The Future of Video Games

The following article was originally published on ThatGaminSite on May 4, 2010.

The entertainment industry has no plans to leave your living room anytime soon. The market for electronic games is expanding. Today’s games yield more realism than ever, which yields more fun, which yields more sales. But, what about tomorrow’s? What might an electronic game look like in the future after gaming has become a mainstream form of entertainment? What will the platform be like? What moral challenges will it present.

Many have written about the future of gaming predicting which current hardware platform will prevail in the near term or perhaps theorizing how gamers will frolic in a virtual playground in the far out future. Let’s speculate about the gaming world a few decades from today, a time before most of us have undergone the real life respawning process known as death. In movie chronology we are somewhere between Lawnmower Man and A.I. If Moore’s Law of processor power doubling every 18 months is still in effect, we will be gaming on systems with speeds well over 10,000 Ghz. Of course, by this time Silicon Valley may have been renamed Bio Valley or Molecular Valley because processors will likely be based on some form of nanotechnology. Don’t worry, we’re not going to get bogged down in the details of specific technologies. We’ll take a general view and have some fun speculating.

No matter how far technology advances, certain aspects of gaming will remain constant. The plots and characters of today’s role playing games will likely remain. Such elements as the marksmanship of shooters, the thrill of speed in the racing genre, the classic dogfight of flight sims, and the strategizing of the oldest game in the world, chess will continue until our swords are beaten into plowshares. We would expect the basic elements that charm the human heart to remain intact.

One of the most fascinating and believable visions of future entertainment systems is Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Holographic Environment Simulator or Holodeck. Designed unabashedly for the purpose of relaxation and recreation on long, stressful, interplanetary voyages, the Holodeck allows users to run programs to experience a historical period, work out a personal problem, or just have fun. The Holodeck does such a good job of simulating reality that crewmembers sometimes have difficulty distinguishing real characters from virtual ones.

We’re probably a long way away from having a coin-op Holodeck in every truck stop, yet we can all see the day coming when a game character appears as a real human. Ultimately, we will end up with a gaming platform that simulates reality in a very convincing way. How can we know that the Holodeck-style experience is inevitable? Because that’s what we want. And technology and capitalism always ensure that we eventually get what we want.

What characteristics will the game platform of the future have?

It will be social

Outside of solitaire and single player pc and console titles, most games have historically required human interaction. The need for an opponent or team-mate will always exist because no gamer is an island. The emergence of clans that compete in ladders and leagues are just a foretaste of what will happen when gaming becomes mainstream. Professional electronic gaming league games will one day entertain millions of fans.

It will arouse all 5 senses

Human sensory experience is limited to the 5 senses. It’s just a matter of time before game developers are able to capitalize on each of them. Not only will we feel your pain, but see, hear, taste and smell it. Today’s typical hardware stimulates senses of sight, hearing, and perhaps feeling (ForceFeedback). We should be seeing hardware devices reach beyond a simple view screen and speakers to stimulate the other senses as well.

Eventually, there must be some type of hardware display revolution that visually immerses the gamer instead of simply painting a flat screen with pixels as today’s computer monitors and television screens do. Electronic gaming will make a quantum leap when a new type of display device is invented to replace the monitor/TV screen. Such a device, once developed, standardized, and mass produced, will provide the level of realism needed to attract large numbers of consumers to the electronic gaming playground. Perhaps at this point electronic gaming will enter the mainstream and compete with the film industry.

Ethereal Technologies has developed a graphics display technology which may lay the groundwork for a new visual display revolution. The Volumetric Imaging Systems or VIS4D workstation allows users to perceive real-time 3D images without the use of glasses. According to the company’s website, interacting with 3D video game characters and environments is one of the potential uses. Even if this specific technology is not the one that revolutionizes the visual experience of gaming, it does show that developers understand the potential for a realistic holographic display device.

Listen up. Instead of merely hearing the sound of an explosion and seeing its effects, a future gamer will feel the shock waves as well. One current product that demonstrates this idea is the Rumblefx™ headphones, which according to the company “actually shake and vibrate for a totally addictive sensation that takes the virtual reality of positional audio all the way.” Perhaps someone will even develop a audio device for games that transmits sound through the skin similar to Dr. Patrick Flanagan’s Neurophone, currently used to assist the deaf in hearing.

We have all seen arcade racers that tilt and jolt players for effect. Some flight sim maniacs even use gaming chairs to simulate position. When discussing the sense of touch, Microsoft’s ForceFeedback technology immediately comes to mind. As a stick, its vibratory effect is limited; but if adapted to future hardware, it could portend some serious seismic fun. Imagine simulating an earthquake in the Holodeck.

Love the smell of napalm the morning? Plans to utilize the sense of smell in future games are already underway. A company called Digiscents has developed the iSmell device, which they say is a “speaker-sized computer peripheral device that attaches to the serial or USB port of your personal computer and plugs into a standard electrical outlet and emits naturally-based vapors into the user’s personal space.”

Jonathan Seidenfeld, a Director at Digiscents says, “Just as the PlayStation revolutionized interactive games, the iSmell will take games to the next level of immersion and realism.” It’s said that this thing actually works. Over 2000 game developers have signed up to use the sdk.

How game developers might integrate the sense of taste into future games is unknown. It would certainly mean potential revenue gains for Starbucks, Sara Lee, and Baskin Robbins. I suppose even the best holographic cheese cake would not completely fool the taste buds, the wisest of all the five senses.

It will be affordable

One of the factors that allowed pc sales to explode in the 80’s was the low cost. If we accept that computers and gaming consoles are affordable today, then tomorrow’s gaming platform will likely sell in a reasonable price range. Some advertising slogans could be “Keep your little ones off dangerous streets and out of a filthy environment. Try our safe and clean 3d gaming environment” or “Teach your children family values in a our Father/Son Classic Capture the Flag Tournament.”

It will be customizable

User maps, skins, models, will likely be traded throughout Internet user communities just like they are today. Of course a 3d holography file will be a lot bigger and more detailed than the current Quake variety. Hopefully, 56k modems will be found only in museums by that time.

It will be educational

If we want to instill knowledge into our future children, we will have to do it through this future gaming platform. Every child will demand one on the pain of mutiny. When the educational support is integrated with this powerful vehicle for entertainment, the didactic power of games will be realized. Outcries against why Johnny can’t frag will make government regulation likely. Who knows? Governments may even subsidize them if there are enough outcries against the entertainment divide.

When does gaming become dangerous?

The future of gaming has potential to become beneficial or destructive to society, just as any other technology. The future gaming system will be so realistic and interactive that the representation of nudity and violence may begin to become a concern even to those outside the censorship crowd. Marketing a Holodeck-style gaming system would bring about much controversy and many moral questions. Would you want your child to go over to the Jones’s for games if he were going to compete in gladiatorial combat in which opponents were indistinguishable from real people? Would you want to kill something that looked, sounded, and smelled real as in the Flesh Fair scene of A.I.?

Will consumers want this realistic gaming experience so much that it turns to an addiction? Will their sense of reality be blurred? In the movie Westworld, customers pay to participate in an amusement park that simulates a western setting that allows the fulfilling of fantasies like robbing banks, sex, gunfights, etc. Expendable robots act out the parts of characters with whom the customers interact. One customer finally asks, “How do I know that the person I killed was a robot?” The lead characters eventually become callous to promiscuity and violence. Of course, the robots malfunction and start killing the customers as an angry robot Yul Brynner seeks revenge.