Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Acceleration of Gaming

Life must be lived as play. ~ Plato

Fueled by provocative presentations/posts by gaming-oriented thinkers like Jesse Schell, SCVNGR’s Patrick Seth Priebatsch and VC Bing Gordon, the idea that games are spreading into serious areas like work, transportation, shopping and health is finally beginning to spread to the masses.  Of course, like most ideas, this concept has been around for a very long time, taking on various forms.  We can trace it back to iterations like Justin Hall’s Passive Gaming, Zyda’s spin on Serious Games, Wolfram’s work on Cellular Automata, John Nash’s Game Theory, MIlton Bradley’s The Game of Life (1860 - later associated with cellular automata) and even statements made by Plato like the one above.  

But games have been around even far longer than humans have been aware of them.  Thinkers like Wolfram and Nash argue, convincingly, that games are baked into nature itself and originated perhaps billions of years ago, certainly when organisms appeared and began competing with one another for resources, and that people rely on games from moment-to-moment to process thoughts (neural nets), emotions and to inform their behavior.  This big picture view is key as we now contemplate the ongoing spread of games.  It helps us get at the deeper why, rather than just the fascinating how.

Schell does a great job of pointing out how games will interact with pervasive sensors and computers (aka The Internet of Things), which lines up nicely with Gordon’s “video-game-ification of everything” principle and Priebatsch’s argument that 2010-2020 will be the decade of “the gaming layer”.  Each of these frames is a very useful guides to the near-future.  That said, to get the whole story it’s also critical to place these ideas into the context of life-as-game and and accelerating change.

When I refer to accelerating change, I’m not simply talking about Moore’s Law (the regular doubling rate of computer processors) and other hard-tech advances.  I am referencing Kurweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns which he links to information technologies and thinkers like Korotayev argue is the product of the increased rate of networking of human brains (which totally jives with observations like Metcalfe’s Law and Reed’s Law).  We as a people-populated planet are steadily, inexorably getting better at mapping systems and simulating our environment thanks to the information networking enabled by rapidly emerging communication technologies.  It appears to be a natural  planetary development driven by convergence of human created technologies and data pools, and even more fundamentally, the nature of life itself.

Through competition (which also ends up expanding to cooperation - Evo Devo), life produces increasingly more complex structures capable of controlling more resources.  This game has brought us to to 2010 and a world in which games appear poised to saturate everything, just as as technology is poised to do the same.  This parallel timing is not accidental.  Better technology leads to better games.  Better games (aka behavior templates and/or guides) lead to better technology.  The two are intertwined and it can and should be argued that game patterns themselves are a form of technology.  So I am now arguing that games are absolutely critical to the planetary phenomenon that futurists have come to call convergent accelerating change.

If this is the case, then we can venture the prediction that games will proliferate in direct relationship to other accelerating vectors like computer processing, information, communication and perhaps even human intelligence.  There are already countless examples of games being used to generate better products (this can be applied to computer processors), assemble knowledge (crowd-sourcing), facilitate communication & interaction, assist with learning.  It makes a whole world of sense to me that games will be absolutely essential if general acceleration is to continue.

In particular, I find it interesting to contemplate the interaction between games and virtual models of the world and other systems of interest.  Back in 2006 I contributed to a prescient cross-industry foresight project called the Metaverse Roadmap that identified convergence across Virtual Worlds, Mirror Worlds, Augmented Reality and Life-Logging (life logging has since been reconceptualized as Rich Video).  The project slug read: What happens when video games meet Web 2.0? ... What happens is the Metaverse.  This concept applies now, in a big way, and offers great insight into the near and long-term future of gaming.  As we construct virtual infrastructure like Google Earth, Facebook, YouTube and Augmented Reality, we’re ultimately building what IBM researcher Jim Spohrer has dubbed the World Board (what Baudrillard would equate with Hyper-Reality), a cohesive system that allows people to access data about anything and everything in the world around us.  Like the World Wide Web, the World Board seems to be a developmental inevitability.  And it sure looks like gaming is essential if we’re to build this quickly, as the macro trends I listed above suggest must occur.

So then, if games are in fact part and parcel of accelerating change, as I believe must be the case, then we can use that knowledge to formulate new predictions and hypotheses about the future of games and the future in general.  For example, we can argue that the gaming industry will grow massively through 2020. Or that serious games like Waze will explode in popularity. Or that web-based gaming will become essential to managing typically conservative domains like government, business and education.  Or that game theory and studies will be required learning circa 2015.  Or that games will be essential to the increase of human capability and intelligence.  Or that games are likely to plummet in price while increasing in performance and experience rapid commodification.  

Summarized, the general point I am making is that games have always been critical to the evolution and development of living systems, that they are key to our economy and behavior, and that we can expect them to evolve and spread rapidly as we proceed through the knee of some powerful curves that affect everything we know and have come to hold dear.  If acceleration is to continue, games too must accelerate - and we can use that realization to help inform our models and predictions of the world.

Fortunately we have a great deal of experience in this area. As Plato reminds us, we are and have always been compulsive gamers.