In part 1 of this two-part feature we looked at the birth of the gaming industry, which was a crazy ride over four decades of rapid progress. Considering the inexorable spread of mobile across the world, analysts are predicting even bigger things for gaming in the years and decades ahead. Due to the rise of social and ‘freemium’ model games like Candy Crush Saga and Temple Run, which are free to play but with premium upgrades available, almost a third of UK citizens are now mobile gamers, with 6.2 million playing every day. This is not an uncommon picture across the digitised continents and it’s reckoned that mobile gaming will have pushed the global games industry up to be worth over $100 billion by 2017.
With this mass-appeal status has come a natural shift in the demographic gaming appeals to. In America women now make up 47% of the gaming population and one-third of U.S. gamers are over fifty. In the UK female gamers are in the majority and more people over forty-five are playing games than kids and teens. Yes, you read that correctly. Today’s western gamers are mostly women and the over forties, so cultural stereotypes are definitely being smashed right now.
Interestingly in Asia, where deep-seated traditions are often still in play, data collected by the Chinese gaming site 17173 suggests that females make up 66% of Japan’s gamers, compared to 37% in Korea and just 27% in China. As these countries open up politically and culturally though, the landscape is likely to shift faster than anyone can imagine. You see, pretty much the whole of Asia (under a certain age) has been in the thrall of a new obsession for some years now; e-Sports.
Since the turn of the new century professional gaming has been embedding itself into gaming culture, especially in Asia. There are now global tournaments and sponsors with increasingly deep pockets footing the bills in return for lucrative advertising spots. In Seoul last year forty-thousand fans packed out the city’s sporting stadium to watch players compete for a million-dollar prize fund in the League of Legends World Championship, and a further 32 million tuned in online.
In 2013 almost 65% of China’s $13 billion games industry was down to online, from games like World of Warcraft and League of Legends, and the top gamers in many Asian countries are household names. The business of online gaming is booming right across the continent, with China experiencing year on year growth of around 40% in the sector. These numbers are not to be underestimated in today’s financial climate.
The fanaticism shown in some parts of Asia is catching on in the West too. Prize pools in Europe and North America are beginning to grow and with the help of public access media outlets like Twitch TV, the concept of watching games as a sport is begging to take root across the internet. After only three years in existence, Twitch TV – a platform where players can broadcast live gameplay from their desktop – was already clocking up 50 million viewers each month and has now been snapped up by Amazon for almost $1 billion. The interesting thing about Twitch TV is that it operates a profit share scheme for channels broadcasting frequently enough to a lot of viewers. All ad revenue and subscriber fees are then split with these partner channels, and several people have already quit work to play games for a living on the platform.
One big blemish on the industry’s reputation right now though is the issue of gender. Games have been accused of portraying women as victims, or grossly over sexualised like the early Lara Croft, with her impossibly tiny waist and gravity defying boobs. The industry itself is guilty of massive gender disparities as only 11% of game designers are female, and that number plummets to 3% when looking at programmers. This doesn’t make any sense when you consider the gender split in the game playing population. Many women are still being driven away from mainstream online gaming too, where reports of sexism and gender discrimination are rife in the press. It seems while we were all distracted marvelling at the ever more realistic graphics and intricate gameplay, online gaming was allowed to evolve a loudly misogynistic community, where horrific reports of rape and murder threats against women in gaming communities (including publishing female victims’ personal details online in an act known in trolling circles as ‘doxxing’) seem to be the accepted norm.
It’s a battle that I think will rage for some time yet but will balance out in the end. There is a lot of grass roots work going on right now to interest more girls in studying STEM subjects and go on to work in the games industry. Professional gamer, Stephanie Harvey, who also works as a game designer for Ubisoft, believes getting this gender balance right is key to the continued growth of the games industry:
“Gaming is still a new medium but as we see the battle for better graphics slow down, we also see the opportunity for new experiences to emerge. Having gender balance in the gaming industry will help stimulate creativity and will push gaming experiences forward. The market clearly has grown in the last few years and EVERYONE is getting into gaming, but the industry wasn’t prepared for its demand. We want and desperately need new experiences, and diversity in safe and respectful work environments will inevitably and hopefully bring it.”
The battle for better graphics might be slowing down, but that doesn’t mean the war is over in the hardware land grab. With graphics engines running at capacity and the very best creative hands all on deck making the games, innovation in this sector is now dominated by the way we interface with our games. Consumer-ready virtual reality (VR) headsets, which let you look around inside the computer generated world, are becoming a reality and consoles have been using motion detection and voice controls as input methods for some years now. The latest version of the seminal space trading game Elite, released at Christmas after raising £1.5 million in funds from fans through crowd funding site Kickstarter, delivers an online multiplayer galaxy you can explore with your hands on an authentic flight stick, your head encased in an Oculus Rift VR headset and using voice interactions to talk to the ship’s computer. If anything is going to transport you to the cockpit of a Sidewinder in deep space it is that.
This kind of immersive futuristic tech is still uncommon but familiar to us all thanks to the movie industry. Science fiction has a way of becoming science fact and given the work done today in cybernetics and neurosurgical implants, is it really so unthinkable that we might one day be taking Total Recall-style trips into cyberspace? Especially when you consider the impossibly long way Elite has come in just 30 years?
Scientists have already carried out successful tests to surgically link the human nervous system directly to a computer. Imagine the implications for gaming if we can link two brains together over a network? You would just have to ‘think’ the game.
Non-invasive techniques are also coming on in leaps and bounds, with augmented reality, eye tracking, touch and spatially aware sensors all allowing us to interface with technology more and more like we are in Minority Report. There have even been pop stars brought convincingly back from the dead to perform as holograms. How long before we see this kind of technology in our living rooms I wonder?
David Braben believes we are on the brink of completely redefining our perception of games:
“We will see the whole mobile/console/PC distinction by platform disappear, and the distinction for games will revolve more around play time and depth of immersion – “Snack Games” played in 5 minute chunks vs “Match Games” – twenty minutes or so fixed contest type games vs “Session Games” – spread over many two hour plus in-the-living-room epic sessions. The parallel today for video is Youtube clip vs TV program vs cinema film.”
Inevitably we will see consoles themselves disappear too, into other broader devices delivering a range of different services. The power of handheld technology today dwarfs that of consoles from just a few years ago, so why restrict gaming to the living room?
As much as the technology we use continues to evolve, the cultural importance of gaming grows ever deeper roots in society too. In contrast to the blockbusters there is a growing artistic community who believe in gaming as another form of creative expression. Luke Whittaker, from State of Play Games, is experimenting with mixing different mediums in the digital space; building a live-action set out of paper and filming it with real cameras to provide the backdrops for his new game, Lumino City. Luke explained how he’d infused the surroundings with subtext about the nature of technology, innovation and our energy use; the cultural messages are in there but shouldn’t affect gameplay if you choose not to see them. It took him a year to build the set and it had to be filmed in just a day due to budgetary issues involving big, expensive robotic cameras. It was a labour of love and is a work of art that even a seasoned Luddite would be hard pushed to deny. Luke actually believes that games have been so busy defining themselves there hasn’t been much room for cultural expression, but this is about to change:
“Games can now reference our gaming history, and you certainly see a lot of 8-bit, retro-vibed indie titles, plus endless reworkings of what is effectively Wolfenstein, in the Call of Duty/Battlefield franchises… I see the potential for cultural expression in games just getting bigger. If we’ve shown anything with Lumino City, it’s that you can make a game based on all the other influences in your life – architecture, films, art or your own beliefs – and that you don’t need to use the latest high-end technology to do it, just the idea and the will to carry it through. A whole raft of games designers are growing up now, and if they can see that potential, then we’re in for a very exciting future.”
Some games are even beginning to get a reputation for being ‘good’. It’s just a twinkling in the eye of mainstream acceptance right now, but developers like Game the News have been using the medium of game to express world events and political themes for some time. Games like, Endgame: Syria, which launched during the height of the Syrian conflict and used regularly updated current affairs from the war to base the gameplay around, have started to challenge our very perception of the word ‘gamer’.
I regularly see titles coming out in the ‘snack game’ genre highlighted by David earlier, which carry some environmental, social or political message. Use less energy; recycle more waste; eat better food. Worthy but tedious sounding concepts sugar-coated with a game. I’ve even seen a game from Cancer Research UK, which has players exploring an environment built using the genetic data from cancer patients. By flying towards dense clouds of the element they are tasked to collect, players are pointing scientists towards potential hotspots or mutations in the genome, strongly associated with cancer.
But perhaps one day cancer, arthritis, dementia and all those other weaknesses of the flesh will cease to matter at all? We’ll have cybernetic enhancements; 3D printed organ replacements; virus-hunting nanotechnology coursing through our blood streams. Or maybe we’ll be able to upload our minds to the web and have done with our bodies altogether? Although I hope someone stays behind to clean up the mess.
It’s not as farfetched as you might think when you consider that lot of the technologies I just mentioned already exist, they’re just not mass market.
Look how quickly that changed for gaming.