Please provide a brief introduction about yourself and tell us what you do...I’m the author of three books about digital culture, including one on games, and also do a lot of speaking, consulting and design around game and digital experiences. Perhaps my greatest interest is in how and why people use digital technologies, and what it means to improve their experience.
What is exciting about the gaming space right now? I’m most excited by the fact that games are breaking out of the specialist mold of being something for “gamers” and becoming something for absolutely everyone, of all ages and aptitudes. This is overwhelmingly due to the spread of mobile and tablet devices, and social networks. In the last few years, digital play has become a part of hundreds of millions of people’s lives in a way that is genuinely open and accessible, and I think this is changing what it means to create a game, or indeed any kind of fun, sociable digital experience.
What are the interesting ways that you’re seeing games being used? Education, problem solving, skill building, health etc? Education is always the most exciting thing for me: good games are engines for learning, and I’ve seen them starting to be used in schools in the UK and elsewhere to engage pupils who it can be incredibly hard to reach through conventional educational approaches. Then there is the use of games in professional settings — from medicine to the military — to train people up for scenarios that are simply too serious to be done for real. And finally there’s using them to learn about ourselves, from economic behavior to thinking about how we behave towards each other in any kind of complex, task-oriented setting. These are young fields, but ones with immense potential.
What’s your feeling on the use of social games? What is their ability to create collaboration? When you have people playing together, they are fully themselves in a way that you don’t get in almost any other area: you get the whole person, willingly collaborating on a task with others, and alongside this you can get some wonderfully complex behaviors. From things like Guilds in massively multiplayer online games, I think we can learn a lot about what it means to collaborate with other people on a task through digital media; perhaps more importantly, I also think that playing with others like this can build interpersonal bonds, and help us experiment with ideas about how we work best in teams, and what it means to work effectively together, both as a leader and as a follower.
What are the compelling motivations for people to play/participate? Games are all about satisfaction, of various complex kinds: you can use the word “fun,” but it doesn’t necessarily get to the root of the deep sense of achievement and mastered obstacles that some games offer. Ultimately, though, all games can be thought of as mechanisms for generating emotional responses – they are their own justification, and if they are well-made, they are intensely satisfying because they offer many layers of emotional satisfaction, from the simple delight of being transported to another world to the rewards of working with others towards a common goal, and gaining skills and achieving mastery. Unlike the world, a good game is fair: you know that you can win, and get credit for your skills. This kind of fairness is a huge advantage that games have over life.
What are your thoughts on the role of sensors, tracking and data? I think we’re going to see a steady integration of some kinds of play into real-world living: games able to respond to where we are, who we are with, what we are doing. But I’m not sure that this is as big a deal as some people make out – because ultimately it asks an awful lot from people, and they may not be willing to share data or information in this way. Data in general is a much more exciting field — because the fact that you can measure absolutely everything that someone does within a game presents you with a staggering opportunity to learn new things about behaviour, or to answer questions of what people like and want very precisely indeed. The kind of calibration you can achieve already, in terms of getting things just right to keep people playing and engaged, is powerful and a little frightening.
What are the big opportunities within the space? What’s the future hold? As I said in the beginning, the biggest opportunities for me are the ones that involve the most people: games not as highly complex experiences, but as casual, mobile, social experiences that tens or hundreds of millions of people can do while they go about their daily lives. Smartphones are fast becoming the world’s most important gaming platform, and I think this is a field that has huge growth in it — while specialist gaming machines, like consoles, have their work cut out in surviving against this competition for attention.
The future, for me, is above all about engineering play experiences to be as pleasurable for ordinary users as possible – Angry Birds is an excellent example of something that stands out because of the emphasis it puts on ease and seamlessness of experience, and because of its universal appeal. Although we mustn’t forget that games are a fertile area for innovation, too. Look at Kinect: digital play is one of those areas in which, if it’s made pleasurable and delightful enough, people are willing to embrace novelty in a way they wouldn’t even consider in most other fields.
This interview was conducted by Timothy Ryan and featured on PSFK in preparation for their upcoming ‘Future of Gaming’ report. Tom Chatfield is a faculty member of The School of Life, and has recently developed our new class ‘How to Thrive in the Digital Age’, which will be running again on the 20 February 2012.
Click here to watch Tom Chatfield at TED Global 2010 on the ‘Seven Ways Videogames Engage The Brain’.