The lights are on
Veteran Member - Level 11
Picture, if you will, sitting down to play a video game.
Simple, right? You settle into your favorite spot in front of the screen, grab a controller, and fire up your console or PC. You might have to insert the game disc; in recent years, however, we're running more and more of our games straight off the hard drive. You probably have a gamer account to sign in to as well, but after that, you start up your game and you're on your way.
Now, picture what it would be like if all you had to do to start gaming was to simply...imagine it.
No computer, no console. No screen, no controller, no hard drive. Just you, and the game. If this seems impossible to you—or downright nonsensical—well, I can't say I blame you. But I for one think such an experience is not only possible, but that we may already be heading toward it.
Sony's much-anticipated reveal of the PlayStation 4 this past week got me thinking about the nature of our favorite hobby, and where it might take us next. I'm not talking about the new console generation set to arrive this fall (not to discount the Wii U, that is), or even the generation after that. No, my sights are set a bit further.
Right now, the video game industry is in the middle of a monumental transformation. In fact, I believe our entire concept of what gaming is—and what it can be—is undergoing more change now than ever before. There are many different factors influencing this transformation, but at its heart lies the ongoing shift from physical to digital content. Yes, I'm referring to increasing digital sales of games and DLC, but the implications of this shift run far deeper still. Take the ever-growing focus on social media, for instance—we've only begun to scratch the surface of how this might be integrated into our gaming experiences, how it might utterly redefine our gaming experiences. And by the looks of it, the PS4 will be paving the way for us to explore this avenue in new and exciting (or perhaps disheartening) ways. (For a great look at this topic, check out Kyle Wadsworth's intriguing blog on the matter.)
To look at it another way, all of this change is about one thing: connectivity. It's about allowing us to connect to each other, and about speeding up, strengthening, and expanding such connections. And it's about allowing us to connect to our games in new, more efficient ways, for example by removing the need for extraneous physical media (because like it or not, discs are going the way of the Dodo, for all intents and purposes—but I've said my piece on that matter before).
What's In a Game?
This increase in connectivity is transforming gaming into a more dynamic experience for all of us. Already, our notions of what makes a "complete" game are changing, and will continue to do so. In the past, you went to the store, bought a disc or a cartridge, and that was the game. Period. Nowadays, most of us still do the same thing, and many of us would still call that "the game." Many others, however, would never consider that the definitive experience, not until you download the patches at least. And plenty of others would insist that you haven't fully experienced the game until you've also gotten the DLC.
There are many among us who lament the loss of such a reliable, definitive gaming experience. While I don't necessarily count myself among them, I can certainly understand the sentiment. In decades past, we took for granted that we could expect a game to be a clearly-defined experience, with a fixed set of content and a uniform set of parameters, which were exactly the same for every single copy of the game—and thus, for everyone who played it.
In recent years, however, this idea of a single "complete" game has started to grow somewhat fuzzy. Let's look at Minecraft, for example. I have the Xbox 360 edition of the game, and I have to say, I'm quite satisfied with it. I've had a lot of fun with it, and in and of itself, it feels like a complete experience to me. But there is a whole other Minecraft out there as well—the PC version. On the surface, they both look and behave like the exact same game. Anyone who is familiar with them, however, knows that there are some stark differences. Minecraft on PC has much more content, including whole gameplay features (such as trading) that are entirely absent from the Xbox 360 edition. The Xbox version also sets very finite limits on the size of the game world, whereas on PC, the game world is virtually infinite. These differences are substantial enough that it's almost necessary to specify which version you're referring to whenever you're discussing the game.
So, then—which Minecraft is the "definitive" version? Instinct would say the PC version, as it came first, and features the most content. Does that mean the Xbox 360 edition is somehow invalidated, or "incomplete?" Some, no doubt, would say it is—but what about those of us who enjoy it just as much, for different reasons? It might make more sense to think of the two versions as completely separate games, for that matter. And all of this, of course, says nothing to the fact that Mojang continues to develop new content for the game, so that every few months, any notion of what comprises the "complete" Minecraft experience is again rewritten.
So, what am I getting at here? Basically, it is our focus on deepening the connectivity between us and our games that has resulted in our current shift from concrete, clearly-defined games to more dynamic experiences. But just as our games are becoming less uniform, they are simultaneously becoming more personalized.
Variable content—such as between the two Minecraft versions, or the availability of DLC—is really only the beginning when it comes to the ways in which games are becoming more tailored to our individual tastes and desires. Again, we can look to the PS4 for further insights. Apparently, Sony's next-gen console will track what you play, and generate customized suggestions based on that information (I'm actually surprised someone didn't do this earlier, as companies like Netflix and Amazon have been doing this for years). And let's not forget the PS4's new sharing feature—inviting others to watch and comment on your adventures will undoubtedly lead to some unique experiences, and the ability to allow them to control your game has, I believe, lots of potential in terms of creating highly personalized, one-of-a-kind experiences.
To frame all of this in another light, rather than simply reacting to our mechanical inputs, our gaming experiences are starting to become responsive to us as individuals. Increasingly, they are allowing us to inhabit and define our own personal experiences, which in turn respond to our presence. Slowly but surely, these experiences are becoming intelligent processes.
And slowly but surely, the experience of gaming is becoming more and more like the experience of life itself.
A bizarre statement, perhaps. But bear with me, if you will, and I'll try to explain what I mean.
In essence, all of these advancements can be reduced to two basic factors: the capability of the software available, and the capacity of the hardware required to run it. Generally speaking, our hardware capacity is continually growing more powerful, and at exponentially-increasing rates. On the software front—particularly as it pertains to gaming—our advancement has, in many ways, been defined by the ongoing pursuit of "true" artificial intelligence. It has been argued that the development of AI represents the largest source of potential in terms of the future of gaming, and I wholly agree. The end goal of this pursuit? The ability to emulate the thought-processes—and ultimately the self-cognizance—of the human brain.
This drive toward true AI is, I believe, the key to creating gaming experiences that are more personalized, more believable—and more real. But the fact is, as long as we're stuck holding a controller in front of a screen—no matter how large or sharply-defined that image is—there will always be a disconnect between us and our games. No matter how responsive our games get to us personally, no matter how smart they get, no matter how close they come to mimicking the look and feel of real life, of actually being there, our experiences will always be limited by the fact that we are ultimately aware that we are holding a controller, and looking at a screen.
Perhaps this disconnect is a good thing. Perhaps it's good that our real experiences and our virtual experiences are so clearly separated, so clearly defined. But in the end, I don't think we're going to settle for it.
Gaming from the Inside Out
The concept of virtual reality has been imagined in myriad forms, with technology ranging from holodeck-style rooms to helmets with built-in screens and speakers. While such concepts are definitely interesting, they essentially manifest the same disconnect, if somewhat less prominent—you are still looking at a screen, listening to speakers, and probably using a controller of some sort (even motion-sensing technology is a type of controller, in this context).
But as we continue to chip away at the many barriers that stand between ourselves and our gaming experiences, it becomes necessary to consider exactly how those experiences happen. At the most basic level, our games are, to us, nothing more than a collection of sensory information, which is processed by the sensory centers of our brains as we play. What, then, if we could somehow bypass all of this extraneous stuff—bypass our screens, speakers, and controllers; even bypass our own eyes, ears, and hands—and feed these experiences directly into our brains' sensory centers?
I am no technophile; I wouldn't even call myself tech-savvy. But I do like to follow interesting trends in scientific development, and to me, one of the most fascinating areas in recent years has been in the field of nanotechnology. Nanotech in general has shown bewildering potential in terms of its possible applications, in fields as diverse as electronics, medicine, and energy production. In particular, I think the emerging field of nanobiology—encompassing the merger of nanotechnology and biology—presents some of the most interesting possibilities for the future of gaming.
Most of the current development in nanobiology focuses on medicinal applications such as the treatment of disease and injury. Examples of such research include genetic engineering and the use of stem cell therapy to regenerate tissues. But the potential also exists for nanobiological concepts to be applied specifically to the human brain, especially when considered in conjunction with the field of nanorobotics—the engineering of molecular machines designed to interact with objects on a molecular level. And this is where things start to get a little crazy.
In theory, such nanorobots could be made to interface directly with the neurons in our brains. What's more, they could conceptually even house their own internal nanocomputers which could connect to the internet and to each other, forming a neural network that could cohesively act upon the neurons in our sensory centers to effectively create a perfect virtual experience, from the inside out.
Admittedly, such a scenario is only supposition right now. But it's also based upon widely-acknowledged potential applications stemming from existing technology and theory. In other words—it is, at the very least, possible. And who among us, after all, hasn't wondered what it would be like to experience such a "true" virtual world? To, for all intents and purposes, see it with our own eyes, hear it with our own ears, feel it with our own hands—and all at a level of fidelity to render it indistinguishable from the real, physical world we live in? Because ultimately, at the most basic level, this is exactly how we experience our own world: as a collection of sensory information.
Such a possibility of being able to transport ourselves, so to speak, into an entirely separate reality raises a whole host of other possibilities and ramifications. Could these nanorobots themselves then be triggered by our own neurons—effectively allowing us to switch from our reality to a virtual game world at a mere thought? It sounds potentially dangerous, as our thoughts are notoriously self-possessed, seeming to come and go as they please. Then again, we could also have 'bots that allow us to better control our fleeting thoughts as well.
In fact, such nanorobots could assist us in innumerable ways. They could supplement our intelligence, for instance (imagine every scrap of knowledge in existence being just a thought away—like having a near-instantaneous Google inside your brain). They could allow us to contact our friends and family at a moment's notice—and even feed their voices straight into the primary auditory cortex of our brain. Bionanorobots could also serve to augment our own reality, by adjusting our perceptions of it. Maybe it's rainy outside, and you'd prefer sunshine. Simply tell your 'bots to make a little tweak, and voila, it's sunny!
For that matter, if we want to get really outrageous, our bionanorobots could automatically transform every person we see into angelic supermodels, or walking dog-people, or anything else you could imagine. Furthermore, they could even project perceptual manifestations of AIs, effectively creating fully realistic people who do not physically exist. Our 'bots could also influence our emotional pathways, turning bad feelings into good ones. They could even serve to augment our own personalities—boosting our confidence, erasing our fears, sharpening our talents or even granting us entirely new ones.
The rabbit hole of possibility goes as deep as we care to imagine—and I've barely scratched the surface here. Everything we know, everything we do—everything we are—ultimately, all of it stems from our brains. When we have the ability to directly influence and alter our own thoughts, perceptions, and memories, then we have the ability to do the impossible.
And in a broad sense, doing the impossible is what gaming is all about. With fully-developed AIs to shepherd our tales, and with nanorobotic hardware to tell our brains exactly what to see, and hear, and feel, the possibilities are literally endless. What we know as gaming could become not only a dynamic experience, personalized to suit each of us, but also an organic one—a self-perpetuating, self-developing entity, able to manifest its own content, to craft unique stories, characters, and worlds for us to explore.
I acknowledge that such dreams of a perfect virtual-reality experience seem like little more than whimsical flights of fancy, better suited to science fiction than serious discussion. And certainly, I've glossed over the many issues, both practical and ethical, that would inevitably arise regarding technological developments like "true" AI and the use of bionanorobots to directly influence the human brain. But the way I see it, the fact that such developments could be even remotely possible makes them all the more interesting to consider.
I think, at the very least, we can all agree that gaming as we know it is changing. Through the use of increasingly dynamic—and increasingly smarter, more responsive—content, developers are finding more and more ways to personalize our gaming experiences, to connect us to them on an individual level. As time goes on, our games will only get smarter, more flexible, and more nuanced. And as they do, our gaming experiences will come closer and closer to mimicking our own organically responsive reality. The disconnect that has always existed between us and our games is shortening—and one day, it may just vanish altogether.
It's a daunting prospect—some might say outright terrifying. Along with the idealized vision of experiencing other lives, other worlds, comes the flip side of the coin: the fear that in living other lives, we might be necessarily abandoning ourselves. At this stage, it's hard to gauge such potential conundrums—in fact, they may prove impossible to assess until we're actually there, staring a whole other reality in the face.
But I for one am a dreamer, and an optimist. I believe that whatever else may happen, we will make it work. And even if the disconnect between us and our games does disappear, we will find a way to preserve our beloved hobby, our most cherished experiences.
And if all else fails, you can just tell your 'bots to stick you right back in your favorite seat, in front of your big-screen HDTV, with a controller in your hands. Ah, just like the good old days.