When I was at university nearly 20 years ago I wrote an article for a local paper about how gaming wasn’t just a fad and in fact would grow to become the predominant form of entertainment. My uni friends read it and laughed, even those that played for hours every day on my Sega Mega Drive. When I began my career as a games analyst 14 years ago, I began to reiterate this belief to any that would care to listen. However, this was typically met with silence accompanied by a polite but dismissive smile. Far from backing down, my view became more extreme and I soon evolved my hypothesis to the belief that gaming would not only become the predominant form of entertainment but will end up subsuming all other forms of entertainment media.
Since I first began asserting my increasingly bullish belief around a decade ago, the games industry has more than tripled in size, undergone a demographic metamorphosis and the dismissive smiles have, ever so steadily, begun to give way to brief contemplative reflection invariably then followed by the same dismissive smile. In the last few years, my statement has finally begun to elicit some debate, in particular following the remarkable performance of the music games genre in 2008. However, I have yet to find anyone that completely concurs with my point of view. So let me see if I can persuade you.
The evolution of the games industry is not just one of appreciating dollar value or hardware and software units sold. It has precipitated and been accompanied by substantial changes to the definition of a gamer. The original PlayStation popularised gaming amongst 20-something males and diversified the industry from its historic teen and pre-teen target market. Peripheral based gaming such as SingStar and Buzz resulted in a smaller scale but equally radical demographic shift, widening the games family to include more female and older gamers. This process has been dramatically accelerated by the Wii, DS and casual online PC gaming forcing average ages further upwards and creating greater gender parity. With household penetration of gaming still 20 points behind television, I believe this process still has a long way to run but its trajectory is clear to me: the social acceptability of gaming will only increase. The playing of games may well suffer temporary cyclical dips but will continue to grow, eventually encompassing everyone capable of playing a game.
Getting everyone to play games and play games regularly is not, though, the same as having games devour all other entertainment media. TV, after all, has been both ubiquitous and universally adopted for decades now. What games has which TV does not is flexibility. The definition and boundaries of gaming have changed beyond all recognition in the last decade; it now spans massively multiplayer online games and other virtual worlds, microphone, guitar and other peripheral based gaming, motion control and gesture-based gaming, mass-participation interactive gameshows, alternate and augmented reality games. You can even play a game while driving a hybrid car that rewards your environmentally friendly driving with more leaves to a virtual tree on the dashboard.
The proliferation of platforms on which games can be played and methods by which the games can be accessed and interacted with has accelerated over the last decade and shows no sign of slowing down. Key for my hypothesis is that these changes are enabling a gradually increasing technological overlap with traditional entertainment media. Mass participation TV formats such as Idols and Big Brother built around audiences interacting and controlling the shows’ outcome have dominated TV ratings all over the world in recent years. Music games were virtually unheard of 5 years ago but a generation of children are now growing up expecting the most popular songs to be released in interactive format. No blockbuster movie is complete without a games tie-in and developers’ co-operation with the movie studios is enabling ever more asset and technique sharing.
Whilst the definition of a game and the way in which games are played has changed, the core concept of gaming broadly remains the same, challenge-oriented entertainment-based interactivity (or even just entertainment-based interactivity). I believe that, as has happened with popular music, the concurrent development of interactive and non-interactive media will increasingly become standard in other major entertainment media over the next decade or two. Gaming in all its manifold forms will gain ever broadening outlets. Connected TVs will become standard and, combined with more intuitive interfaces, will enable all “broadcast” shows to be interacted with. The process of visual media and games development will continue to merge delivering movies and games which are increasingly visually indistinguishable from each other.
Fast forward 20 or 30 years and it is easy to see a future where all major entertainment media has both interactive and non-interactive forms. I believe that interactive media will increasingly be designed for optional passive consumption allowing, as some music games already do, the media simply to be played rather than interacted with. At this stage, however, why would you develop a separate non-interactive version? Interactivity delivers greater engagement, greater fun and greater monetisation potential. Add to this the inevitable ubiquity of games platforms, universal connectivity and social preference for gaming and it is hard to see how games will not eventually dominate all entertainment media, if not become, in some capacity or another, the majority of entertainment media. It is not to say that games companies will subsume other entertainment media businesses but that gaming concepts and practices will increasingly lead and ultimately dominate all entertainment media creation and delivery.
Do I detect a dismissive smile there?