Now You’re An American!

presented at

Computer and Video Games Come of Age

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

11 February 2000


Introduction: Redneck Scratch Fever



Last night, I watched a segment on CNN Headline News, reviewing the latest PC gaming title from Electronic Arts – Ted Nugent’s Wild Hunting Adventure.  With expert commentary and exhortations from perhaps the most washed-up of all the dixibilly rock-and-roll stars, you learn to lift your rifle, load it, camouflage yourself, and wait for your prey. The goal: to fire upon the endangered species of North America; Grizzly Bears, Gray Wolves, Bighorns, Boars, and so forth.  Of course, this is an instructional title, so you get cutaway views of the animals in flight from your bullets, their bodies rendered semi-transparently, so you can see their vital organs, to get a better sense of where the fatal shot must land.  After you’ve taken down your beautiful White-Tailed Deer, Ted Nugent pronounces, “Now you’re an American!” 


Question: What will the form and content of games look like five years from now? Ten years from now? What obstacles or challenges must games overcome in order to achieve their full potential as a medium? What technological or artistic breakthroughs do you foresee in the near future which might fundamentally alter our understanding of what a game is?


Answer: Continuous Play


We can easily see that play has become a major component of our culture, that games have become continuous, evolutionary – a part of life, though perhaps an alternate life.  We live our lives increasingly in cyberspace, in nearly constant communion with the disembodied souls out on the Net.  This is not really anything new – the financial markets have lived this way for over a hundred years.  And although many people may not agree that financial trading is a game, John Von Neumann, in The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, made this case clearly a half-century ago.


Today, we get this sense with people playing the markets, running the CNBC ticker in the background all day long, bringing up their portfolio on My Yahoo, etc.  It’s already a game – we just need to extend the possible range of forms.  One of my interactive television students at USC is hard at work on developing an interface which will let the stock ticker follow you anywhere – as long as you’re in front of a television, you’ll know where you stand in the game of Capitalism.


Michael Benedickt, in the MIT Press title, Cyberspace, First Steps, pointed out that “Absence from cyberspace has a cost.”  This is becoming increasingly apparent.  In the continuous on-line life we’re living in the world of financial gaming being off-line – even for a few minutes – can have enormous consequences.


This is the harbinger of the gaming environments to come.


Here’s my Palm V, one of the many million PDAs that have been sold.  Within the next week I’ll add my OmniSky wireless modem to the unit, and it will be connected – continuously – to the global networks.  It will become my anywhere portal into cyberspace, and will become the platform for a wide range of games which will involve us continuously, be they strategy, role playing with a cast of thousands of fellow travelers, or simply a tool which will continue to mesmerize us with the fluctuations of our portfolios.  (No fancy graphics, just a world that could pass the Turing Test – because it is an emergent social environment.)


Gaming is about to extend into everyday life, continuously and deeply; each of us will find the kind of challenge that suits us best -  and engage a far-flung but ever-present community of players.  We might live our lives in the drab Februarys of the real-world, but, like so many Walter Mittys, we will possess a rich internal life of twists and turns unseen since the time of the Medicis.  It will become the lifeline to our imagination, the sandbox in my hand.


Question: Given the growing cost of game development, how do we insure innovation, experimentation, and creativity within the electronic games industry? Will we see, in the future, the digital equivalent of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or are we doomed to see only TITANICS?


Answer: The End of Copyright


Much has been made of the danger the game “industry” faces from copyright violation, which it regards as outright theft of intellectual property.  My own position – published just yesterday in FEED magazine – is that the net regards copyright as a form of censorship, and routes around it.  This does not bode well for the seven-billion dollar games industry.  Of course, the game industry contends that without access to this ever-increasing stream of revenues, it can not continue to exist; but given that it costs one-tenth as much to make a game as to make a film, they can probably survive a very healthy dent in their revenues just fine – though their shareholders might disagree.


Even if the worst happens, and the increasingly available supply of illegally-acquired software drowns the gaming industry – an inversion of the oversupply which caused the “death” of console gaming in the early 1980s – gaming will not go away.  Far from it.


Not very long ago, Quake was released as open-source.  Now people are using it to create other forms of entertainment - racing games, chess, and probably a few hunting titles.   In the ever-more-prescient words of William Gibson, “The street finds its own use for things – uses its makers never intended.”  What we have seen – particularly in the case of LINUX – is that, with enough caffeine and enough programmers intent on a task, nearly anything is possible.  Gaming will not go away – in fact, as the platforms approach near-infinite power, it becomes easier and easier for a novice to design a compelling game.


I can not imagine that we’ll progress very much further into the 21st century without a legion of open-source multi-player gaming projects – similar to Ultima Online, but without the usurious fees – beginning to take shape.  These projects will probably begin at universities like MIT and USC – where kids, with the right tools and enough time on their hands, will begin to assert their own right to design the worlds they play within.  Because these worlds will be designed as open from the very beginning, they will present creative opportunities that the commercial titles simply can not offer, and will quickly supplant them.


This is not to say that gaming will cease to exist as an industry; rather, as in the case of the LINUX marketplace, the lead designers will form companies likely IPO for billions of dollars, and draw a revenue stream based in product placement advertising, consulting, and event management.  The counter to a world without copyright is a world where event and performance are the commanding values, the things people will pay to see.


Question: The next generation of game consoles promises a dramatic increase in the availability of processing power. The processing power of the PC is also expanding rapidly. How will this new processing power be used? What will it allow game designers to do that they have been unable to achieve previously? How might it shift the relations between the games industry and other sectors of the entertainment industry?

Question: How might the introduction of such new or projected technologies as virtual reality visors, body suits, wearable computers, smart appliances, digital television, or nanotechnology impact the games industry?


Answer:  Bang, Bang, You’re Dead, Dead, Dead – for the moment.

Last August, the University of Southern California announced a partnership with the US Army to create the Institute of Creative Technology.  Headed up by Richard Lindheim, a former vice-president of Paramount Television, and the man formerly charged with the management of the lucrative Star Trek properties, the unstated goal of the Institute is to create a real “holodeck.”


While the entertainment industry sees the holodeck as an essential armament in the war for location-based entertainment – another sure sign that, in the age after copyright, event and performance are the commanding values – the Army wants to use the holodeck to train soldiers in a realistic synthetic environment, creating the war games necessary in an age of peacekeeping.


It should be noted that we have only the faintest idea of how to create a holodeck, but the idea is compelling enough that it drew a hundred million dollars of tax money to fund the Institute.  The Army believes that its prowess in simulation, combined with Hollywood’s ability to create compelling stories and characters, would be the one-two punch that solves this nearly intractable problem.


However, there’s a very natural dissonance between the stated aims of the two organizations; Hollywood wants to produce the machinery of fantasy, while the Army seeks the perfection of synthetic reality.  Soldiers could be trained in an environment of a simulated Somalia, or Bosnia or Haiti, learn the local landscape and customs, so as to be better conditioned to the actualities of the ground situation. 


This logic applies only if the simulation represents ground truth; in fact, every simulation always reflects the biases of its creators, and soldiers trained in the environment would be reacting not to actualities, but to someone’s prejudices about realities which may simply be well-rendered fictions.


Regardless, this project will move forward, and will result in some very expensive high-tech toys for the creation of synthetic environments.  In the search for verisimilitude – that is, emotional faithfulness – the designers will begin to add consequence – the missing element in so many of the more violent video game titles – to the environments.  As the high technologies of simulation invade the skin, as nanotechnology produces rapidly reconfigurable sensory environments, we should be able to directly create the sensation of being hit by gunfire – and probably even the lingering sensation of death.  At least, until the reset button is pressed.


In all of this, the Army will have forgotten an important lesson that Hollywood learned during the Second World War.  It’s a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra produced a series of movies titled Why We Fight, which – because they so faithfully depicted the horrors of war, and of the enemy menace – actually drove enlistments down.  It seems that in war – as in a good game – too much truth ruins the play.  But half-truths, presented to soldiers as reality, would not be training: it would be brainwashing, pure and simple.


You can imagine the generals, saluting the soldiers as they leave the holodeck, with a hearty, “Now you’re an American!”


Thank you.



Cambridge, Massachusetts

13 Akbal (11 February 2000)