Monday, May 30, 2011

Urbanization is shaping the future forms of gaming

My article from the upcoming Future play project report (Tampere university's Tekes project).

Urbanization and the development of various types of locative games are giving hints of the shape of things to come. Research projects have piloted locative, pervasive and urban games (e.g. Magenkurt et al, 2005, Ballages et al 2007) for years already. Lately, locative games have become commercially available. Strengthening this trend is not only urban development, but also games’ software.

In his article, Hiltunen (2010) identified three contributing factors to the strong growth of the video-game sector: 1) demographic change in consumer groups, 2) the introduction of new gadgets, content and distribution channels, enabling proliferation of online playing and game distribution and 3) social playing facilitated by them. Introduction of new gaming gadgets, improved content and social playing are the factors linked with more general cultural and industrial development.

One such global development is the urbanization that is both a driving force in the current business environment and also moulding the future shape of the game industry and culture. According to statistics, just 100 cities account for 30% of the world's economy and almost all its innovation. Many of these engines of globalization, which gain their enduring vibrancy from money, knowledge, and stability, are world capitals that have evolved and adapted over decades of dominance (Foreign Policy, August 2010). Urban areas – not only capitals - are currently driving this development around the world.

Urban areas also play a key role when looking at consumers' spending habits and the foundations for novel consumer cultures. To give just a couple of examples, according to Ericsson’s recent research report (2010), the lifestyle of urban Chinese consumers has changed from a survival mentality to a pleasure seeking mentality, with 54% now pursuing a more pleasurable lifestyle. Similarly, research carried out by Bundle (2010) highlights that the average Manhattanite household spends 59% of their food budget on dining out, compared to the 42% of an average American household.

Urban consumer culture has changed, and will change, the way people spend time and entertain themselves. Terms like urban hustler, coined by Harris Research, or flâneur, defined by Charles Baudelaire when describing a modern person "who walks the city in order to experience it" (Benjamin 1997), both refer to a person strolling leisurely through either the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century or in contemporary cities, as an aimless shopper with no intention of buying anything, an intellectual parasite of the public space. The traits that mark out a flâneur or an urban hustler are wealth, education and idleness. This type of cultural change has an impact

on consumption and entertainment. People are not only able to have pleasant experiences but are also looking for ways to further entertain themselves by seeking out social experiences having already got used to operating socially and sharing experiences and moments on the move.
But what is even more relevant is that, consumption-wise, the fast pace and ever-changing nature of urban life guarantees an endless number of social connections, experiences and commercial services. This evolution provides rich possibilities for the digital games industry that, during the last 10 years, has moved from marginal to mainstream, offering various types of experience to an increasing and diversifying group of players.

So far, the strongest development within the game industry has come from within, as an organic growth and evolution of the industry. Game genres founded in the 1970s and 1980s have slowly matured. This evolution was firstly driven by technical evolution and, secondly, by cultural and contentual development. Lately, technical development, both within the mobile sector and overall in consumer electronics, has made advancements verging on the phenomenal with location based gaming using mobile handsets and social party gaming, represented by motion tracking devices like Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Kinect and Playstation Move. Only recently, due to the development of mobile technologies, location tracking and trends like gamification that refer to the utilization of game mechanics as a motivational factor, we have seen signs that significant developments can come from outside the game industry. Diverse companies and parties are currently participating in formulating the future of the game industry and culture.

When looking at the future trends in game culture and urban consumer culture, mobility, public environments functioning as social interactive spaces and entertainment driven information and leisure consumption are becoming increasingly central. Mobile and social location specific gaming trends will be key drivers in which the motivation to participate comes from outside the game itself. ‘Snack size culture’, ‘always on’ and ‘always with’ and participatory content development are just a few indicators of this development.

Mobile games have been commercially available for over 10 years and have matured into an easy to use and easy to find form of entertainment. Social gaming - referring here to massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), all manner of quiz show, karaoke, music and sports party games in which practically anyone can play and playing is a socially acceptable way of spending time – has shaped the game industry for several years already. Finnish companies like Uplause and Grey Area offer very different services from each other but both provide their own answer to urbanization and the social mobile trends described here. One believes in massively multiplayer audience games in public places and the other in using locational technologies and a local attitude in gaming. The next big thing in gaming could very much be a big story or shared location specific experience instead of a typical game.

A relevant fact is that both of these examples focus on issues that are valuable for players from outside the game world. Uplause's game provides new, playful social experiences for festival audiences and ice hockey fans. Grey Area has realized that people are proud of their ‘hoods’ and find it motivating to compete against other suburbs. People become motivated when something valuable to them is at stake. This is something different from previous digital game offerings that provided virtually generated experiences in which the generated values, if not social or related to self- expression, were relevant only within the context of a game.

According to trend reports, urban consumers are addicted to here-and-now experiences, choice and freedom, flexibility, rawness of service and unrestricted opportunities. Based on this reasoning, I claim that urban culture is the main branch of contemporary culture, providing rich possibilities for game developers. Instead of simply generating virtual experiences, game developers could start development from motivational factors and issues already valuable to the players outside of game worlds. This links the game industry more closely to global trends, such as urbanization, and opens up a whole range of new possibilities for game developers.
Besides the usual examples, such as location-based games (LBGs), there are also various city projects in which the city itself becomes an arena for play. Festivals and art events, such as Come out and Play, as well as companies like Google, have experimented with urban games. In late 2010, Google installed digital screens into 20 bus shelters across San Francisco with which commuters could play video games against each other. Passengers identified which neighborhoods they would like to represent when playing, and that which won the two month long contest was rewarded with a block party. Also in late 2010, Adidas launched a game challenging footballers to capture cities. Connecting via Facebook, players pick their city and then try to claim each segment of it through one-on-one battles (Trendwatching 2011).
Experiments like these offer new experiences and values to urban gamers on the move. By bringing gaming into natural living environments, it normalizes gaming as a way of spending time, not only for gamers but for anyone. Similar to the Finnish examples, these two instances are originated in location and a feeling of belonging to something, and then these values are bundled into a game. The motivation comes from outside the game itself.
Even if the population, or flow of traffic, is not as dense in the Nordic capitals as it is in the big cities of China, Japan or the USA – similar trends arise, even if on a different scale. Instead of production, location is relevant, when thinking of distribution models, new ideas and interesting game experiences to broaden the range of potential gamers. Location, changing social situations and mobility give gaming one future direction.

According to industry analysts, mobile gaming for smart phones and handheld devices will continue its strong growth in the future. Urban dwellers, hustlers or flâneurs represent ever-increasing wealth and power, as well as participatory urban culture and the specific values related to it. Location, when it comes to development, becomes less relevant. Instead location as functionality, or feature, in a game is becoming more and more crucial. In this sense, urbanization is the key enabler for new kinds of gaming innovations, normalizing game cultures by being an integrated part of urban life.

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