Videogames are no longer the preserve of adolescent males in dark bedrooms. Their emergence as a social medium is changing the way we work, learn and fight warsby Tom Chatfield / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Stronger than ever: World of Warcraft keeps people playing with constant updates and fresh rewards, like this flying mount
Kristian Segerstråle is telling me what makes his videogames company unusual. “Most of the $50bn [£30.4bn] or more spent on videogames each year goes on that emotional, solitary, caveman-like journey of you versus the monsters,” he says. “But our games are different. They’re not about what is going on between you and the screen; they’re about what goes on between you and your friends when you play. They’re much more of a medium and a catalyst, for expression, competition, co-operation.” They are also a stupendously good way of making money.
Segerstråle, a boyish 32, is founder and CEO of Playfish, one of the world’s leading “social gaming” companies: makers of a new kind of videogame that is rapidly becoming as essential to online life as sharing images or reading a blog. It’s mid-November and he is “super excited”—not surprisingly, given that Playfish has just been bought by one of the world’s largest and most revered videogames publishers, Electronic Arts (EA), in a deal worth up to $400m (£250m). Playfish didn’t exist two years ago. Today, its games have over 60m unique monthly players and it’s not even the largest in its sector (market leader Zynga boasts over 100m after just two-and-a-half years in existence). So what, exactly, has been going so right?
The easiest answer has two words: social networks. Facebook, the world’s most influential social networking platform, now has over 300m active users. The only website to command more online traffic is Google. Other leading social websites like MySpace and Bebo reach several hundred million users globally. Factor into this the swelling number of smart-phones with internet capabilities, such as Apple’s iPhone, and you have a big business opportunity. Because, next to sending messages, the single most popular activity within these new social platforms and on these new devices is playing games.
The history of games is as old as civilisation. Competitive games are recorded as far back as 2,600BC, while archaeologists have found game “boards” that were apparently scratched onto the backs of statues by bored Assyrian guards in the 8th century BC. Technology has not changed human nature but it has given unprecedented rein to some of our innate impulses and, in particular, to those parts of us that the world of work and business have not used to best advantage: our love of exploration, learning, interaction and, perhaps above all, our sense of fun.