Earlier this year, I went to Oxford to speak at the TED Global conference. The video of my talk is now online, and you can watch it on the TED site. I was talking about the topic that consumes most of my time when I’m not thinking about arts or books: videogames, and the staggering amount of human time and effort they claim every year. It’s a $50bn global industry projected to surpass $80bn in a few years’ time, while some games are—to the great concern of many—better than almost anything else we’ve ever devised at getting people to pour very real effort, time, attention and affection into virtual worlds.
This year’s TED was about “the good news,” so I tried to look beyond the understandable worries that games can feed, and to analyse the structural reasons that games are so good at commanding so much attention. It’s a power in part due to how fundamental game-playing is as a human activity, and in part due to the staggering quantity and quality of data electronic games gather about what does and doesn’t keep people playing. We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to be satisfied by the world in particular ways; and to be intensely satisfied as a species by learning and problem-solving. We are now able to reverse-engineer that, and to produce environments that exist expressly to tick our evolutionary boxes.
When it comes to creating an actual game, the “fun first” principle is an absolute: before anything and everyth…