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Electric Dreams, Part 5: Waking Up

Together In Electric Dreams

Welcome to the last part of Electric Dreams, a series about the many possibilities for tomorrow's games, and the technology that might make it happen. Over the course of the series we've talked about a lot of different futures for the games industry: an endless graphics race; an exciting world of research; promising experiments in the industry; and a demographic of dreamers. These futures aren't exclusive from one another. One of my favourite bits of games writing, by George Buckenham, is a list of Rules for Making Games. Rule number 5 simply says "Which future of games is correct? All of them." Let's see if we can squeeze in two more futures before we come to a close on this series: my own, and yours.

Writing this series has been an interesting opportunity for me. While I've been giving my view of the world of research, and the ways the games industry could change, it's also come at a time when I'm examining my own reasons for staying in it. As we've discussed in previous parts, the power of research funding also comes paired with a lot of baggage and other responsibilities, and while games researchers might be more free than big developers to explore new ideas, we're still constrained by funding agencies and government visions. If I want to pursue my own ideas about games, if I want to focus on whether my work actually benefits games rather than some abstract notion of 'the economy' or 'science', academia may not be the best place to do it. But this raises a more difficult question: where else is there?

There's a gap in games as it stands today: a space of questions waiting to be answered that neither the games industry nor academia can easily reach. We're familiar with spaces like this - we celebrate indie game development for being able to try out ideas and explore areas of games that are not possible for other kinds of game development. But 'indie' has become a blurry term, and within that blur there are areas that are well-explored, and areas that are less so. There are swathes of wonderful artists out there exploring certain aspects of the medium and stretching its definition and its role in culture. Without wishing to partition the world into art and science, I feel like we are missing the complement here: indie scientists, pushing the limits of technology, with an understanding of cutting edge research ideas but without the strings attached that come with working in industry. In theory, academia provides this space. In practice, I have little faith that this missing space will be created by either academia or the games industry as they stand today.

As I wrote this last piece, by complete chance I was reminded of David Hayward's 'Videogames are more than an industry' talk. Hayward is one of the organisational wizards behind events like Game Camp, Feral Vector, Rezzed and Game City. He's full of positivity and friendliness, and just the right amount of sass about the world. In the video he's walking across lush green countryside, calmly talking about games and the changes he hopes to see. Towards the end he settles down on a beach and peers into the camera. "I'm convinced that there are more interesting creators and new audiences out there to be found... but we can't look to the industry as it exists to do that." Similarly, I don't think we can look to academia any more to provide all the answers to gaming's future. This is not necessarily the fault of academic research: it has a lot of problems which weigh it down, but it also has different aims in many cases.

Those aims are often things like 'economic impact' or whatever euphemism for 'help the mainstream games industry' your local funding agency likes best these days. Which is not to say that I think research being useful to big game developers is a bad thing. One of my favourite pieces of academic work is an account of how Nathan Sturtevant, a researcher at the University of Denver, worked with Bioware to improve Dragon Age's pathfinding. I think this work is valuable, and is a great outlet for academic research. What you have to understand, though, is that there is no-one to advocate for other outlets. The industry has the money, influence and named faces to come and stand at academic events and proselytise. Other outlets - like having scientists making games themselves, or helping disenfranchised developers, or being relevant to society, or simply doing their research for its own sake - they don't have companies, governments and entrepreneurs to stand up and shout for it.

Society has a strange relationship with scientists right now. Everyone 'Fucking Loves Science' according to Facebook and Reddit, particularly when it offers an opportunity to get prissy about religion or appear intellectually superior to people. But our conception about what scientists do, or who they are, is pretty warped. Shows like The Big Bang Theory reinforce unhelpful stereotypes: scientists are socially confused, detached from reality, and of course male. The end result of these two extremes of love and hate is a weird blend: people want to support scientists but they don't really want to know what they do. This can be a good situation for people who want to knuckle down in peace, but it's potentially a worrying situation if we want to turn to this same public and ask them to fund games research. Would you be willing to pay me to explore hypotheticals about the future of games? Or would you rather throw the money into a Kickstarter for another Broken Age?

I wouldn't blame you if the answer was the latter - after all, that's why we fund research with government money. Scientific research as a whole is normally very risky work that doesn't have outputs that society would be directly interested in. I'm not sure that's always true here, though. In fact, I think we're lucky as games researchers that often people are very interested in what we do. When scientists talk about impact, we too often tunnel vision on the idea that academics should make big, complex games with budgets and artists and polish, as if people are too stupid or ignorant to actually be interested in the work we do. Yet whenever I talk to people about my work, or write up the research of colleagues, or just show a silly game I made, it's only ever met with enthusiasm and support. Like David Hayward, I get the sense of an audience out there waiting to be found. Perhaps with them we can find a way to fund a balance between research and game development that lets us answer interesting questions, and release tools, toys and games along the way.

It's difficult to wholeheartedly wish for these changes sometimes. I spent last weekend at Different Games, a conference about diversity and inclusion in games hosted by New York's NYU Game Center. There was so much discussion about so many different, yet related, struggles both within and without the games industry. People trying hard to find or make a place within a medium they love, either as creators, players, critics or something else. By contrast, the concern over whether we ever manage to fully generate game narratives, or ever find a way to talk to the monsters, seems somewhat trivial. For all the troubles of researchers the world over, most of us are going to make rent this month, and continue to live without much worry. So it's hard for me to sit here and tell you that there's a need to create a new space to work in. I am safer than a lot of people who want to change games and are working hard to do so.

Ultimately, though, I think creating a new space where games research can be done, distributed and explained benefits everyone. In Anna Anthropy's wonderful book Rise Of The Videogame Zinesters she speaks about the power of technology and how its barriers to entry affect and control how people can express themselves through games. "Where is the printing press for videogames?" she asks. I think part of the answer is to be found by enabling research to happen outside of both the industry and academia. While gaming is an artform, it is also a science, and we must value independence and experimentation on both sides of this coin. I truly believe that in doing so, we can make complex techniques and ideas available to more people than ever before - not locked away in proprietary software, nor obfuscated behind academic nonsense words, but shared and spread with the same community spirit that we see in smaller developer communities.

A lot of this is idealistic, but thinking about the future often is. I hope that despite the cynicism and skepticism in some parts of Electric Dreams, I've left you with the feeling that things can change, and that there are people out there who want to do something new, who want to change games and games research for the better. I said at the start that this part was about both my future and yours, and that's because any hope of enabling researchers to work comfortably outside of academia will depend on whether your own vision of the future has a place for it. We'll both need to be idealists - and, probably, risk-takers - in order to make it happen. If you want to help out, let's keep in touch. If you happen to have a few million sitting around and want to start a research institute, then definitely get in touch. If you think I'm totally wrong about games and research and the future, then you can tell me that, too.

I can't promise anything will happen right now, because I'm not sure what the next steps are just yet, but it's something researchers I know are talking about with increasing frequency. Could we Kickstart a research program? No-one really knows. But we're beginning to think about these questions. A few weeks ago, just after the Dagstuhl meeting I talked about in part two, the Virtual Institute for Computational Expression was started up by some colleagues of mine, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it. We're hoping that as a group we can find the answers about our future that we couldn't do alone. Whatever your visions for the future of games are, I hope you'll keep dreaming with us, and always be looking out for new things. The future, and games, will be better tomorrow. I hope to see you there.

Electric Dreams was made possible by your generous funding through the RPS Supporter Program.

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