As I type, about five thousand miles to my west one of the largest events in the computer world is winding down in a bloodbath of after-parties. The event is the Game Developers Conference, an annual gathering at which the great and the good of computer gaming talk about the future of their industry—and about just how significant they are these days. And 13,000 hungover attendees in San Francisco are now pretty significant by any standards.
Within my lifetime, computer gaming has grown from a (male, teenage) geek’s slightly shameful hobby to a (unisex, all-ages-welcome) global industry that’s in the same league as movies and music. And still it grows: the US market alone was worth $18bn in 2007, an increase of 43% on 2006, while the global industry is now worth over $30bn. At some point during my lifetime it will, I believe, become the biggest media industry in the world.
An old friend of mine has been involved in the gaming industry for the last decade, and is currently out at the GDC, networking his socks off and blogging regularly on some of the conference’s main speaking events. Even for those who know about games, there’s plenty of food for thought in his write-ups. As an amateur enthusiast, though, his account of one particular conference talk struck a chord with me—on “gaming’s future via online worlds.”
It’s a fascinating area because, for many people, the social possibilities presented by web 2.0 are at once wonderful and limited; useful for exchanging lots of information with friends and acquaintances; for meeting like-minded enthusiasts in any field; for wasting a bit of omgwtf? browsing time; but nothing that allows one really to bond or meaningfully meet others, or to have lasting, rewarding fun. Games change all this. Just as playing and watching sport provides an international common ground that nothing—including religion—can quite match in terms of bringing people together, so the constraints, rewards and discipline of gaming provide an environment in which you can rapidly gain a strong sense of who other people are (and whether you like them or not).
Increasingly, of course, there’s less and less of a clear divide online between “serious,” “social” and “play” spaces. But it is astonishing how gaming can rewrite many of our assumptions about what constitutes a “meaningful” interaction with others—like seeing them face-to-face, or having a social background in common—and how the…