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Not Ready Player One

EA envisions a constantly connected future, but gamifying mundane tasks wouldn’t make everyday life more exciting. It would make magical worlds more banal.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Earlier this month, The Verge’s Chris Plante interviewed Andrew Wilson, the CEO of gaming megacompany Electronic Arts, as part of a package on what our lives will look like five years from now. The in-progress series asks 10 tech leaders to talk about the future, an activity at which even experts are notoriously terrible. Wilson, whose steely, supervillain-like visage peers out of the page, paints a picture of a world where we never stop playing and the lines between recreation and real life blur. In the process, he makes predictions, some of them bold (game makers will soon start “putting the entire experience into the cloud”) and some of them less so (“I think that entertainment will continue to be a really important part of our lives”).

Wilson’s most Black Mirror material involves his vision of the intersection between in-game excitement and off-screen routine:

Since his elevation to CEO in 2013, Wilson has tried to revamp EA’s reputation (which was tarnished by a series of lackluster, rushed, or broken releases, compounded by unapologetic PR) by promoting a “player-first” culture, in which the company is committed to incorporating feedback from the community. In that spirit, I’ll offer some feedback for him: At the risk of looking like a Luddite when video game-driven grocery runs become a craze, I’m unsubscribing from this horrific future. Maybe I’m being shortsighted — I’m no better at predicting tomorrow than anyone else — but I can’t overstate how little I’d like to live in a world where my game consoles care about the contents of my fridge. Video games would be worse if they got bogged down by the busywork that makes many gamers want to carve out their virtual lives.

Wilson has been selling his “from the minute you get up in the morning” model for some time. Plante, who conducted the interview, doesn’t see how Wilson can make good on his goal of a silo-free future, in which players could migrate from screen to screen without encountering any cordoned-off platforms that don’t support the same instance of a given game. “I don’t think it’s doable,” he told me via Twitter. “Every publisher wants a walled-garden store, and every platform wants people to buy the game on their service so they get a 30 percent cut. True universality is spoiled by too many services wanting a cut.”

I don’t disagree, but I’m less interested in whether Wilson can do what he describes than I am in why anyone else would want him to. It’s easy to see why the dream of an always-engaged user base would appeal to the CEO of a game developer/publisher, but the gamification of humdrum household tasks sounds less like something consumers would be excited about and more like a leaked memo about EA’s evil plot to mind-control the market.

Before Wilson forecasts the future of eggs, he speculates that the consumption of games will come to mirror the consumption of music, which he says has “moved from being something I have to make a conscious decision to engage with, to something that really surrounds every aspect of my life.” He’s right in one sense: Like most forms of entertainment, music included, games have moved to a more on-demand model, in which digital downloads and portability have replaced pilgrimages to the arcade. That trend shows no signs of slowing, as Nintendo’s forthcoming Switch will try to reduce the distinction between handhelds and home consoles, and Pokémon Go mania (which remains strong despite significant drop-off) will inspire other augmented-reality games.

Beyond that, though, the analogy breaks down: Although listening to music isn’t a purely passive experience, music can be “background music” much more easily than games can be “background games.” The level of interactivity that sets games apart from other media makes it difficult for one title to deliver the same jolt during a dedicated session at home as it does during a shorter, more distracted session mid-commute (let alone mid-trip to the fridge). Songs play to completion without user input, but for games, user input is the point.

There’s an even more fundamental tension to the mingling between escapist entertainment and the stuff we want to escape. Whereas augmented reality makes the real world more magical (It’s my neighborhood, but with cute, collectible monsters!), Wilson’s scheme would make magical worlds more banal (It’s my street-racing sim, but with bonuses for the time I spent sitting in actual traffic). That’s not to suggest that our virtual worlds shouldn’t reflect the real one; despite some misguided attempts to preserve video games as a pristine space untouched by societal concerns, playing games is a great way to wrestle with real-life issues, from technological paranoia to terrorism and war to gender and race relations. But there’s a difference between using games to mediate cultural conversations and using them to remind us that we’re meatbags who have to stop playing and take out the trash. We play video games to transcend our limitations and to test ourselves in ways we otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t. Conferring achievements for driving to work or filling the fridge seems like a less satisfying form of empowerment, and gamifying chores wouldn’t make them less of a slog.

These issues arise whenever developers attempt to make a mostly sedentary pastime more “active.” While exergaming faithfully digitizes a tedious task, it doesn’t make it more effective or more fun. Similar problems pop up whenever a game saddles a superpowered character with mundane burdens, as the evolution of eating mechanics in the Grand Theft Auto series demonstrated. In Vice City, players could purchase food items to restore their avatar’s health, although it wasn’t the most cost-effective strategy. Vice City’s sequel, San Andreas, made eating a necessity: The game’s protagonist, Carl Johnson, would die if the player didn’t feed him from time to time, like an ultraviolent Tamagotchi. The problem was that pressing buttons to consume calories was less entertaining than any other activity C.J. could perform in the playground Rockstar had constructed — save, perhaps, for going to the gym, another even-worse-than-real-life diversion that took time away from the franchise’s real draws. We play sandbox games to give in to our ids and experiment in an environment with fewer constraints and consequences; the last thing we want while we stare at a screen is to worry about our on-screen selves putting on weight. Wisely, Rockstar removed mandatory eating in Grand Theft Auto IV and reduced the role of food even further in GTA V.

For now, wish fulfillment is still the industry standard, and odds are it will stay that way as we enter the virtual-reality era. Although Wilson has presided over a successful few years for EA, his rhetoric sometimes outstrips reality. In 2014, for instance, he vowed that EA wouldn’t release a game unless it’s “great,” a lofty, likely unattainable goal that it hasn’t always lived up to. Here’s hoping Wilson’s plan for 2021 proves more elusive than a popular NBA Live.