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Future of Games: Will Wright's New Reality
Future of Games: Will Wright's New Reality
April 18, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

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.

Shifting Perspectives

"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."

Blended Reality

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."

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Christopher Aaby
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I love this guy's way of thinking! I've watched / read a couple of interviews with him, and his approach to game design is unlike any I have ever come across. He must have some truly unique conceptual models of the world around him. Would have made a superb scientist.

Jitesh Panchal
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I completely agree! And, he is a Scientist, scientist of games :)

Thomas Nocera
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A Big Thank You to Christian Nutt for writing such a wonderful, thought-provoking summary of the truly brilliant, and spot on assessments which Will Wright recently made. Mr. Wright covered a vast amount of territory, and you were like a sponge drawing it all in. And now you have very effectively squeezed it all out in a really great - dare I say "must read" Gamasutra article.

Mark Harris
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I think it's telling that one of the most successful developers of all time is a forward thinking optimist who sees only opportunity and not impending doom.

Ryan Loe
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Forward thinking? He's talking about making smart phone apps. Nothing in this article is new or enlightening to anyone who hasn't been hiding in a cave for the last ten years. I do love his poll about recognizing Nimitz vs. Ackbar though. It is a tragedy that young people fail to recognize a man who lived the majority of his life in a world without television cameras and has not greatly contributed to the world in 50 years and yet they recognize a character from one of the most popular movies of all time. Great comparison Will.

He did make a couple of good points, like how technology is replacing our instincts, and that games are sure to follow, but his view that it is a good thing is troubling.

Will Wright was once a great innovator and visionary in this great industry. I now see that it is no longer the case. I pity those who continue to blindly worship him.

Mark Harris
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You are correct, anyone who appreciates his comments or has anything good to say about them is in blind worship mode.

To continue the passive aggressive tantrum... it is entirely impossible that some people do, in fact, disagree with you and consequently agree with Will.

Thanks for your expert analysis and respectful disagreement with your peers.

Ted Tagami
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I like Wright's thesis of the socialization of entertainment. However, did he say anything different in this lecture that he spoke of @ GDC? It sounds like identical.

Dale Craig
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I like the fact that people like Will Wright are thinking (and writing) about the social aspects games. Like books, games can be entertainment but can also be embedded in a social context and can be used to make changes in the real world. It depends on how well the game designer understands how and where games intersect the "real world".

I was recently watching a new television series (Game of Thrones) and was struck by how Knights Tournaments in the middle ages were a form of game. These were events that were highly structured and served to not only practice warfare but to also enforce various social standards (Knights were supposed to be chivalrous and honorable) and demonstrate the social order (Knights, Lords, Peasants).

Games have always been used as a tool to teach/demonstrate/enforce various social skills and standings. With computer and online games we can now teach/demonstrate/enforce much more sophisticated social skills.

If I were a dictator intent on maintaining my power, I would create an online RPG game that included various characters with low and high social status. I would create the Rulers and the Subjects and made sure that everyone playing the game learned that there place was a Subject. I might also pick out some minority group and make their in-game character evil and threatening and make it seem like the Rulers were the only way the evil Minority Group could be held-back. I would then give out free access to everyone under 10 years old (along with a free computer).

Game designers can create Entertainment or they can create instruments of social control or change. It is import to think about such ideas, as Will Wright is doing.

Joe McGinn
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Fascinating interview, thanks.

On the blended/augmented reality thing. I despise the word gamification (to me it conjures up visions of XBox or Farmville style achievements for doing dull things) but I like "blending', that's spot-on what's going to happen. One example: gaming and personal style will cross lines as soon as there is an ubiquitous AR viewer. First people will have an avatar, a helper to follow through the world (maps will be obsolete) and that avatar will be a fashion statement: is yours a fairy, a Halo-style hi-tech AI, a military helicopter? But with AR viewing and awareness of body position (think mobile Kinect) there's no reason for graphics to stop there, people's clothes and bodies will be not just digitally enhanced, but outright replaced. You can walk down the street looking like Chewbacca if you want. Or a hot blond in a red dress if you want to pull a matrix on someone. Blending between the digital and real worlds is exactly what it will be.