Having attended the IQ2 If Conference the Urban Times team had the opportunity to hear Tom Chatfield, a freelance writer and author of three books on digital culture, speak about play and immersion in virtual worlds. Tom has also received a doctorate from St John’s College, Oxford, and spoke at TED Global. Wanting to know more, we got in touch with Tom so that he could shed some light on the gaming industry.
What lessons can be learned from games and how can we ensure that these are applied in a non-gaming environment?
If you want to learn good lessons from games, you need to think on a fundamental level about what they do well. It’s not about turning everything into a game – it’s more to do with using the combined complexity and precision of digital games to come up with new ideas about what people find interesting and engaging, and how best to motivate and train them.
These are lessons that apply particularly to education, but also span the social sciences in general: questions of collective and individual behavior, and ways of adapting and enhancing particular behaviors. Specifically, we can apply lessons from games to how we structure educational syllabuses and measures of achievement; to models of training in businesses, especially when it comes to effective teamwork and collaboration; and to fields like energy conservation and development, where helping people to understand the workings of complex systems is crucial. More radically, the economics and behavioral patterns seen in virtual worlds are also a kind of laboratory, with rich opportunities for testing old and new ideas about behavioral trends and social and political systems.
…the blurring of real, virtual and augmented realities will have perhaps its most significant impact over the next century –with some extreme positives and negatives likely to emerge.
Finally, there’s the increasing blurring of the lines between games, simulations, and real arenas of engagement. Throughout history, games have often been used in fields where reality is simply too important to be rehearsed: warfare and medicine are the most obvious examples. Today, these are areas in which game-related technologies, from robotic drones to remote surgical simulations, are already having a huge impact. It’s in areas like this that I think the blurring of real, virtual and augmented realities will have perhaps its most significant impact over the next century –with some extreme positives and negatives likely to emerge.
Given the success of smartphones and tablets, do you envisage a time when the games console will become dead?
Games consoles are in a tough spot: they’re expensive, specialized machines at a time when powerful, portable, all-purpose devices are selling millions of units each week.
If they do survive, then, it will be through a combination of a few very different factors. First, their ability to keep on offering unique kinds of hardware and software experience, through devices like Microsoft’s Kinect or Nintendo’s 3DS, and through top-notch brands like the Mario series. Second, through their role as “party” machines, that friends or families can all sit down and enjoy together; something that doesn’t happen in the same way with any other devices. And finally, through becoming the indispensable “living room box”: one that plays CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays and their successors; that provides an all-in-one portal for services like movies and television; and that generally acts as a media hub for the household.
In some ways, consoles are ahead of computers in chasing this last role: they’re easier to use, it’s easier to build secure and universal software services for them, and people are already accustomed to having consoles in their living rooms plugged into the main television in their house. Whether the next generation of consoles will manage to pull all of this off and retain its paying audience against the smartphone and tablet competition, though, is far from a sure bet.
At the ‘If Conference’ you mentioned this idea that play humanizes technology. Can you expand upon this?
When you’re playing with something, nobody is forcing you to use it, or paying you to do so: it has to be something that you enjoy using, and that is intrinsically satisfying and rewarding. This is what I mean by “humanizing”: that play exerts a pressure towards making technology more usable, engaging and natural.
This is clear if you look at the history of games and leisure in technology. From clear, appealing graphics and sounds to motion-sensitive controls like the Nintendo Wii or Microsoft’s Kinect, play has for a long time been at the cutting edge of making machines easy and delightful to use, and accessible to people who lack expertise.
Indeed, I’d argue that it’s the playful element in digital culture that’s really driving things forward at the moment, with devices like touchscreen smartphones and tablets representing a transition that’s more to do with user pleasure and ease of experience than with pure technological innovation. Pleasure is the new premium.
What do you think has led to the immense growth in virtual worlds? Is it just a means of escape?
If you interpret the idea of “virtual worlds” broadly, and use it to encompass everything from complex environments like Second Life to simplistic but highly appealing environments like Farmville, there are now hundreds of millions of people around the world investing huge amounts of effort in these unreal places and their contents.
From the outside, this fact can seem odd, disturbing and purely rooted in escapism, but I think it’s rather more complex. Certainly, virtual environments do offer escape of a kind. They are “tame” arenas when compared to the complexities of the real world: places where you can work out what is going on, be guaranteed rewards for effort, and experience a marvelous sense of achievement and control – all stuff that the real world lacks.
But there are important distinctions to be made between the idea of escape and other reasons for playing: from pleasure and social connection to finding refuge, banishing boredom, relishing a particular aesthetic or narrative, or simply experiencing new and different things. You cannot wrap up all play in virtual worlds into the word “escape” any more than you could encompass all reasons for reading books or looking at paintings into a phrase. The best answer to why virtual worlds are so appealing has to be as multifaceted as the medium itself.
Increased levels of dopamine have been found in people who are playing video games and the effects are similar to the increased levels of dopamine in drug addicts. Some researchers have thus hypothesized that higher levels of dopamine can produce a dangerous cycle leading to addiction of video games. Do you have concerns regarding excessive reliance on video games?
The research here is young and uncertain, and far more work needs to be done, but I think it’s undoubtedly true that some digital games – with an emphasis on “some” – are extremely compelling, and this is something that can combine in a pathological way with some personality types.
There are two key points to bear in mind here. First, there is no such thing as a game with which everyone has a pathological relationship – it’s never as simple as saying “this game causes addiction”, full stop. And second, it is meaningless to lump either games or all people together into undifferentiated groups.
It does seem to me that one of the great challenges of a digital age is learning how to manage time and attention, given how much is competing to delight and distract us – and how powerful many of these things, games included, are.
I’d certainly like to see the games industry being more honest and proactive in dealing with those who do have problematic relationships with games. But a productive debate isn’t going to take place in a climate of vague fear and blame.
We have to be cautious we’re not simply treating people as the passive victims of “bad” media – as much as anything because this lets them off the hook.
As adults, we should be taking responsibility for our own usage of media. As a society, we should aim to protect the vulnerable – and to identify those trapped in pathological patterns of use – without slinging into unhelpful notions of an “addiction” analogous to drug use. It’s snappier than talking about complex societal and behavioral problems, but does little good in helping us address them.
In a recent interview with PFSK you mention that when people are playing games together “they are fully themselves in a way that you don’t get in almost any other area: you get the whole person”. How would you justify this?
Think of the way in which the world of business often uses games for training and team-building; or why some of the most important deals get made on a golf course; or the most brilliant ideas are articulated in the bar at the end of the conference, when barriers are down and possibilities seem limitless.
Like laughter, you can’t fake the fun and satisfaction of rewarding play, or the universality of its appeal. When I say you get the “whole person”, I mean exactly that, in behavioral terms. Precisely because you are free from many of the pressures of the real world, you’re engaged on a fundamental, almost child-like level – at least if the game is really good.
Most games, of course, aren’t that good. But when you get it right – and I’m thinking as much of “real” games like football or chess as I am great digital creations, like Tetris or Minecraft – you get this whole gamut of emotions and behaviors given free rein. It’s a kind of license: a magic circle where it’s okay to fail and try again, to let yourself care, to compete or collaborate without the fear of crushing failure.
You don’t get absolutely everything from anyone within a game, of course. But you can get a good deal more than you do in most other times and places.
What would you say has been the best game of 2011? What do you foresee being a big-seller in 2012?
The best game of 2011 for me, in terms of pure pleasure, was Portal 2 – the wonderfully-crafted sequel to one of the most delightfully smart games of all time. It’s a textbook example of how to follow up something excellent with a big, smart, inventive slice of further excellence.
Although it came out at the very end of 2011, perhaps the biggest game to watch through 2012 is the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) role playing game Star Wars: The Old Republic. With over a hundred million dollars spent creating it, and God knows how much beyond that in marketing, it’s the most serious attempt to date at breaking the grip World of Warcraft has on the subscription-based MMO genre. It’s also a hugely ambitious game in its own right, blending a vast multiplayer game world with individual narrative progress.
The performance of The Old Republic will be examined minutely by everyone in the games industry, and its success or failure is likely to have a major influence on gaming’s future direction. What is the popular appetite like today for this kind of high-commitment, highly polished product? Only time will tell; but I’m looking forward to spending a hundred hours or so investigating in person…
View Tom’s TED talk on games and engagement below: