From VR to crypto and AR to AI – how might emerging technologies intersect with the human desire for play?
November 10, 2023
In his 2016 work How Play Made the Modern World, the American media theorist Steven Johnson discerns our past and future in the eternal power of play.
This idea has a rich scholarly lineage. Most essential amongst its ancestors is the seminal 1938 work by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga – a touchstone of our time for linking play and innovation. While Huizinga and Johnson’s writings don’t split hairs on the fundaments of play as a function, their reference points clearly belong to different eras. By comparison, it’s natural to let the more technologically advanced years of 2016 and 2023 congeal into one big ‘modern day’.
Subscribe to FARSIGHT
Broaden your horizons with a Futures Membership. Stay updated on key trends and developments through receiving
quarterly issues of FARSIGHT, live Futures Seminars with futurists,
training, and discounts on our courses.
But what neither Huizinga 90 years ago, nor Johnson in 2016 could see are the warp-speed innovations happening to human play in 2023. At the bleeding edge of contemporary play is video gaming. Once the pariah of pastimes, gaming has exploded into a $330bn global industry in a matter of decades. And perhaps more remarkable than the technological changes we’ve seen in gaming since 1972 when the first Magnavox Odyssey console appeared, are the strides we’ve made in the seven years since Johnson’s 2016.
So what might the far future of gaming look like? And if play is the key to human innovation, what paradigm shifts will it bring to mankind? Let’s take inventory of six disruptive themes that recur in modern gaming trends and debates, before we journey to the outer reaches of the gaming-verse.
Number one: streaming, or cloud gaming. Just as streaming transformed how we consume music, it has fundamentally reshaped how we game. No console? No problem. Streaming makes gaming accessible on any screen device with an internet connection, with all the heavy lifting being done in the cloud. On the platform Twitch, some 140 million users livestream and watch one another’s gameplay, reinforcing the new anywhere-anytime gaming mentality. All the heavy hitters – Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony, Tencent and Ubisoft – are fine-tuning their own cloud platforms, blowing up the game streaming market at an eye-watering 40 percent year-on-year, according to analytics firm Global Data.
Next, there’s augmented and virtual reality. AR gaming, where digital images are superimposed onto the physical world, made its grand entrance in 2016 with Pokémon GO – where players use smartphones to catch AR Pokémon in public spaces. At its height, the game had more active users than Twitter. Meanwhile, AR’s big brother virtual reality is a fully simulated 3D environment that gamers can enter and explore – in theory, at least.
So far, VR has failed to deliver the hyperreal cyberpunk sandbox that many are anticipating. The blame goes to brick-like headsets – even the top-of-the-range Meta Quest 2 – and socially isolating games. But the speculative potential of VR ignites the imagination like little other. In VR, your in-game body can feel uncannily responsive, controlled by external devices that track heartrate, eye, lip, and ear movement. And the games are evolving, too: the platform VRChat is one example that couples convincing VR with socially rich experiences. Perhaps all VR needs to take off, is for headsets to shrink.
Elsewhere, new forms of artificial intelligence have radically altered the gaming field. In fact, AI has been integral to gaming for decades. A rudimentary form of AI first appeared in single-player games like Space Invaders in the 1970s, where increasingly challenging levels and distinct patterns of movement were based on player input. Fighting games like 1984’s Karate Champ quickly followed, ushering in the golden age of console gaming.
But the latest AI generation, machine learning, is capable of far more. Rather than the simple ‘if this, then do that’ algorithms of Space Invaders, machine learning allows computer systems to continually learn and improve without direct human input. This new branch can generate breathtaking and virtually infinite large-scale game environments, and speed up game-making by aiding developers, designers and artists.
And that unlocks the disruptive potential of user-generated content. UGC is quickly being harnessed by tech giants who seek to populate their platforms with high-quality, original content and cement gamer loyalty. The biggest name in this business is Roblox, a platform where users can make, play, and sell their own games. Others, like Epic Games, the American developer behind the cloud-based shooter Fortnite – one of the world’s top five most popular games – are hot on Roblox’s heels.
Finally, there’s the metaverse. The most ambitious punt in this space is Decentraland. This 3D virtual world straddles commercial, social and gaming spheres, selling plots of land as NFTs and even hosting the world’s first VR fashion week in 2022. So far, however, it has faceplanted out of the starting blocks. After an initial flurry of interest, users deserted the realm, citing it as a glitchy failure packed with ‘weird builds’.
The relative popularity of Fortnite’s metaverse, however, points to a more hopeful future. Its range of successful social experiences, events, and concerts suggest that gamer metaverses, where communities are already developed, have a greater potential to transcend the genre and attract non-gamers (or n00bs). So, mainstream gaming has cut loose from the console and from big-name developers; it has become a full-body experience, and we have barely seen a fraction of the metaverse’s potential.
What’s next? Imagine a fully articulated gaming metaverse, where everyone logs in and lives out their parallel lives. You are an avatar of your choosing – perhaps a samurai hacker like the protagonist of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. You inhabit, control, and feel your virtual body as you roam the psychedelic cyber landscape. This metaverse has its own functioning crypto economy. It’s a kind of international waters, or airport, of the gaming world.
In 2020, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney predicted that this scenario was close at hand. He described “a move away from a bunch of walled gardens into what comes to resemble, by the end of this decade, an open metaverse, where players get together with their friends and go between game experiences, staying together as a group, across all platforms, without worrying about what company made the device they’re on, or who’s operating the servers.”
In this right-to-ramble version of the metaverse, Crypto.com envisages the emergence of what it calls a ‘true society’ where gamers interact, settle land, and transfer in-game assets. Almost all modern games feature digital assets – items won via play like weapons, cosmetic skins, or collectible cards. Though these can usually be traded via auctions, markets, or directly with another player, they have no value outside the game. But the advent of blockchain technology will give in-game assets permanent value. In a Web3 metaverse, items can be tokenised as NFTs and cashed out in the metaverse’s economy, meaning gamers’ swag will retain its value even if the game itself sunsets.
This could turbocharge the size and loyalty of the gaming community. “The idea of assets that can be used across multiple games has always been an exciting concept for players,” says Roboto Games’ Director of Product Philip La. But trading systems don’t work everywhere, he adds. “In Diablo 3, auction house trading actually broke the game progression and made it less fun because players could get all the best weapons easily.”
Already, there are thriving marketplaces for gaming NFTs, notably Axie Infinity and Asia’s largest: Jump.trade. If we combine Sweeney’s ‘open metaverse’ with Crypto.com’s virtual ‘true society’, you could trade your Primal Stink Bow from Fortnite for a Peculiar Spellwyrm card from Gods Unchained without leaving the metaverse, and then journey seamlessly from game to game.
GET FARSIGHT DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Explore the world of tomorrow with handpicked articles by signing up to our monthly newsletter.
As lucrative as this digital playground sounds, what would really kick it up a gear is if virtual reality gaming could feel completely real. Think Star Trek’s Holodeck, Rick and Morty’s Roy: A Life Well Lived, and the Matrix simulation. Why shouldn’t that be possible? After all, as Morpheus says: “how do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
As a trend report from the global AI-specialist recruitment agency Grey Ring observes, the next gen of AI-designed games may be just as subjective as our real-world experiences: “we’ll see AI ‘directors’ use neural programming to create gaming worlds personalised for you, after analysing your gaming style,” they predict.
And future VR games could feel as real as they look. Haptic technologies packed into wearable devices can already apply vibrations or motions to the body of the wearer, making virtual interactions feel real. A leader in haptic tech, American corporation KEMET, is working on “ultra-thin, electro-mechanical, polymer actuators” that impart the feeling of touch to gamers via the world’s smallest physically moving mechanics.
But an even more outlandish version of haptics is the TESLASUIT by UK based Tesla Studios (no relation to Musk). This is a full-body haptic feedback ‘skin’ that “uses electro muscle stimulation and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation,” rather than mechanics, to “recreate a range of real-life sensations, including temperature, pressure, and touch.”
“So far, VR has failed to deliver the hyperreal cyberpunk sandbox that many are anticipating. The blame goes to brick-like headsets – even the top-of-the range Meta Quest 2 – and socially isolating games. But the speculative potential of VR ignites the imagination like little other.”
In 2019, the TESLASUIT delivered the ‘world’s first haptic rugby tackle’, where the impact of a tackle, made by Wasps Rugby Football Club forward Will Rowlands on a training dummy in Coventry, was transferred in real time via 5G to his TESLASUIT-wearing teammate Juan de Jongh, on stage in front of a rapt audience in London, 150 kilometres away. At the moment of invisible impact, De Jongh visibly reels backwards: “I’ve never experienced anything like this. It felt like something from the Matrix,” he said afterwards. This will be incredible when you’re, say, slinging a Mercedes-AMG One around a chicane bend in Forza – but not when Sub-Zero is removing your spine in Mortal Kombat.
How might this eruption of a singular, vibrantly immersive, crypto-driven social gaming world change our lives? Jon Radoff, co-founder and CEO at Beamable, predicts that generative AI tools will dethrone big-name developers and democratise the whole industry: “I’m excited about the future returning to smaller, more efficient and more productive teams. Generative AI can help people with no experience to stand up a game server. It means a compact group with a creative vision can put out a great game – and not just these huge 200-strong teams with 100-billion-USD budgets making triple-A games.”
Meanwhile, gaming’s increasing mainstream accessibility and appeal could draw into its orbit a vast untapped reservoir of gamers, non-gamers, developers, organisations, and investors. This influx would accelerate competition and innovation in a dizzying number of experiential technologies, with knock-on effects on fields like medical science. At UC San Francisco’s Neuroscape Center, for example, Professor Adam Gazzaley and his team have proved that a suite of video game interventions improved cognition in aging adults. They are strong proponents of the potential of future video games as ‘experiential medicine’.
But the heroes of the gaming technology revolution might well be eclipsed by the villains. Plus ça change. As Janell Ross wrote in Time in 2021, “the Internet was supposed to democratise all sorts of things. In many cases, it defaulted to old patterns,” and as crypto policy expert Cleve Mesidor put it, “the internet was supposed to be decentralised, and today it’s owned by four white men.”
If we’ve learnt anything from big-tech bro behaviour, it’s that if social media and an advanced gaming universe bleed together, it could have dangerous ramifications. “These immersive environments are extremely addictive, and they encourage people to unplug from the reality we actually live,” warned Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen back in November 2021. Speaking to Associated Press, she pointed out that Meta already amplifies online hate and extremism and fails to protect young people from harmful content – yet we still log on.
Is a potential future scenario for video gaming one in which swathes of gamers refuse to leave the metaverse? What would happen if the gaming metaverse became a global addiction? Plausibly, mass consumer engagement with the crypto economy would have a striking worldwide macroeconomic effect.
The World Economic Forum’s 2023 white paper makes three projections for NFT market scenarios: firstly, there could be a country-by-country ban on the use of cryptocurrency. This would favour the preservation of the monetary sovereignty of central banks. Then, there’s allowing cryptocurrency to play a regulated role in the market, a gamble that could produce spillover innovation in the fiat economy. Thirdly, nations could make cryptocurrency a legal tender. This last scenario is controversial but not unheard of.
In 2021, El Salvador declared Bitcoin a fiat currency, enabled by the Chivo Wallet (slang for ‘cool’) – a move designed to alleviate dependency on the welfare of the US economy. “Adopting bitcoin as legal tender has boosted tourism and attracted celebrities and billionaires for holidays and business. The president has even built a state-of-the-art pet hospital with bitcoin gains,” notes the paper, blithely.
But two years later, the objective success of this crypto-transition is debatable, with the most-read online Spanish news media El País calling it ‘opaque’ and citing hundreds of cases of wallet-hacking. El Salvadorians, understandably spooked, have conducted only 1.3 percent of their transactions via crypto in 2023.
Nevertheless, the Bitcoin-as-legal-tender experiment had a ripple effect: inspired by El Salvador, the Central African Republic replicated the move in 2022. This time, the legislation lasted less than a year before it was declared a failure and reversed. Both cases illustrate the successful and disruptive potentials of digital currencies on a national scale. Outcomes of this ilk are more likely if a gaming revolution drives cryptocurrency further into the economic mainstream. But could gaming have an even bigger real-world social impact?
Asi Burak, the former executive director of Games for Change and the creator of the game Peacemaker, is renowned in the industry as the “go-to source for the social-impact gaming movement,” according to Forbes.
“Is a potential future scenario for video gaming one in which swathes of gamers refuse to leave the metaverse? What would happen if the gaming metaverse became a global addiction?”
Peacemaker, first developed at Carnegie Mellon University and then launched as a commercial product, is a nuanced and sophisticated game that “brings the intense reality of the Middle East onto players’ screens,” says Burak. He explains that “instead of mindless clicking, every action you take has ethical and grave consequences. Some of our decisions as designers – releasing the game in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, that you can play both leaders and perspectives (Israeli Prime Minister and Palestinian President) and using real news footage licensed from Reuters – were all unprecedented in games.”
In Peacemaker, players have the power to solve perhaps the most complex conflict of our time. The game opens a door to a future scenario in which the gaming industry can be an active social and viral force in the real world. For Burak, this is where the future of gaming should take us. “What I think we’re missing are social games that introduce a large number of players into a political context: a kind of World of Warcraft of political discourse,” he says.
Perhaps, as the title of his book, Power Play: How Video Games Can Save The World, suggests, the future of gaming will allow populations to speculatively rehearse solutions to global crises – like conflict and climate change – and empower them to elect policymakers who drive positive change.
But let’s hit pause: a powerful gaming experience need not be hyperreal. At its core, it must be simple – and it’s neither gambling, investment banking, nor politicking. In essence, “games are spaces of possibility that excite playful activities,” remind the futurist researchers Aaron Rosa and John A. Sweeney in their 2019 study, “Your Move: Lessons Learned at The Interstices of Design, Gaming, And Futures”.
That simplicity makes them difficult to predict. As Beamable’s Radoff notes: “any time someone declares the future of games, it usually isn’t.” So be calm, retro-console fans. While gaming may be the ground zero for a vast number of world-changing scenarios, Tomb Raider, DOOM, GoldenEye 007 and the like will always be legendary. Perhaps that’s why Radoff concludes: “the future of games may simply be the past of games, again.”
Read the latest issue of FARSIGHT: Tomorrow’s Day Off