I was talking to Alan Yu the other day - he used to run the GDC, now he's an A&R rep at EA - and we were talkng about the challenges facing the games industry today. He responded by describing his after work routine: picks up food on the way home, turns on the TV but mutes it to watch the ball game, plays music through his stereo, has a laptop nearby for communication and entertainment, and may also be talking on the cell phone to friends at the same time. What he was describing sounded like a multimedia nest, a coherent sensory and informational experience made up of modular and disparate pieces that coccoon him. Where does gaming fit into this?
Well, for people like Alan, it really doesn't. Why? Games require far too much attention - they demand input from our hands, processing from our brain, decision-making from the cerebral cortex. These days many games are so complex you can't even turn off their sound for fear of missing critical cues and clues. I admit that I am an inveterate multi-tasker - I play World of Warcraft while on AIM and sometimes as a TV show or film plays in the background. But it's hard to do and my friends lose me for bouts as I get pulled into combat. The set up is not ideal for a multimedia nester.
Of course, part of the appeal of games is that they are so profoundly immersive. We love to lose ourselves in other worlds like that - they are the ultimate engagement. And it sounds counter-intuitive, at first, to think that highly media-savvy and centered people want less engagement from their consumables. And yet - with no research to back up my claim - I think it might be true. Something important happens when one plays a game, something that can't be shared in the same space as other forms of entertainment. Games are like a black hole - you fall in and lose contact with the rest of the world. Sometimes, that's the exact feeling we seek; most often, though, we avoid it as a "time sink" precisely because we can't reasonably do other things at the same time.
Some applications have started to address this problem. Xbox Live does a pretty good job of allowing you to feel that you're still connected to the world. You can stream your own music while you play. When your friends come online, you know; if they leave you a message, you see it; and you can talk to them, even - with the advent of the Live camera - video chat, and still remain in the game. PS3 promises to deliver a similar integration of media and communications. In essence, what's really next-generation about these consoles is that they try to become your nest.
Another tactic is to turn this around - to allow consumers to take their media with them. That's the concept behind ubiquitous computing, the third wave of computing forecasted in 1988 by Mark Weiser. That's where mobiles and handhelds and DS Lites come in. But if we once again think of these experiences as layered on top of eachother, talking on the phone can be done safely while walking, while looking at other things, while eating, while reading the paper; playing a mobile game or texting is less easily layered on top of other experiences. Once again the depth of attention required gets in the way.
We're increasingly moving to a mode of media consumption that is layered; consumers dip into several media forms at once to concoct the perfect blend, to manage their own experience to be a balance of stimulus and reward and the attention required to recieve the reward. If games are going to survive, we need to figure out how they can contribute to the multimedia nest.