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Games as a Happening, as a Service (Notes from my Talk at Goldsmiths)

February 3, 2011

I’m doing a talk at Goldsmiths about games today.  Not just games as we tend to find them now, but how the impact of the networking of our technology is going to change the design, development and support of gaming.  Below are my notes to accompany the session…

A Bit of Theory
I’m coming at media from the angle of Media Ecology, a new(ish) term that you might see bandied about, that I think indicates an approach that offers us new ways of viewing the world.   Once you start to see media as networked – connected – then the realisation of this confluence changes how you approach design.  This also brings to mind Fuller (2005) and his illuminating discussion of why he uses the term ‘ecology’ in his book ‘Media Ecologies‘;

The term ‘ecology’ is used here because it is one of the most expressive language currently has to indicate the massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter….The term ‘media ecology’ is used and in circulation in a number of ways. The term is chosen here because this multiple use turns it into a crossroads: Putting these two words next to each other produces a conjunction of two variables that are always busy with meaning. Their dynamism, however, always arises out of concrete conditions. The virtuality of such conditions, their possible reinvention or alternative state, their pregnancy with change and interrelation, is as deeply implied in this concreteness as much as it can be said to be subject to definition. (Fuller 2005:2-3)

Parikka’s (2007) study of computer viruses, suffuse with biological terminology, firmly stating the position of life and the biological as within the realm of media ecology;

The coupling of biology and technology, which, of course, has longer roots beyond digital culture, finds alive and kicking within the media ecology of digital culture. These types of couplings can also provide vectors of becoming for a novel understanding of digital culture. Life does not remain a mere metaphor but also becomes an implication of autopoiesis, of self-moving, of acting and force.” (Parikka 2007:26)

So why go all ecological? Ecology is all about relationships of energy. It’s about understanding the complex web that life weaves. When you look at ecology, you are looking at context. We don’t look at an individual organism, we look at how it relates to it’s fellow organisms – whether in competition, co-operation, predation, symbiosis, parasitism and so on.

Ecological Food Web

The Physics of Media are changing
Its all up in the air now. The safe certainty of buying a physical product (VHS, DVD, cartridge…) that has a contained, non-networked media artefact are fading rapidly. We are moving from a world of discrete non-relational media to one based on physical products to one based on virtual products. This means it is easy to distribute, modify, copy and paste. It means the barriers to entry and distribution are much, much lower. The problem that will be faced by future digital projects is getting noticed. Lets take video as the example…

“In mid-2007, six hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute. Then it grew to eight hours per minute, then 10, then 13. In January of this year, it became 15 hours of video uploaded every minute, the equivalent of Hollywood releasing over 86,000 new full-length movies into theaters each week.” (link)

The biggest problem we will face in creating new media artefacts is getting noticed. So a number of people are looking to the idea of media as a service (or happening) and not a product…..

Games as a Service
What this means is that the user is not so much buying a game as buying into a world. The job of the developers is to create and maintain that world and it’s integrity. The user is paying for the maintenance that the developer is undertaking.

Examples of Games as service include subscription MMOs, for example World of Warcraft – 12 million subscribers that pay to buy the game and pay to play. Blizzard (who develop the game) has earned $1.1 billion in income this year alone. There are also free to play MMOs (where you pay for time-shortcuts!) – an example is Darkorbit by Big Point (where you can save time by purchasing Uridium).

Game Feedback Loops
This is where the system running the game has within it the capacity to create feedback and more importantly, feed-forward loops. So the activity of players encourages more players to join in. An example of this is the iPhone chart, where many people buy new games based on what’s popular – which in turn fuels what is popular. It also used to be the case that the rating system, where players deleting an app were asked to rate it, was slightly bias to the negative, and hence a feedback loop. So building into the development process the expectation of iteration is a good thing. Also listening to the user feedback and where possible, acting on it can also help to build that feed-forward loop.

Control Systems (from Wikipedia)

Quality & Value Added
Savage Moon as a tower-defence game on Playstation Network. It cost £5 when you could play loads of different games of the same type for free online. So why would anyone bother to play it? I’m happy to say lots and lots did. Because when you pay £5 there is an expectation of a curatorial process, a higher standard of graphics, gameplay and testing. (This is the same idea as used by Arduino, the open source hardware company that allows other manufacturers to make it’s circuit boards knowing many users gravitate towards them as they are the best at making them…)

So in summary – we’re into new territory here for games, but I think one thing is certain – that the idea of designing and building a small one-off experience is over. An example that draws all of these in is the user-generated content (UGC) and a great game, is LittleBigPlanet where the users make the content and the developers build the platform. It still has a box purchase but the costs of maintaining the ongoing 1.5 million levels is met by a roll-out of additional value-added objects that players can (and do, by the million!) buy.

So in summary (again) – we’re into new territory but I think one thing is certain – is that the idea of designing and building a small one-off experience is over…. the physics of media have changedexcept where they haven’t….

Witch-house bands go even further: they put their music up for free on places like SoundCloud, but remove the files after a certain number of listens or downloads, creating scheduling and scarcity in a system that’s otherwise about abundance and time-shifting. Aside from the fact that some of these bands are really good, witch house is interesting to follow because it’s a sort of ad hoc Darknet — the places where you can hear this music move around. One week, it’s a private group on The next week, it’s a public message board. The week after, they’re all living on a blog entry’s comment thread. To keep finding this stuff, you’ve really got to want it. Modern networking tools are mobilised in pursuit of an atemporal way of gathering a fan base.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2011 1:29 pm

    Hi Tom, I blogged about your post at I thought I’d leave my thoughts as comment here too…

    Generally this is a really good introduction to some of the key ideas around Media Ecology illustrated by some well thought out practical examples which many people will be familiar with.

    The only statement I found myself disagreeing with was the line that argued ‘We are moving from a world of discrete non-relational media to one based on physical products to one based on virtual products.’ While its true that pre-digital media existed as discrete physical products, whose capacities to connect and exchange information with one another was frequently either impossible (trying to record from an audio cassette onto vinyl on a domestic LP player) or involved a highly lossy analogue recording process (such as recording vinyl onto tape, or anything onto VHS), it is wrong to characterise flows of digital information as a virtual process.

    Copying material between networked digital computers is certainly far faster and easier than using ‘old media’ analogue technologies, and it is also possible to create perfect digital copies (although popular digital media formats such as .mp3, .mp4 and .flv are often in fact heavily compressed lossy recordings). However this is not as a result of a de-materialisation or virtualisation of the information. Contemporary digital computing technologies provide highly complex physical systems which combine the properties of extremely powerful information processing power, vast amounts of storage space for binary data, and connectivity to a massive global network of similar machines. These three properties combined afford computer users the ability to digitise (to translate material previously encoded in analogue media into discrete binary code which is then readable by other digital computing technologies) and share media assets and other digital data far more easily than previously.

    However this process is entirely dependent on physical (non-virtual) computing technologies which require a vast expenditure of energy and resources to create. A UN University paper from 2004 found that producing a desktop computer and 17 inch CRT monitor uses 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of various chemical and 1500kg of water. The material costs of digital computing technologies used for media production and distribution are frequently overlooked by media studies as a discipline. I see media ecology, a method based on relationality, connectivity and context as a way of exploring material impacts of media technology which are frequently obscured by the rhetoric of virtuality.

    • February 4, 2011 1:34 pm

      You raise a good reply and a point I think there is no real answer to currently. The huge carbon footprint of technology is dark shadow haunting any digital utopia. I think your thoughts on this are important and it’s something we all need to address.

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