This past Friday at UC Santa Cruz's Inventing the Future of Games symposium, Will Wright delivered a Gamasutra-attended talk in which he discussed how technology and human perception will blend to bring games to a higher level.
After polling the audience to see how many recognized photos of Star Wars' Admiral Ackbar versus World War II's Admiral Nimitz, Wright remarked, "I think entertainment is in some sense more real to us."
He noted that as children, before we grow up, we fill our lives with fiction that feels very real to us -- "before we have real experiences."
According to Wright, we're surrounded by three layers of experiences -- direct experiences through our senses, a community-level view, and then the larger world. Media is on the level of the world, but games are filtering down through these layers, gradually getting closer to players -- in forms such as MMOs where players invest into their characters. "Nowadays, they're very, very personal," he said.
"Games give us different lenses to put on reality and the world around us," Wright said. He likened this to the experience of becoming a digital photographer -- going around looking for great shots.
"Digital photography is in some sense training wheels for my eyes... After you carry [the camera] around for a few years, you can leave the camera at home and see the world in interesting ways."
Through different perspectives, similar subject matter can be treated very differently in games. For example, to take the concept of a "city," Civilization was historical and regional; Grim Fandango's setting was dramatic and cultural; Grand Theft Auto's setting was tactical and immersive, and his own Sim City was toy-like and systemic.
With these kinds of creative possibilities, said Wright, "Obviously there are a lot more genres that are left to be discovered." Right now, we're "discovering all kinds of games that we didn't know existed, thanks primarily to indie games efforts."
In his view, "media has multiple forms that are thought of quite differently in how they're created," but he wants to see them blend much more. He likened this to scientific research, where the intersections of different disciplines lead to interesting breakthroughs.
"All of the really interesting trends in entertainment are in the intersections," said Wright. Some call it transmedia. His term? Interdisciplinary entertainment.
"I think entertainment is really ripe for this to happen right now," he said. He envisions "people going in as entertainment designers, not game designers, or film directors, or TV producers."
The Opposite of Ghettoization
Right now, various forms of entertainment are intertwined, feeding into each other and moving back and forth -- for example, movies are made into games, or sports are simulated by games; on the other hand, the techniques of how sports are now broadcast have changed to more closely match what has been done in video games, such as by adding digital lines to the field in football games.
"Screens are appearing everywhere," said Wright, and while many appear for utilitarian purposes (car navigation, cell phones) they quickly "evolve into entertainment," which is leading to an "amazing diversification" he likened to the Cambrian explosion in biology.
"It's the opposite of the ghettoization problem," once prophesied for the industry, Wright said. "Of course it's incredibly disruptive to the established companies, but to me, it's the most healthy thing that could be happening to our industry."
He also suggested that developers may be looking at platforms from the wrong perspective: "the culture we're selling a game into is a platform in and of itself; the psychology and the demographics of the players is a platform."
James Cameron's movie Avatar became a huge success globally because people around the world could identify with it -- in fact, different oppressed groups decided it was actually about their struggles.
And these days, he notes, "There used to be a big discrepancy on what we could deliver," using E.T. for the Atari 2600 as an example. "But now we can give something that's very similar to what we can give in a movie."
However, he noted, even with an explosion of new forms of gameplay and new capabilities, "the diversity of programming [in other media] is tremendous relative to games." If you walk into a bookstore, turn on the TV, or look at movies, the subject matter tackled is much more varied.
The Memetic Evolution
When we join communities for the games we like -- or any other online group -- "we join these hive minds... no matter how niche," Wright observed. "It was only after the development of the nerve cell where multicellular organisms were able to specialize... The internet has done much the same thing with human culture."
He sees this as a "memetic evolution, where brains are the unlimited resource."
Moreover, more and more data generated by humans is going to persist in the world. Wright's parents' data was a shoebox full of photos; Wright has generated much more: emails, digital photos, and, of course, his games.
But his son who was just born will probably generate all of his data into the cloud. "Everything he writes is going to persist forever," Wright said. Contrast that to the fact that nearly all of the data generated by average people in Wright's great grandparents' day was lost. We begin to leave a "digital wake" behind us in our lives, and the small islands of accessible data today are "being brought together" in the cloud.
In the next 10 years, says Wright, the U.S. armed forces will deploy "smart dust" which can sense DNA information and other data, create networks, and more. "And the amount of data that these things will be creating will be incredible."
While game developers often speak of the Holodeck as the ideal Star Trek concept for the gaming medium, said Wright, the most fascinating device in Star Trek was the Tricorder... "Which would tell me more about the world around me."
The smartphone, of course, is becoming the Tricorder. "We're getting to the point where these things are starting to build a very interesting vision of our personal state that they can build over time."
There's a proximity value to data, Wright said. As things get closer to you in physical space, in time, in social relevance, and in concepts that have meaning to you, "they have more value."
Situational awareness "is very valuable," Wright said. He recounted a story where he accidentally found a meeting of car collectors when he had an hour to kill. If he hadn't chanced upon it, he never would have found an immensely enjoyable experience. "I think this happens to me all the time; there are opportunities I am not aware of. If I were aware of them my life would be vastly more interesting."
To that end, games can serve a purpose. "I'm really intrigued with this idea that games are engaging us in the world more than distracting us from the world," he said. "We now basically have the infrastructure to deliver" that data. He envisioned a time when his smartphone will know his schedule, his location, and automatically search for events that appeal to him.
If they can take advantage of "situational awareness and user states... I think games are in some sense moving out of the symbolic realm and into the perceptional realm." He doesn't like the term "augmented reality", preferring "blended reality". "It's advancing faster than I ever would have predicted," he said. Using it, "we can all be psychic in some sense."
The Replacement of Perception
"We've had some idea that we can build worlds out of our imagination and create them for all to see," he said. "Anybody can do that and they're not just building their imaginary world, but shared imaginary worlds. We can put any image into the player's brain. What should we put there?"
"As we're gaming" the player's visual processing systems "on a perceptual level," games can change perception. "Data is going through our conscious mind," but "our pre-conscious intelligence is probably the vast majority of our intelligence. What we think we decided... are the results of a very complex pre-conscious process."
He recently bought his wife a new Lexus with a great deal of parallel parking assist options -- such as graphical overlays, cameras, and other technology. "All of these things are designed to help me parallel park; now I can't parallel park," Wright joked. Newer technology in cars observes the state of the driver, he said, and is "slowly replacing my instincts." Games can do this too. "I think it's going to be interesting; as we come up to the human instinctual perceptual level, we'll find it a very brittle system."
"I think games are going to go everywhere -- every topic, platform, group you can imagine," he said. Almost every type of technology had vastly different expectations when it was first designed. He observed. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, initially boasted that "there will be a telephone in every major town."
Most media springs from "very specific problems [the creators] were trying to solve; later they broaden into wider entertainment formats... And only after that, do they start moving back up toward artistic expression."
He observed, "We're trending back upwards clearly, I think."