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Video Games and the Future of Interactive Entertainment

August 2, 2009 3 comments

From the monochromatic charm of Atari’s iconic Pong, to the rotund gluttony of the pill-popping Pac Man, to the world’s most famous mustache festooned beneath Mario’s pepperoni-sniffing proboscis, all the way to the adrenaline-soaked frag-fests of today’s grizzled Halo warriors—video games have come a very long way in the past thirty years, redefining entertainment for an entire generation.

It is therefore surprising that, almost a full decade into the 21st century, video games as a whole continue to be fairly marginalized in American culture, often perceived as a frivolous distraction at best, a menace to society at worst. In many people’s eyes, video games are still geared primarily to hormonal, pimple-faced teenagers, mostly boys needing an outlet for the aggression and pent-up testosterone. However, the facts seem to tell an entirely different story—while the Clearasil demographic continues to be a major force in the gaming industry, recent surveys have offered some fascinating insights into just how deeply video games permeate our contemporary culture. As it turns out, 65% of American households play video games, on either computers or video game consoles such as the Xbox 360. The average gamer is somewhere between 30 and 35 years old, and has been playing for somewhere around thirteen years. 40% of gamers are female, and an astonishing 26% of gamers are over the age of 50. Finally, the growth of video game sales are rapidly beginning to outpace both music and movie industries, and are expected to more than double the revenues from both industries combined by the year 2012, with nine games currently being purchased every second of every day. Following these trends to their logical conclusions, it seems clear that the future of entertainment much more closely resembles Spore, Bioshock, and Grand Theft Auto than it does Jurassic Park, Wall-E, or The Lord of the Rings.

But what new forms will video games take in the future? We have already witnessed the explosive rise of several dozen video game sub-genres, including classic platformers, first-person shooters, military strategy games, epic role-playing games, massively-multiplayer online games, true-to-life flight simulators, open-world life simulators, and many, many more (for a comprehensive list of most known video game subgenres, be sure to check out the accompanying poster, created by Moses, at the end of this summary.) In many ways the video game industry is fueled by innovation, with a constant pressure to outperform last year’s offerings in new and exciting ways—growing from simple pixels, sprites, and 8-bit soundtracks, to a digital symphony of CGI, 3D art, spatial architecture, music, sound effects, acting, physics, artificial intelligence, and interactivity.

As video game technology becomes ever more complex and sophisticated, so does the art of storytelling itself, with new plot devices, narrative structures, and methods of character development being fervently explored by game producers. And while much debate exists within the humanities as to the legitimacy of video games as a narrative medium, or even as bona fide art form, it’s hard to overlook the striking similarity between these discussions and the way cinema was received in the beginning of the 20th century.

Alongside these newly emerging artistic visions, video games also offer enormous potential as educational tools, with a large body of research demonstrating how proficient interactive learning truly is, for kids, teens, and grown-ups alike. Cognitive development, visuomotor skills, analytical and problem solving skills, and even attention spans have all been shown to be notably enhanced in gamers, causing many to consider gaming as a central pillar in educational reformation. Meanwhile, certain games are prototyping radically new ways of learning how to play music instruments, to varying degrees of efficacy: while Guitar Hero only currently offers a loose approximation of playing an actual guitar, it still implicitly trains the gamer with many fundamental basics of music theory. And playing with the plastic drums that come with Rock Band effectively teaches rhythm, syncopation, left hand/right hand differentiation, and pretty much everything else you need to actually sit behind a drum kit.

Add to these artistic and educational implications such new innovations as biofeedback, binaural beats, and Wii-style kinesthetic monitoring, and we begin to see a new role for video games in our lives—as a transformative tool capable of supporting state training and psychological development. As one avid gamer comments, imagine gazing at your opponent through the scope of your sniper rifle, and the only way to stabilize your shot is to actually slow down your real-life heart rate. Or perhaps an online fantasy role-playing games with different “realms” that represent different developmental worldviews, with different value systems actually coded into the gameplay, covertly teaching the player how to interact in a multi-perspectival world.

In this way, games can act as “trojan horses” to deliver sophisticated perspectives, messages, and meanings to the player, without ever knowing he or she is actually learning something worthwhile. As such, video games are rapidly closing the gap between education, recreation, and human development, representing an unparalleled new medium of “enlighten-edu-tainment,” with extraordinary implications for the near and not-so-near future.

Originally published on Integral Life – Video Games and the Future of Interactive Entertainment (w/ Moses Silbiger and Ken Wilber)

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