In The Future, Everything Is A Game

June 13, 2014 | Michael Rougeau

“The future is now,” video games companies want us to believe. But if “now” is just the present, shouldn’t the real future be more impressive than Xboxes and PlayStations and Wiis? During Los Angeles’s annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, Echo Park gallery iam8bit launched an exhibition exploring “The Future of Gaming,” as illuminated by some of the medium’s brightest thinkers and creators. The gallery’s owners, Jon Gibson and Amanda White, solicited theories from the likes of The Secret of Monkey Island designer Tim Schafer and Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune, among many others. Then they had artists bring those theories to life.

Schafer’s is a highlight: “In the future, we will play games while floating naked in a tank of warm, sensory-depriving gelatin. Games will be distributed chemically, into the gelatin, and absorbed into the player’s skin. The gelatin will be Lingonberry-flavored, and the games will encourage good citizenship.” He’s probably at least half kidding, but who can say for sure?

“Getting so many luminaries from the gaming industry involved was really humbling and special for us,” White told ANIMAL after the exhibition’s opening. “We were lucky enough to get pretty quick and enthusiastic responses from the people we approached with the idea.”

“The Future of Gaming” was born when LA’s Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences challenged iam8bit last fall to spice up the D.I.C.E. 2014 summit’s attendee lounge. The event’s theme was “The New Golden Age of Gaming,” but White and Gibson decided to look past the present into the “distant future,” White explained. “The reception for the show was positive, so we thought, why not make this into a bigger exhibition for public consumption?” she said.

The theories on display are as varied as their progenitors. Game designer, TED Talker and Carnegie Mellon Professor Jesse Schell predicted that “we will learn about our ancestors by talking to the avatars we inherited from them.”

Schell’s artist, Travis Chen, crafted a flowing, layered woodcut. Game Developer Conference General Manager Meggan Scavio wrote that “people will be ranked on public leaderboards by the types of games they play, how well that play them, and the frequency of play (the more the better), thus allowing for the proper vetting of job applicants, business partners, and even personal relationships.” Seattle-based Kelice Penney made a necktie sewn with real-life power-ups to go with.

Philadelphia artist and designer Jude Buffum relished the chance to use pixel art to visualize a quote from Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning about the blurring of the lines between games and real life.

“You are the game of the future, where every bit of energy exerted thru your digital daily life will be captured toward more real world incentives,” Lanning predicted. “Each beat of our heart, calorie we eat, footstep we make, and mile gained thru our day will be captured, converted, and gamified into cost saving incentives that just ‘can’t be beat.’ Our decreasing privacies increasingly offered as the willing sacrifices made at the altar of savings, incentives, and reward points. Three billion years of progress will have finally evolved us into the hairless walking coupon.”

Buffum’s imagery is bursting with timers, high scores, fuel gauges, and fast food logos. A figure—hairless, evidently said “walking coupon”—fights its way through the piece, shrieking at the center. “[Gaming] started out very innocent, which is where I go to with my art,” Buffum told ANIMAL at the show’s opening. “But I like sort of running that through a filter of more modern times.”

He believes the turmoil Lanning anticipates might really come to pass. “Everything is becoming gamified. It’s not just our games — it’s our lives, it’s our commerce, it’s corporations. Everything is being quantified, coded, scored, and people are just giving up,” Buffum said. “It’s powerful technology and it could take society to a very bad place.”

Particle physicist and game designer Seamus Blackley, who helped create Microsoft’s Xbox around the turn of the century, imagines games of the future being just as omnipresent, but somehow more benign.

“The future of games is ubiquity,” Blackley hypothesized for the exhibit. “Every device and interface will need to entertain or be ignored. From supermarket checkout to your tax filing, we are training people already to ignore the boring. So. Games on everything all the time. As tech pervades, games follow. Do we control everything with smartphones? Then the games go everywhere from the phones. Do we have network computers in every object in the home? Then the games will follow. Just as games flowed into televisions and then computers and then mobile, they will be central to it all.”

Illustrator Kevin Stanton drew flowers, bees and butterflies with Xbox and PlayStation symbols on them to accompany Blackley’s quote. “Old guys like me, who started out in games when it was seen as a negative career choice, and people thought that it was just some sort of fad, feel hugely vindicated by the fact that games are so mainstream now and everybody expects everything to be a game,” Blackley said. But will the gamified, dystopian future envisioned by Lanning and others in iam8bit’s exhibit come to pass? Blackley doesn’t think so, because life is a game, and there’s always someone watching to make sure you’re following the rules.

“At the end of the day, morality becomes crowdsourced because everybody knows what everybody else is doing,” Blackley said, and that applies to companies as much as individuals. “Good and evil have always been gamified,” he continued. “That’s what good and evil are: good and evil are rules in a game.”

White said “The Future of Gaming” is part of iam8bit’s “bigger, grander mission” of “making the world a better place by giving people experiences that expand and open their minds.” The exhibit runs through June 22nd. (Lead Image: Naomi White x Seth Killian)