Monday, March 7, 2011

Realities of Virtual Control

Last year, my teenage son and I were discussing the future of video games, including the impact of alternate reality (ARG), augmented reality, 3D, and gesture-based technology in videogame play. 

He appreciated the value of 3D, ARG and augmented reality.  However, when I explained how controller-free gaming systems using gesture recognition technology would allow him to serve as a “puppet master” and play as if he were actually a character in the game, he surprised me with his passionate frustration.  He is a heavy action game player, and he HATED the concept of playing if he were, in essence, the actual character in the game.  He much, much preferred the using a keyboard or game controller.

I immediately assumed he was balking because it meant he’d have to change and adapt to a new way of playing.

“Congratulations, son,” I quipped smugly.  “What you are experiencing is my generation’s version of the 8-track tape. I understand you want certain things to stay the same.  Looks like you are joining the ranks of the adult world, and starting to age out of certain technologies…you are just going to have to get used to it.”

I was jilted by his authentic response that I completely misunderstood what he was saying.  He meant he didn’t want to be any part of a war or action game that would make him feel like he was actually shooting someone, or physically kicking another, or swinging a punch at someone in a boxing game. I was stunned. 

“I like to play real time online action and fantasy games, mom, and sometimes they are violent. I would much rather play the game, not play in the game as if I were performing those actions in reality.  I don’t want to ‘hold” a gun,’ I’m not a violent person and don’t want to feel like one.  I just like to participate in strategic challenges with my friends. It shouldn’t feel that real, I don’t think it is right, and I don’t think other people should be able to do it either.”

He’s got a point. 

My son and his friends love to play videogames.  They have been playing them for endless hours for over half of their lives, and I have not. They are all very goal-oriented and prefer strategic, MPORGs (MultiPlayer Online Role Playing Games) that require them to experiment, hypothesize, try things out, work together collaboratively as they compete for wins and bragging rights.

Therefore, his perspective comes from being a firsthand consumer and provides a vivid example of how we must never lose sight of listening to the end user and never assume we already understand the true intent and purpose of their media usage.  As he points out, sometimes it is the very separation from the actuality of the action (i.e. with hand controllers) that keeps a player mindful that it is only a game and its story is really just that: it is fantasy and not real. 

In order to be socially responsible content providers of media, we need to never lose sight of the long term consequences of any product or message for the sake of glory and short-term goals.  It sounds exciting and sexy (and profitable) to convert popular mainstream games such as “Mortal Combat” or “Batman: Asylum” into wireless, gesture-based games, and it certainly has the potential to draw in a huge amount of devoted gaming consumers.  But at what price? 

I am not an action gamer, and I doubt the psychological impact of virtually holding a weapon in a puppet master fashion would have occurred to me until it was too late. 

My son’s concern over the meshing of the virtual world with the actual world accentuates the fact that transmedia content providers must always take context into consideration during the development process and do their best to envision and anticipate whatever consequences—good or bad—might occur as a result. 

As the technology of the Connected Age continues to evolve, so does our understanding of the pros and cons of its usage.  It is up to transmedia storytellers, as well as each of us individually and collectively, to activate its use with social responsibility in mind.  Let’s hope futuristic game developers do the same.

Great link to TED talk demonstration of one of the first gesture based games, “Milo the Virtual Boy”

Dark Horse Game Design: Into the Fray. (2009, February 11). Dark Horse Game Design. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from
Molyneux, P. (2010, July 1). Peter Molyneux demos Milo, the virtual boy | Video on TED: Ideas worth spreading. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from

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