Bushnell shows us the future

Bushnell shows us the future

OPINION

Nolan Bushnell, the creator of Pong and one of the Great Fathers of video gaming, spoke up at a BAFTA Q&A session and said what many have said before but have been unheard. Basically, Mr. Bushnell said that he had found online gaming "stilted and flat" and devoid of any real social interaction. To him, as to many of us, gaming becomes a social activity only when the gamers share the same physical space.

Nolan Bushnell, the creator of Pong and one of the Great Fathers of video gaming, spoke up at a BAFTA Q&A session and said what many have said before but have been unheard. Basically, Mr. Bushnell said that he had found online gaming "stilted and flat" and devoid of any real social interaction. To him, as to many of us, gaming becomes a social activity only when the gamers share the same physical space.

Bushnell exemplified what he meant by social by drawing an analogy with a pub scene: Buying a drink for someone at a bar is social and the reason martinis cost more at bars than they do at home is the social environment where you get to enjoy your drink. However, "Sitting in a dark room in your underpants talking to thousands of people might seem social, but it's not cool. The public space is always going to be here."

Nolan went on to describe his uWink gaming concept, which is his vision of the future of gaming - "entertainment dining experience" - in 20 years or so when video screens at dining tables are a common feature and can be used to play interactive games with others. However, to me the most important aspect of his speech was the bashing of the current online games. One can only hope that game developers lend an ear to his words and start thinking more of the games that they make.

If you allow me to go off on a tangent here: Personally, I must say that whereas Bushnell may be correct in saying that gaming doesn't become really social unless you have your fellow gamers in the same room with you, I must admit that such situations are harder and harder to arrange in the modern day when people - old friends and perhaps the only gaming companions that you have - are separated by great distances. Still, there are a lot of things that we could still do to make games more social and less shallow - or "stilted and flat" as Bushnell expressed it.

My own idea of a good social game involved cooperation. Admittedly, you get some of this in MMOs such as Age of Conan, but MMORPGs should not be the only games to offer this. Adult gamers have less time to spend on gaming and thus less time consuming social games would be in order. At present, most other genres offer only competitive games instead of cooperative (see all those capture the flag modes etc. in FPS games). Grouping up and going against another group of gamers is not what I call social and cooperative. Rather, I'd like to see games like, for example, Crysis offer cooperative modes where you could group up with one or two of your friends and play through the single-player campaign (or single missions) with them, planning the attacks into enemy encampments with them and executing them as best you can while keeping in "radio contact".

Admittedly, this is not quite what Bushnell had in mind, but it is my strong belief that today's games are too competitive and mostly ignore the cooperative aspects of social behavior. It is the competitive, individualistic ("Everything to me, now!") aspects of today's world that destroy the much more social society that we still had about 50-60 years ago in towns and villages. There's no going back in time, but if we can create a stronger social bond between people by paying more attention to the cooperative aspects of our entertainment, then we might just bring back some of that old collaborative spirit into the world.