Scanning the Enlarged Horizon: the Future of Games

Feb 26, 2010

At the recent DICE 2010 summit, video game executives from all over the world gathered in Las Vegas to discuss the business of games. Since then, the internet has been buzzing about game designer & academic Jesse Schell’s talk about “Design Outside the Box”, in which he spoke about how he sees the future of games. If you haven’t already watched the talk, then I recommend that you do so.

However, to summarise, Schell looks at all the unexpected trends in gaming over the last couple of years; particularly, the explosion in popularity of Facebook games, attributing this to the fact that they involve your real-life friends. Indeed, he asserts that consumers are being increasingly drawn towards reality, and authenticity in their every day lives. He therefore predicts a future in which games pervade, and indeed, mediate, our real lives.

The Game of Life

The general concept of blending real life and game mechanics has already been advocated by a few game designers (such as Jane McGonigal), and, is also represented by the Come Out & Play Festival, and, to an extent, apps such as FourSquare & Gowalla; however, the particular example Schell presents is a future in which sensors monitor all of our mundane actions (for example, brushing our teeth), and reward us with points for doing so correctly.

Although some are excited by Schell’s future in which everything is essentially, a game, there has also been some criticism of this idea; particularly that this leads to a dangerous dependence on external rewards, rather than doing things, such as reading books, for their own intrinstic value. Game designer David Sirlin, for one, wrote of this, and describes Schell’s example of the future as being ‘dystopian’. Whilst one can easily see why this is, the premise of blending real-life and game mechanics is potentially very exciting (and, it should be noted, Sirlin points out the positive benefit of Wii Fit, for example).

However, one may wonder (and, indeed, worry) if this is indeed where we may be headed; are games to transform into something that pervades our lives through technology, and become increasingly invisible, yet evermore watchful. Is this, then, the future of games, with games as we know them disappearing? (In more ways than one.)

The spectrum of what games can be and what games mean to people has already become so much wider than it used to be. Indeed, perhaps it’s useful to think about your own current playing habits; what is the first game that comes to mind?  If you’re reading this, perhaps it is a ‘core’ game of some kind, perhaps it’s a first person shooter such as Left for Dead, perhaps it’s an MMO such as World of Warcraft. Of course, it could instead be an iPhone game, or a DS game; it could even be a so-called Facebook ‘social game’ such as FarmVille. Games already mean so many different things to different people, and this will only continue to be so. Twenty-five years ago, your options would, of course, have been much more limited; at the inception of Dragon Warrior (NES, 1986), the concept of a graphically-rich, massively multiplayer online role-playing game would have seemed the stuff of dreams. And now that dream is realised, it does not mean that single player RPGs have disappeared (observe my own fervent attempts at finding time to complete Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, for example), but instead, the spectrum for what is possible has widened.

Heralding the Holodeck?

In addition to the kind of games Schell speaks of, we may also think about the increasing degree to which innovations in controller technology are ‘mapping’ our physical actions, and indeed, your physical selves to the game; the gestural interface of the Wii already does this to a degree, as will Natal. Will this continue, in small increments, to a point of technological immersion? Indeed, Janet Murray, in her seminal book Hamlet on the Holodeck, writes of the Star Trek ‘Holodeck’ concept, something that is somewhat of a ‘Holy Grail’ for many gamers and developers alike.  There are of course many criticisms of this idea; after all, the fun of games does not necessarily come from better graphics (despite how games are marketed), or from being swamped technical innovations to such a degree that you’re “transported” to a simulated world. After all, if you think about it, playing Galcon on an iPhone, for example, can be just as engaging and enjoyable as playing a full-blown first person shooter in a multi-million pound virtual reality CAVE system.

Of course, many classical gamers would assert that there is a beauty to low-tech, abstract games; if we look to the forthcoming IGF, Ian Bogost’s entry ‘A Slow Year’,  developed for the Atari VCS, and Daniel Bergmui’s ‘Today I Die‘, a flash game, are both just a couple of examples of games which are expressive and artistic thanks to their abstraction. More people are becoming interested in making games as meaningful artistic expressions of the human experience, and abstraction is needed for this purpose. However, innovations in technology (leading us down the route of ‘simulation’), will not replace abstract games but, may instead widen the scope of the kinds of experiences we may have with games.

Designing the wide, open future

Therefore, if we are to envision what games will mean in the future, I see a what is a flat, open, and very wide playing field; games may indeed remain as we know them now, yes, but increasingly, more and more people are acknowledging the possibility of games to be meaningful artistic expressions of some part of the human experience. This will no doubt continue. Therefore, games can be, and will continue to be, abstract. They can also, enhanced by technology, be closer to simulation. They can be Facebook ‘social’ games. They can, as asserted by Schell, be pervasive and integrated with real-world actions. Just as there is a difference in the kind of enjoyment and experience of playing board games & pen-and-paper RPGs, so each of these different formats have their own particular kind of experience too.
It will be, as it has always been, up to the individual game design (and the designer) to ensure that the experience is meaningful in some way. The problem with Schell’s example of ‘simple points for mundane real world activity’ is not in the concept of integrating game mechanics into real life — it is that it’s simply a bad, oversimplified game design; as Sirlin urges, we should be wary of “letting others manipulate you with hollow external rewards”. There are plenty of great examples of blending game mechanics with real world activity already existing, and Jane McGonigal’s upcoming EVOKE game promises to be another.

Games can be so many different co-existing things on this ever-widening spectrum, in which one format will not necessarily supersede the other.  There is room for all, and that is very exciting indeed. We’re currently at the estuary; what awaits us is an exciting sea of possibilities.

“A dream is the bearer of a new possibility, the enlarged horizon, the great hope. ” – Howard Thurman

Share and Enjoy:


  1. Sarah Grace /

    Wow, this was really thoughtful.

    I can really see a lot more realistic games coming out. I used to shun the Sims ’cause I thought it was TOO realistic, since one has their own life to do, but it’s hugely popular. And there’s a lot of apps on FB much like it, and I myself play World of Warcraft daily, although I do hear from a lot of people that it’s ‘cartoony’ and they don’t take it seriously. Does graphics really dictate the tone? Because those same people were power hungry for gear and to showcase their skills.

    While I’m for realism, ala Heavy Rain and such, I also like the idea of art. I remember when Shadow of the Colossus came out and although it was a very lonely and goal driven game, it was beautiful in its solitude and location and was often thought of a moving piece of art.

  2. /

    Fantastic opening piece, Mitu.

    Curious thought regarding this: “It will be, as it has always been, up to the individual game design (and the designer) to ensure that the experience is meaningful in some way.”

    I recall a particular writer recently asserting that he had a more meaningful relationship with his Pokemon than Character X in Action Game Y. I can’t, for the life of me, remember where I read this.

    Moving forward, however, I do believe there is merit in this somewhat silly admission. Whatever connection that we have with Starter-Pokemon-X is, I believe, the most meaningful relationship we can have with any object, digital or otherwise. See, I think that games, moreso than any medium, have the opportunity to mimic the human experience in a rather lucid way. That relationship with Bulbasaur is reflective of /some/ part of our condition/existence (perhaps even phylogenetically, or not necessarily as evident in modern life), which in turn makes it easier for us to connect and prescribe a certain, meaningful value.

    Of course, I’d never attribute the success of the Pokemon franchise to just the Player-to-Pokemon connection; the collection aspect of the title is what drives many players to completion. This /need/ to collect, I think, has to do with some hunter-gatherer instinct, a shadow of something that may or may not be completely antiquated. But, unfortunately, I’m talking a whole lotta crap at this point; I’m reaching the boundaries of “what I know enough of to form anything resemblant of coherent.”

    My point is this, though: I think it will become evident that the titles which contain elements that resonate strongly within us (intentionally or otherwise) will be those that will perform better, critically, and will have a longer shelf life. Arbitrary points and and hollow numbers are just that: hollow. I’d like to believe that the games of the future are those that reflect something honest, something truly mimetic and not grossly caricatured; something human.

    This doesn’t at all interfere (or hell, correlate, this comment is getting tangent-y) with your “Heralding the Holodeck” section. Meaningful, reflective qualities are perhaps easier found in abstract titles, but there is most certainly something /very/ human and natural when speaking of complex gestural human interface devices. Like Schell noted, technology (and, of course, media) is divergent. I think the industry can find ways to craft an expressive experience with whatever tools they utilize. There really IS room for all, like you said. And I happen to think that those that mean more, get farther.

    • Vikki Blake /

      > I’d like to believe that the games of the future are those that reflect something honest, something truly mimetic and not grossly caricatured; something human.


      The games that have touched me – rocked me, hurt me, affected me, destroyed me – have been games that have, at their essence, been about humanity. Steeped in emotion and consequence. Games can boast cutting-edge graphics and sound and interfaces but they honestly do nothing for me unless there’s a humanitarian narrative. I’m bored by games set in an environment I may never visit, or with characters I simply cannot relate to. I also struggle with games so steeped in reality (e.g. Sims and the opening hour or so of Heavy Rain – although, several hours into the game, I understand now what that opening chapter accomplished etc.). I find it bizarre when the mundane is repackaged as something rewarding.

      What turns me on – figuratively, obviously – are the games that touch my soul, in much the same way that a film or a good book can move me. And that can be achieved whether the game is indie or from a billion-dollar dev house. As a gamer, I couldn’t give a shit how or where a game was made providing it reaches in and touches my soul.

  3. Cheshire /

    The landscape of “games” has always been open. Developers have always had the ability to create strange and new experiences, but until recently there hasn’t been a strong need to do so. “FPS Game 3 – The Reckoning” was flying off the shelves, and it made perfect sense to make version 4. As gaming became more pervasive, the number of games started increasing at an alarming rate; game studios started churning out way too many games way too fast. The genres are becoming saturated with stale games, and the gamers grow jaded. Player B is bored of shoot-strafe-jump-shoot-die, and Indie Developer X doesn’t want to dive into the crowded pool of generic video games because too many fat development studios peed in it. So, we get games like Flower; a breath of fresh air.

    All great games, future and past have somehow illuminated the human condition. Games have always been popular because they can stimulate the brain to help it experience things it has trouble finding in our daily grind. They make us love, hate, laugh, cry. They make us compete, fight, push it. They make us feel strong emotions that we may not find in our daily life. Games have always been there for us, to augment our life by giving us contrast, and a frame of reference. Once I felt the mental stress and confusion of Portal the outside world became a little different. Portal illuminated me, and so I think about still.

    The reason that Shell’s vision is so dystopic is the fact that these enlightening experiences will suddenly become meshed into our reality, an diluted. Without strong contrast, we are not stimulated. Our life becomes a slightly augmented emotional soup. We compete a little more, we feel a little more and every day we grow a little more jaded.

    Mixing games with our life robs us of the contrast that made games fun. A great game, like a great movie makes us feel something, and through playing the game we change and grow. If every day is a video game, when do we grow? +500 Brushing Points are not growth, and after a while they stop being fun. At some point we will start look for new, different ways to get those points, and so the cycle continues.



  1. » Scanning the Enlarged Horizon: the Future of Games [Meta-post] - [...] I decided to post an editorial on my take on the future of games. Please do have ...
  2. Game Retail Store » This Week In Video Game Criticism: The Heavy Rain Auteurs - [...] add to the commentary/responses to Schell’s talk, extrapolating some of the previous ideas into a series of possible futures ...

Leave a Reply