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Submitted By: David R. Lorentz
The development of gaming in the next eleven years will be revolutionary but quiet. The technological arms race will begin to slow down, hampered by skyrocketing development costs and diminishing returns. In its place, smaller games with a broader range of dramatic theme will emerge.
Games will come into their own as a dramatic form, and begin to settle into their place beside music, novels, theater, and films. Many of today's arbitrary barriers will fall—those between the online and the offline, the real and the digital, the social and the mechanical. Styles and platforms will merge, and creators will come from everywhere.
As games' cultural significance broadens, their pervasiveness in everyday life will deepen. The continuing development of mobile technology, and the explosion of wearable, trackable tech, will interface the social world with the digital world, merging ARGs with traditional video games, and bringing large-scale gaming to the streets. Popular games will be cultural phenomena, discussed among friends and analyzed by art critics.
A popular game in 2020 is titled Fate. Like a lot of games of its era, it combines a simple gameplay mechanic with an integrated narrative theme, and extends a structured single-player experience to an open social game. A description of the game's central mechanics, and an analysis of each mechanic as a reflection on the state of games in 2020, follows.
Mechanic 1: Programming a robot
Fate begins as a single-player experience, consisting of a tightly structured gameplay experience that presents clear rules and consequences to the player. It is a simple tile-based puzzle game, with narrative elements intertwined.
The player is charged with using a deck of cards to program a robot with if-then statements (for instance, if there is a wall ahead, then turn left), then setting the robot free to autonomously navigate obstacle courses. At each tile, the robot evaluates his cards, and performs the first action corresponding to a true If card. If none of the If cards is true, the robot moves forward by default.
Within and between levels, the robot talks to the player and opines his existence. He is not happy that all his actions are determined by a set of cards. He resents the player for controlling him, but at the same time he appreciates the player for causing him to do anything at all. As the game progresses, the robot seeks to achieve self-determination in a variety of ways; each tack affects a series of levels.
For instance, at one point the robot acquires a randomization chip, and for the set of levels that follow, some of the if-then slots are randomized. The robot is inevitably disappointed as he gradually realizes that everything in the physical world, even the human brain, is a deterministic system governed by rules.
Technologically and mechanically, this portion of the game could easily have existed in an equivalent form in decades past. In fact, many games with similar gameplay mechanics preceded Fate. But the characteristic that exposes Fate as a game of its era is the integrated narrative theme.
The developers of Fate carefully developed the theme alongside the gameplay; both the gameplay mechanics and the story revolve around autonomy, self-determination, and fate—themes which were chosen for their dramatic relevance to the gaming culture of the time. This sort of integrated thematic development is common practice in 2020.
Mechanic 2: Programming a Human
As the single-player game develops and the robot begins to question the concept of self-determination, the robot asks the player to conduct experiments on humans. If humans were programmed like I am, the robot wonders, would they feel any differently than they usually do? To perform these experiments, the gameplay extends to real people in the real world—to others playing Fate.
In this portion of the game, players write programs intended to guide other players from a defined real-world start point to a clandestine end point. Every player is a programmer, and every player is also capable of executing others' programs in the world.
As players go about their everyday lives, they encounter the start points programmed by other players, and may choose to take on programs. Wearable tech (network-enabled glasses and contact lenses), used commonly in everyday life, provides a real-world HUD for players to identify start points, displays the program when players choose to take it on, and displays the end point when found.
The programming process follows the mechanism established in the single-player portion of the game: the programmer draws from a large set of If and Then cards, in some cases writing his own cards, to program the path. For instance, “If you encounter a manhole cover, then enter the nearest subway station.” The craziest, most interesting, most surprising programs garner recognition amongst the Fate community and become hits; players can replay programs they like, though points are only rewarded the first time through.
The programmer's goal in this portion of the game is to accumulate points, representing data points in the robot's study, by guiding players correctly to the end point. Both the programmer and those being programmed are rewarded when they reach the correct end point.
If players get lost (defined as moving beyond x meters from the target area) or stuck in an infinite loop, the programmer loses points. If a player following a program fails to follow the program to a T, he loses points. All of this is enabled by the everyday mobile technology of 2020, which tracks player position and visually records player activity.
This portion of the game extends the tradition of “big games” and ARGs that began to develop around the turn of the century. The thorough integration of technology and life that is possible in 2020 allows for a set of digital rules in the physical world to be evaluated concisely (by the system rather than the players), enforced, and integrated directly with the digital game. This supplantation of carefully designed and balanced digital game mechanics into the social world is responsible for the explosive popularity of games like Fate.
In 2020, many of the most popular digital games involve play in public spaces. To those not involved in the game and therefore largely unaware of the HUD elements that define other players' activities, these players' actions can seem inexplicable.
However, to anyone who has lived to the year 2020, these inexplicable actions no longer seem weird. A new breed of nerd has emerged, and come to be called the herd: this term describes the serious public game player, who allows the majority of his public acts to be defined by the games he is playing rather than his own agency.
This social phenomenon is important to the thematic impact of Fate; its relevance to the game's themes of determinism and fate goes unsaid, but is crystal clear to the gamers of 2020.
Games like Fate will play a central role in the game space of the future. The task of their famed creators will be to hone game mechanics to a sharp point, which penetrates from game, to life, to meaningfulness. The goal is for integrated gameplay and narrative to provide perspectives on a central dramatic premise. Technology will enable this revolution, but creativity and passion will fuel it.