Once reserved for socially-awkward teenage boys in suburban basements, video games are now a multi-billion dollar creative industry with an influence on popular culture that rivals that of Hollywood. Sales for big-name games like Halo have even surpassed box-office records, with the release of Halo 4 bringing in $220 million in just one day. To put that figure in context, that’s more than the blockbuster The Avengers earned on the day of it’s release. Ads for big-budget video games also get the same billing as movie trailers, directed by the likes of Guy Ritchie and other A-list stars:
In light of these stats, it’s clear the gaming industry has moved past an alternative form of entertainment to an increasingly integral part of our lives. Advances in technology have enabled changes in gaming consoles and game environments, allowing games to be physically played more places than ever before. Industries from healthcare to education have looked to the addictive nature of gaming to integrate the principles in their own fields, and as technology continues to advance, the definition of what it means to ‘play a game’ will continue to shift. Below we’ve outlined a few key trends in how we play games that point to how gaming will influence our lives outside of simple entertainment.
The widespread adoption and acceptance of gaming was fueled by the explosion of touchscreen smartphones, which have become a powerful gaming console in their own right. This shift has helped change the public’s perception of video games as an acceptable part of daily life. While it may no longer be a stretch to imagine your mother or even your grandmother playing Angry Birds on a smartphone – the scenario just doesn’t make as much sense when that platform is a Gameboy.
A few console developers are catching up with the touchscreen gaming trend by co-opting second screen behavior and adding an extra dimension to the original console experience. The most notable is the Wii U, Nintendo’s latest console (pictured above). The Wii U has a large touchscreen in the middle of the controller so that each player has a private screen that opens up new gameplay dynamics (like having a ‘closed hand’ in a card game, impossible in previous shared-screen multiplayer games). Similarly, the Xbox Smartglass app turns smartphones or tablets into a second screen tethered to whatever’s playing on the Xbox, providing extra info (like an in-game minimap) or a unique control interface. Individual game developers have also created dedicated apps for their popular titles. For example, the app for Call of Duty Elite extends game data to mobile devices so players can keep a watchful eye on the status of their own characters, as well as those of their teammates. Both these types of developments are aimed at freeing gameplay from the confines of a single screen and bringing it into more areas of a player’s life. This effectively improves player retention, since they can ‘be with the game’ when they are away from their console, and increases player engagement since they will have multiple methods through which to interact with the game content.
But while the big-name console makers are pushing the technological envelope with ever-expensive second screens and apps, independent developers are going the other way, by developing platforms that are cheap and open-source. The poster child of this movement is the tiny Ouya game console, which was funded to the tune of $8.5 million on Kickstarter, and will retail for only $99. It uses an Android-based operating system, and all the games are free to try.
This move to open-source gaming will expand who can make and play high-quality games, which will fuel creativity and innovation, in much the same way that touchscreen technology created a whole new audience and genre of games. Add in funding tools like Kickstarter, and developers with a great game idea are no longer subjected to the whims of huge corporate publishers. While it may be a bit early to tell, it certainly appears that the Ouya has knocked down the last barrier standing in the way of widespread distribution of independent games.
Similar to the Ouya is the GameStick, another wildly successful Kickstarter project. It is a small device running the Android operating system that plugs into a TV and can play any of the thousands of games designed for Android devices. Using an included controller, users can play games originally designed for mobile on a big TV. Like the Ouya, the GameStick is breaking down barriers between mediums outside the realm of established game publishers, opening up a new playing field for game creators to make content that can be seamlessly experienced between mobile and TV.
As the technology behind games continues to advance, we are finding more and more creative ways to use games beyond simple entertainment. Making learning fun is something teachers have struggled with forever, and many of us remember those lame educational ‘games’ in middle school (Mavis Beacon, anyone?). But now games have reached the point where they can simulate the real world well enough to be of actual educational value, like the version of Sim City for the classroom that has students think creatively about environmental, social and health problems faced by modern cities. In fact, many games like EVE Online are complex enough that certain playing styles involve many of the same activities and skills that running a business requires. It’s then a small step to create a ‘sub-game’ that focuses on teaching those skills to entrepreneurs in a way that’s much more fun than a series of PowerPoints.
The basic ideas behind gamification have actually been around for a long time, even before Foursquare. One just needs to think about the military, with its systematic merit-based levels and badges. However it is only recently that these ideas have broken out into other fields. Imagine one of the most dull activities most adults face: Office compliance training. By using the principles of gamification, the app True Office has made the process a little less dreary by adding levels to achieve, and quizzes to complete. There are a multitude of such examples of gamification and they all point towards an expansion of game dynamics into ‘real life’ situations that will have more and more of us chasing rewards and points down the road.
Google’s innovative mobile game Ingress is a good example of how video gaming is emerging into real-world environments. Players are tasked with finding ‘energy sources’ around the (real) world that are only viewable through the map-based app, and working together to complete mysterious objectives. While the image of people running around town waving their phones in the air looking for virtual objects may be slightly humorous, the point is that they are interacting with the game and each other face-to-face and outside, which is not a dynamic normally associated with video games. When new behaviors are made fun and collaborative, it is a lot easier to get people to do them. There is potential for gamified activism, grassroots political campaigning and guerilla marketing.
Coinciding with these kinds of new ‘real-world’ behaviors are new ways to interact with games beyond just the keyboard or controller (or touchscreen). By making the interface ‘invisible,’ or so intuitive that the user doesn’t notice it, developers are making games that are much more accessible and powerful. Intel calls this perceptual computing and it is all about making computer interactions more natural with eye-tracking, motion-tracking, voice recognition and more. Seems futuristic when most of us are still using standard keyboards all day, but technologies like the Xbox Kinect and the soon-to-be-released LEAP Motion Controller, featured in the video below, already exist and are compatible not only with games but with a range of programs and devices we use every day.
Ultimately we can expect the video game experience to jump off single screens and into the devices, activities and even walls around us. Increased inputs and outputs not only immerse us more deeply into the games we play (which is great for a game publisher’s bottom line), it also creates opportunities for creative developers to make unique gameplay mechanics and dynamics (like Bungie’s mobile features for the upcoming Destiny) that will entertain audiences and keep the industry on its toes.