Friday, December 17, 2010

Why video games rule

On Monday, I'm going to be a guest on BBC's Digital Planet program and one of the topics of conversation will be whether the video game industry can be considered a big innovator. The answer, of course, is yes. When you get right down to it, it's for the same reasons that the military, porn and food industries are innovators.

At its core, Sex, Bombs and Burgers is about how our basic instincts are responsible for technological innovation. Huge industries have sprouted up to cater to our "shameful trinity" of needs - the need to fight, feast and fornicate - and when there is a lot of money to be made, it usually results in a highly competitive market. Competition, meanwhile, is perhaps the biggest driver of innovation; the best way to outsell the other guy is to come up with something newer, better, faster or cooler.

We see this all the time in war, sex and food. It's why soldiers no longer fight in trenches with muskets, but rather with remote-controlled aerial drones, or why people are creating sex robots, or why, if you really want to, you can now get individually wrapped slices of Spam.

Video games come from a similar need, although one that is considerably less shameful - the need to play. Curiously though, this is one instinct that has grown over time in virtual lockstep with our technological prowess. As technology has solved one pressing problem after another, it's given us more time for leisure. That may not seem to be the case when you're answering work emails on the BlackBerry late at night, but consider that not so long ago, the average work day consisted of 12 back-breaking hours in a hot and sweaty factory. Overall, we've got it pretty good today, and things are continuing to improve. You may have to answer those emails, but you can be fishing at the cottage while doing so.

As such, we're playing more today than we ever have, and our games are starting to reflect that. Only a few short years ago, most video games were played by young males sitting alone in their bedrooms, living rooms and basements. Over the past few years, those solitary individuals have been linked up online and they've been joined by non-traditional gamers. With things like the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect, and the rise of social and mobile platforms, video games are now being enjoyed by everyone.

The reason I like writing about games almost as much as I like playing them is because it's probably the most openly competitive industry there is (or the diametric opposite to the telecom industry, which I've spent a good portion of this week ). Aside from putting ratings on their stuff to ensure that kids aren't exposed to some of the more mature content out there, the video game industry is largely free from regulation and government interference, leaving companies free to try out new stuff. There are also a huge number of competitors - Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are duking it out for the hardware, but there are literally zillions of software developers both big and small fighting it out for a piece of the growing pie.

That's fertile ground for innovation and it's why we're seeing so many advancements, especially recently, with things like touch-screen games for the iPad or movement-based stuff for Kinect. The best part is that it's all about fun. With all of that considered, how can you not like video games?


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