Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Games aren't Just for Playing!

I wrote a post a few months ago about gaming. The post got deleted due to the blogger app being a bitch. I couldn't retrieve the post so I rewrote the post completely anew and here it is again. I chose to post it today, a few hours before the group stages for the Season 4 League of Legends World Championships kick off. The Season 3 Final, held in Staples Center LA, was watched by 32 million people worldwide. If you are not watching yet, you are at the right place, read this post then go watch/play some games.

I have always been big on video-games and, with the recent explosion of e-sports, extremely excited for the future of gaming. E-sports, for the noobs, is just electronic sports i.e competitive gaming. As a concept, e-sports has been big in Asia for a while. (I use Asia in the American geographical sense, meaning it only includes south-east Asia, China, Korea and so on. Russia is part of Europe. India does not exist.) In the recent past, e-sports has exploded in the US. Of course it has always existed, but never on a scale anywhere near what it is now. The advent of live streaming has been just the perfect catalyst to bring what was already a culture of passionate, if disorganized, competition, mainstream. There's a long way to go but at least e-sports has arrived.
League of Legends All Star event in Paris, e-sports are the real deal, believe it.
This in itself is something I would generally write about. I don't see myself writing about how professional gamers now earn regular salaries and have seasons, playoffs and world championships. Or how pro gaming events have everything from huge corporate sponsorship to millions of viewers watching live to millions of dollars in prize money. Or how both Sony and Microsoft are catching on fast and the next incarnation of both their consoles and have built in live streaming support. Or how the US govt recently granted League of Legends Championship Series' international players the same visa status that international sports players are accorded. And now everyone knows Twitch, the game streaming service recently acquired by Amazon for $1 billion. No... these are details, facts that I will leave to news portals or someone more entrenched in the actual e-sports scene. If you have been to this blog before, you know you are not here to read facts. Or news. No, what you expect to see here is a philosophical argument why something is as it is, and my opinion on what it should be. Well... I shall not disappoint.

Too many people I know consider video games a childish pursuit. This would not upset me if they simply did not like games, maybe they are just different, don't like the same things I do. It is when they are fervent advocates, and proselytize that gaming is bad for you that I take exception.

So tell me, you who deplore video games, what is your preferred medium for entertainment or education?

If you answered, watch TV or read a book

Sure TV and books are entertaining, but they are passive, not active, entertainment. Information -educational or recreational - flows through TV and books unidirectionally from the author to you, there is no participation required from you. Of course, there are merits to this method, books and movies have taken us to wonderful lands, real or imagined, beyond what we could ever experience first hand. We can travel distant planets and depths of the ocean from the comfort of our room. Yet we are always reminded that in the end, it is a story borne out of a creative mind, and you are welcomed to see the world as he paints it. The greatest author, or actor/director is one who can make you believe the experience is as personal to the reader/listener/viewer as to himself. Yet try as you might, in the end, the product is the experience of the creator and not the audience.

Another more important limitation is the lack of ability to communicate in more ways than one. Books and audio/video are a two person interaction, from the author to the audience. The author usually has a vision he wants to convey and the audience can interpret it only so freely. The connection the audience can share with the art form is limited by the authors vision. Many audience members may also associate the art with other audience members, for example the romantic song you share with your partner, the book your brother made you read, the movie that only your inner circle of friends know about. Yet, the art form itself limits its own meaning, the meaning that was given to it by its creator. It would hard (not impossible) to share a special love song with your brother, or a book about endless suffering with your lover. In the end the inability of the media to be as multi-dimensional as humans subtly encourages the audience to limit their own range based on the art or education they identify the most with.

If you answered, play games and sports

Games have been played by people for centuries. A good game can transcend age, race, language and interests. Every person sees a game as a different object, some see a puzzle to be solved, some see a challenge to be conquered, others see an opportunity to learn while others might just enjoy the company of others. The same game can be all of those things to different people. A game can be educational and entertaining, competitive and cooperative, fantastic and strategic. Most importantly a game is experiential, not instructional, active, not passive. You learn by doing, not seeing. In the end, books and TV might be great media to explore the inside of an atom or outer space, but they can never describe the experience of say, sky diving or simply the thrill of competition, better than the visceral experience itself.
Mancala (in Africa) or Pallankuzhi (in South India) is one of the oldest games known to man, over 3000 yrs old.
Yet, the games and sports we play today, represent a old world that we are fast outpacing as a society. The Olympic sports were invented at a time when physical fitness was the most important factor in deciding the worth of a man. This is why all the sports we know gear us towards better physical fitness since that is assumed to be a worthy ideal. As a result they are limited by what our bodies can do. A hundred years ago, that was enough. However, the industrial age and now the information has shown us, that amazing as our bodies are, our minds are far, far superior.

A sport creates an artificial arena with a few rules and gives the players the freedom to create an experience they like. The same game can be played in an ultra competitive manner with championship rivals, or a casual friendly way with friends. It can be played without even keeping score, just for the camaraderie. If a guy loves football, he can watch professional championships, play with friends competitively and also coach his son; his love for the sport can transcends individual experiences like books and movies rarely can (its possible, but uncommon). If physical sports whose design is so severely restricted by our physical abilities are still so versatile, imagine how far sports for the mind could transcend these limitations.

Hence electronic games (which for historical reasons are still called video games). A video game can be a book, movie, song and sport at the same time, and be so much more. As a form of art it can have all the elements of a creative author, communicating a vision to the player, and still leave plenty of room for the player to create his own unique experience. As a sport it can have all the teamwork, competition, focus and strategy elements that build character.

Minecraft satisfies the basic criteria for a game, an artificial world built with a fixed set of rules with the added freedom of being able to choose the goal. And the ability to compete or cooperate with not just a few people around you, but anyone around the world, as many as you want. You could play alone or with a 5 yr old or 50 yr old (a tech savvy grandma perhaps) or with a whole group and the experience would be unique every time.
Minecraft has been a remarkable proof of principle of  the educational and entertainment powerhouse a video game can be.
Video games can revolutionize the education and art industries if they let it. However the stigma and inertia in these arenas is strong. There exists a strong entrenched disdain for video games as a legitimate medium. Historically gamers were the losers of society, who were not cool enough to be social and not smart enough to do something worthwhile when alone. Video games of a previous generation were mostly just single player reflex tests, one dimensional puzzles at best, barring a few gems. This historic origin of video games in the entertainment industry is however purely incidental and very unfortunate. The development of video games, like in all entertainment, was towards making flashier and more addictive games that encouraged players to spend money and time on it purely for entertainment. The stigma of being a time wasting enterprise for losers still holds it back to this day.

But more and more people are now seeing the light. We see self confessed gamers becoming successful by other more mainstream metrics. With many tech millionaires and entertainers "coming out" as avid gamers, the average person can no longer claim that gaming is not for successful people, smart or sexy. It had to happen eventually because the stigma is ultimately unfounded; games are only harmful in excess, just like everything else. With gaming being more and more acceptable, new forms of gaming are evolving.

Amazing single player games which are some of best, most fun and challenging puzzles ever made by man. (Portal, Antichamber, NoTPron, Crimson Room come to mind, there are too many I can't remember right now)

Great multiplayer games you can play with teams of friends, requiring fantastic team play and intricate strategy. (League of Legends, DOTA, Age of Empires are some of my favorites)

Fascinating single player games which are incredible stories, rivaling books and movies in content. (Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, and of course Warcraft)

Massively Multiplayer games, which have no analogs in the history of man, since no story or experience has ever been created collectively by millions of authors. (WoW, Destiny, Life itself :P)
Age of Empires - my first foray into team gaming. Infi paladins conquer all.
While these are mostly entertainment, gaming is being applied in other areas such as education and research such as -
Fold it - A puzzle game where you have to disentangle proteins, millions of people play it recreationally, exercising their brains while actually helping solve problems in medical research.
Minecraft - An open world game which are so versatile that they have been used everywhere from education to art and still new ideas are being generated everyday. e.g Here is an great minecraft mod to help introduce kids to Quantum physics.

It is true that games for entertainment dominate the zeitgeist than any other, but as I said, that is purely due to historical accident. Facebook games and apps have set the game industry back a little, perpetuating the stereotype of stupid, addictive games. But it had to be from the entertainment industry that gaming had to break out into the mainstream consciousness. Given its birth in entertainment, games can only conquer the rest of the world once they are taken seriously at home. E-sports has been just that. Gaming is now a spectator sport with millions of people watching professional gamers in competitive tournaments. With Amazon buying Twitch, I expect investment in the gaming sector to explode.

But my expectation from the future of gaming is more than just entertainment. Today when books or movies are created, an accompanying video game is usually made for the relatively small section of the audience who also play games. With advances in technology and acceptance of games as as an art form, I expect the video game to completely absorb and transcend the movie and book experience. Imagine if you could play the entire story rather than just see or read it. If you were feeling lazy or in a hurry, put it on autoplay, and it becomes a movie. Turn off audio and video and it becomes a book.

In truth, I expect video games to become the mainstream form of entertainment, the next generation of art, requiring graphic artists, thespians, musicians and writers, with books and movies being the add on media lacking that ultimate user experience of creative freedom.

I imagine virtual reality to be able to give us a taste of what it feels like to fly like an eagle and swim with the whales, travel to the stars and expand the horizons of the every person.

I expect neuro-eletronic games to allow us to visualize and create what we cannot even put in words and tell us what our dreams mean.

I expect video games to make collaborative classrooms where kids (and adults) across the globe can play together.

I want video games to show us that a million minds can create much more than silly viral videos, and unlock whole new paradigms for emergent creativity.

I want to see things that I cannot even predict because my imagination is limited by my past experiences.

What makes me the happiest, and fills my heart with optimism for the future, is that, for once, progress does not require a revolution. Everyday whether you know it or not, one more thing in your life is turned into a game, from the way you exercise (Nike+) to your kids educational modules. If you do not like games, you will soon be in the minority. Soon you will be an old person, who will rue the old days when education used to be boring and work was monotonous like it was supposed to be. When experienced could only be narrated not shared, and worlds could only be imagined not felt. The future is bright for gaming and it is only a matter of time before gaming sheds its stifling entertainment mold and becomes integral to every part of our life. It does make me sad that India is not a leader, not even a follower in this field, but I guess I shouldn't complain too much.

As aptly put by Twitch, "Games aren't just for playing".  

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