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A World Gamified – Pt. 1: Introduction

March 19, 2012

It’s been years since I’ve played a video game (the last console I owned was a Nintendo 64). The industry has grown so quickly that analysts project that its revenues will hit 81 billion dollars by 2016. Chances are that you, or someone you know, is a gamer. Our world, whether we are ready or not, is swiftly being gamified.

In a multi-part series, I’ll explore the video game industry, how far it’s come, and where it’s taking us. Put down the controller and read on.

Video Games: A Brief History

What we now consider video games are games designed for the home video game console or home computer. The first such console system, the Magnavox Odyssey, was released in 1972, selilng 100,000 units that first year. The Odyssey was primitive (click on the link to watch the 1972 ad), and the market for home consoles declined until 1978, when the hugely popular game Space Invaders made it onto the Atari 2600. The early 80s however, saw the development of a number of atrocious, poorly-produced titles, and bad business decision. This resulted in a 97% contraction of the industry.

The industry revived in 1985 when Nintendo released its first home console system, the legendary Nintendo Entertainment System (or, NES). The original NES came packaged with Super Mario Bros. The rest, as they say, is history. Nintendo and its third-party developers created many of the genres still beloved by gamers today. Many of the most successful franchises of the era, Mario, Zelda, Metal Gear, and Final Fantasy, endure in popularity to the present day. The NES sold 61.9 million units, a record in its time, and nearly as many sales as the PS3 (astonishing numbers when put in context).

3D: no glasses required.

Nintendo’s dominance didn’t (and couldn’t) last. Competitors emerged throughout the 90s, beginning with the Sega Genesis system, the home PC, and other, less-successful console systems. Gaming itself changed dramatically. An increase in processing power and a decrease in processor cost facilitated a change to 3D-style graphics. Games like DoomWolfenstein 3D (pictured at left), Wing Commander, and others, forever changed the way we imagined and played video games. It also raised our expectations for what games could be.

Finally, we arrive at a time when I could call myself a gamer, the late 90s and early 2000s. The late 90s saw the first real console war, as Sony’s Playstation battled the Nintendo 64 console system for control of the market. Genres like first-person shooters (FPS), role playing games (RPG), and real-time strategy (RTS) games exploded in popularity. I fondly remember wasting hours playing Goldeneye (a FPS), Zelda: Ocarina of Time (a RPG), and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (a RTS). Graphics improved and the Internet (which had finally evolved beyond 56k dial-up) literally opened up the entire world to gamers.

In the last decade, video games have changed dramatically. Computer games can now be downloaded directly onto the computer, no hard copy required. Console systems like X-Box Live and PlayStation Network allow users to play with their friends (and enemies!) online any time, all without a computer. The Nintendo Wii introduced motion-sensor controllers. Graphics are more impressive than ever before. Nintendo’s newest system, the Wii U, promises to be the system that never sleeps.

“We talked about it as the system that would never sleep, using something like Wii Connect 24–meaning, people would be able to access the system very quickly at any time.” – Shigeru Miyamoto

Games are changing at an unprecedented rate and they want to be an integral part of your life.

What Are Games Capable Of?

Games have come a long way from Nintendo’s original Super Mario Bros. Today, video games offer us total immersion into vast, exquisitely rendered worlds. Games like Star Wars: The Old Republic offer users a chance to interact in a virtual Star Wars galaxy. Just a decade ago, perhaps even just a few years ago, the technology required to render such a world didn’t exist. Today, game designers can create the entire Star Wars universe and make it available for you to download on your computer.

The games look increasingly realistic. To take a recent example, the controversial game Mass Effect 3 has taken visual effects to a whole new level. Its predecessor, Mass Effect 2, pushed the envelope with its voice-acted, lip-synched cut scenes. Watch this scene and wonder over the details and the special effects. A game like this makes full immersion possible and only increases our ability to imagine that what we’re experiencing is real.

Why Do Games Matter?

Games affect who we are. In a study at Indiana University, researchers discovered that violent video games can alter brain function in young men after only one week. Designer Jane McGonigal created a personal game called Cookie Rolling to help her get through a period of anxiety and depression. A Boston startup, Akili Interactive Labs, develops games to prove their hypothesis that playing video games can help patients suffering from depression or ADD. Yet, what researchers are discovering is that the most successful games are violent, like those used in the Indiana study. Dr. Daphne Bavelier of the Universities of Geneva and Rochester says: “It happens that all the games that have the good learning effect happen to be violent. We don’t know whether the violence is important or not.” She adds: “We hope not.”

Second Life. Your "second life."

More people than ever before play video games. Only 25 percent of those are children under 18. The average gamer is 34, the average buyer even older at 39, and the average gamer only spends 8 hours a week playing video games (by comparison, the average American watches 2.7 hours of television a day). Astonishingly for some, 40 percent of gamers are female. Your image of the average gamer is probably wrong. He’s not not a young kid (he may even be a she!) and he is buying his own video games. In fact, the average gamer is probably you: 67 percent of U.S. households play video games. (All statistics from the ESRB).

Games matter because they are an integral part of our lives with the capacity to fundamentally change who we are. They immerse us in their stories, their characters, and their cultures. More than books and movies, video games make us feel that we are engaging in an authentic interaction. Multiplayer games perpetuate the illusion that we are interacting with real people in an almost-real world. Like texting and social media, video games help separate our lives into two categories: the real and the virtual.

Next – Pt 2.: Virtual Identities

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