By Michael Dolan
These days it seems almost everyone has a theory about the future of video games. Many software developers see themselves on a collision course with the film industry, with games having their own version of the Oscars. Others expect games to mimic art history by undergoing a series of graphic reinterpretations. But if you look closely, the young history of gaming seems to be following the evolution of the vehicle where games appear most — television.
We tend to see gaming as one all-encompassing genre under a capital "G." But within that genre, many sub-classifications will rise, thrive, endure and fail. Just as reality-based fare is among the most successful television of the last decade, it's possible that the new massive, multiplayer online games will follow a similar course. It's feasible that millions of people will soon compete in a virtual world for the right to become Donald Trump's Apprentice. Perhaps an enterprising designer will create an educational game that rivals the social significance of Sesame Street. And maybe a group of prescient developers will make a game series that allows participants to see what it's like to perform in a real-life ER.
Because game designers are inhibited only by creativity and available technology, the potential will grow as their capability to move more polygons cheaply comes to fruition — something that the computer industry is working on every day.
Just like with television, we'll have to take the good with the bad. As more 18- to 34-year-olds check out of network television and check into gaming, marketers will go after that valuable consumer demographic. Product placement may become so abundant in games that NASCAR will look like NPR in comparison. Play a driving game and you'll see familiar landmarks: the Shell gas station on the corner, the McDonald's on Main Street, the Budweiser billboards near highway exits.
As the music industry looks for new ways to recapture its youthful audience, record labels will find even greater ways to cross-promote. Want to hear the latest Beastie Boys single? The place to hear it first could be in Grand Theft Auto 6.
With games' ever-growing online components, game companies will also try to create massive shared experiences online. They'll launch "must see" events in an attempt to draw millions of players online simultaneously.
The makeover craze that continues to inhabit cable television may lead to players creating virtual models of their homes. For a fee, professionals might come into their virtual world and remake it, giving the player ideas for their real-world home. Or perhaps you'll be able to participate in an online amateur talent contest where the winner becomes an overnight sensation like American Idol.
The future of gaming will not be all that different than the future of any other form of entertainment. As the masses of players determine what they want to get out of gaming, large corporations will throw their money and workforce into providing it.
Occasionally, there will be a game or two that breaks the mold — a Citizen Kane or a Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band — something that changes the way we look at the genre. But that genre is a big one, with many different people executing many different artistic visions and agendas in an effort to reach a mass audience.
Some will be genius. Others will be reprehensible. The key to the future of gaming will be for parents to understand and appreciate those distinctions and to not champion games based on one educational tour-de-force or condemn games entirely based on a violent first-person shooter.
The average age of the gamer is rapidly approaching 30. As people in their 30s and 40s continue to play video games into their senior years, the genres of games will expand to accommodate those audiences and their discretionary income. To predict the future of video games, just follow Deep Throat's advice to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during the Nixon Administration: "Follow the money."