the 'Molten Core' then you missed it.

The value of recorded music may be falling but it is pushing up the value of live music: for the PRS - the UK's music collecting society - live performance was the third largest revenue stream after recording and music in commercial premises, now live performance is the second largest revenue stream and rising fast.

This year there will be 450 music festivals in the UK and Glastonbury's 137,500 tickets sold out in 1hour 45 minutes, and the cost of a ticket was £150, or just look at the price of rugby final tickets in Paris.

But what is the difference between new media and old media? Traditionally new media has been defined by the latest platform - TV, cable, satellite, internet - but now the split between old and new media is not platform defined but that old media is that which is recorded and transmitted and the audience make no difference to it; and new media is about the return path, where the audience is an integral part of the programme. Where their reactions and responses create the moment, and the values are in scarce experience, or in the immediacy of community, and games are naturally poised to take advantage of this.

For me the strategic questions come out of the music business, as music is the canary down the media mines, and where music goes recorded media follows. In recordings copyright has almost ceased to function; audiences are being pushed to scarce live events by giving away recorded tracks. Major music aggregators like EMI, who stand between artist and audience, are being disintermediated: Simply Red sell direct to the customer, their sales are reputedly ten times less, but without the middleman revenues are ten times higher, and Radio Head pose the question of the age; 'pay us what you think it's worth'.

In an on-demand world, 'pay us what you think it's worth' becomes the rallying cry, and what does the BBC look like when you pay what you think it's worth? For me, as a boring middle aged, middle class person, I would pay £100 for Radio Four, and £25 quid for the rest of it. As transistors become free, all that rides upon them becomes free, but games will do just fine, as you are selling the scarcity of unrepeatable moments, but none the less, 'pay us what you think it's worth' will also become a subversive cry in gaming.

You can't predict the future but you can observe the currents, and when people ask what will the media sector be like in ten years? All one knows is that each year the number of people who have never known a world without the personal computers, mobile phones, video games and the internet increases.

In the end all entertainment is simulation: if you drown in Anna Karenina, you are playing a simulation in your head, and the more you can explore the simulation and let it affect you, the greater the work of art. It took print a couple of hundred years to find its true fictional power, it took television fifteen years to be more than radio with pictures, and games too need time and should become the most powerful art of them all; if it can answer a question I once heard Robert Maxwell ask at a dinner party to a group of cheery back-slapping businessmen, when he said, 'That is all very well but what is the saddest story of your life? Answer that and you will be a medium.

back to top | home | about Cordelia | recent reports | speeches and articles | contact us

All contents 2004-2006 Cordelia. Design by Psyche.