A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome. — Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, p. 80
Games are everywhere — ubiquitous.
According to a 2019 study completed by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a trade association for the gaming industry in the United States, Americans are playing more games now than ever before — 2018 was a record sales year, exceeding $43.4 billion. The ESA also found that Americans played games for numerous reasons. These reasons included mental stimulation (79%) and relaxation and stress relief (78%). Video games aren’t the only winners. In fact, more and more people are playing analog games as well. Wizards of the Coast, the designer of the fan-favorite Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, reported that “[the game] has been around for 45 years and it is more popular now than it has ever been.” Commentators and industry experts seem to agree that the use of Twitch to broadcast live gaming sessions and, of course, Netflix’s Stranger Things, have helped Dungeons & Dragons sales. In 2016–2017, the market research group NPD, Inc., reported a significant increase in games/puzzles sales, an indicator that video games aren’t the only part of the game industry seeing significant gains with consumers.
What do these trends tell us? Why should we pay attention to them?
To the artists, storytellers, game designers, and businesspeople in the room, y’all should be jumping up and down with excitement. Games ARE the future, and this is especially true with record sales across the industry, particularly in video games. Moreover, games, both digital and analog, have the capacity to tackle social issues, develop new forms of storytelling and total immersion, and extend to player-participants ceaseless worlds/universes.
Tackling Social Issues.
Games have a very powerful potential to tackle contemporary social issues. Games, like many forms of speculative-fiction, have the ability to serve as a sort of simulation, something that allows for low-risk, high-reward situations. In other words, games serve as a vessel for solving real-world problems without the huge costs of supercomputers, quantum computers, or decades of specialized research. Although these things are important, gaming provides solutions to problems in unique ways, ways in which the scientists, policymakers, and researchers might want to pay attention to. Games, with their powerful tools of storytelling, immersion, and world-creation, are able to develop mentally stimulating platforms for tackling seemingly mundane tasks. Interesting aside, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States is said to use games to train analysts, so games are already being used to tackle real-world issues for an American spy agency.
Aside from the low-risk, high-reward situations offered up by games, games also provide players with a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging solves increasingly important issues in the developed world (and elsewhere) — those of loneliness and alienation. Games, in others, can be used to connect people and help them through difficult times in their lives.
Although it has been said above, it cannot be understated here. Games provide relaxation and stress release along with mental stimulation. These benefits help people remain productive members of society, and this means games are an important social tool that can help with issues like burnout syndrome and work-/life-related stress.
Social issues like income insecurity, glass ceilings, and the lack of economic opportunities could be solved, in part, thanks to games. Games, particularly massively multiplayer games, provide jobs for those who lack economic opportunities, whether they be in rural New Mexico or in Shanghai. Games also offer an ability to move beyond glass ceilings, often seen and experienced by minorities and women. Despite the GamerGate hatred, women and minorities are needed in the game industry, and these individuals could offer unique perspectives and new gaming franchises that would benefit large (and small) game studios in the industry. Although I am skeptical of games providing an end-all solution to income insecurity, I would argue that games, of all forms, could offer those who are underemployed, underpaid, etc., an opportunity to make money, especially considering the state of mining operations in massively multiplayer games like famous MMORPGs.
Storytelling and Total Immersion.
I would argue that storytelling and total immersion are the strengths of both good (written) works and games. Like Janet H. Murray before me, in Hamlet on the Holodeck, I believe games are, in part, following in the footsteps of print culture. However, I would add to this by saying that games are also an extension of natural instincts (and cultural practices) of play and games that existed well before print culture took hold. In other words, I stand between the narratologists and the ludologists, who don’t seem to see things this way. Nevertheless, a good game, to me, requires some form of narrative, even if this is a simplistic narrative or one that is disregarded after play begins. Another important element of games is the use of total immersion. With each passing year, game engines like Unreal are offering players immersion at levels unheard of before now. (Aside: Graphics don’t always create immersion. In fact, fun can be more engrossing than amazing graphics — see video below for an explanation.) These tools of storytelling and immersion have been discussed, at length, by some of my articles here on Medium (see my profile or “More By” suggestions). With that said, I will end this section by arguing that gaming’s potential, whether it be analog or digital gaming, could be realized by utilizing storytelling tools (from digital and print works) and offering an immersive environment, one in which the player-participant doesn’t want to leave, or, maybe, just maybe, these player-participants are willing to spend money on, especially in a world where our attentions are being diverted by numerous products, including streaming services, social media, etc.
Although one could argue that developing ceaseless worlds/universes could be subsumed under “total immersion,” I have decided to tackle this outside of immersion. I am seeing this as a form of design approach. Developing a never-ending world, a world that can be explored and experienced, much like our own world, is quite compelling to me, and other gamers. I would argue that offering a never-ending or ceaseless world or universe offers the potential for long-term gameplay and it increases the chances of playability. Examples of ceaseless(ish) worlds include Elder Scrolls Online, EVE, and even the classic Ultima Online. However, these ceaseless worlds run the risk of being too much too soon, especially for beginners. This is where I applaud the efforts of Elder Scrolls Online, where newbs, like myself, can explore the world of Elder Scrolls without being killed off in a matter of minutes — although that is still a possibility, you do have to work at it. If our goal is to bring player-participants back, we, as designers, need to consider how we approach the newbs, as well as the veteran and hardcore gamers. Failing to create a dynamic product will lead to some serious sustainability issues, and these issues could (very well) spell doom for a new game.
This is the point of the article where I discuss the “So What?” questions or the implications of what I’ve been talking about. It’s something I’ve started doing lately, in order to help busy readers understand the importance of my claims, as stated above.
Games are the future — really, they are the future.
With that said, we must realize that games are more than a mere pastime. At least 79% of gamers seek out gaming for mental stimulation. Mental stimulation is something that is quite hard to come by in our world, a world with bullshit jobs (see David Graeber’s comments on these sorts of jobs) and where meaning and belonging are becoming increasingly meaningless, despite living in a world where social media are supposed to be connected people.
Games offer a simulation tool, in which gamers can solve real-world issues through gaming. Gaming also provides very real tools for combating loneliness and alienation. Games could provide governments the tools to pull people out of poverty, to decrease income insecurity, and, more importantly, offer women and minorities the ability to move beyond glass ceilings.
Gaming could use the traditional tools of storytelling and immersion to develop products that are both engrossing and competitive in a world where our attention is being constantly diverted to other products.
Finally, businesspeople, artists, writers, and game designers could capitalize on the gaming crazy by providing ceaseless worlds/universes that player-participants want to flock to. Moreover, gaming studios could develop re-playable and dynamic products by offering ceaseless worlds/universes that don’t gobble up players when they begin days, weeks, months, or years behind the first wave of gamers.
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