Video games are taking over the world and it's time for Design to take them seriously.
Part I : Serious Play
Part II : The Future of Design Tools
I grew up during the birth of home video games. Nintendo, Game Boy, and Sega unlocked a world of home video games and became the perfect 8-bit escape from the cold Alaskan winters. I graduated to PC games in the 90's and continued for awhile into the 2000's. But as I grew older, we drifted apart. Games became an impenetrable subculture that required more skill and time than I could commit. For decades, I haven't taken video games seriously.
And this isn't uncommon. Despite being one of the most dominant forces in culture today, video games are polarizing in a way that most pop culture mediums aren't. There's a distinct divide between the gamers who get them and the non-gamers who don't. Video games exist outside the shared cultural conversation. We just don't talk about video games with friends and colleagues the way we talk about a great film we watched, a new show, or a book we've read. And when you do, you run quickly into awkward pauses.
Part of the blame for this lands on video games themselves which can present a high barrier to newcomers in both the hardware and skills needed to participate and the seemingly impenetrable community around them. But there's another side to this divide. There's a lingering perception of video games as a pointless, time-wasting pursuit suited for children. That's the one I want to tackle head on.
"Take your pleasure seriously."—Eames
This series is meant for those who don't get it—the non-gamers—because I was very recently one of you. For the past couple years I've wanted to reconnect with video games, and this year I carved out time to do just that. I bought consoles. I subscribed to services. I played for hours. The experience has been eye-opening and has rattled my foundation in Design. And it's obvious to me that these walls need to be torn down.
Too big to ignore.
Despite common perception, video games have long since left the realm of subculture and are now big business. Today, video games dominate the entertainment industry. In 2020, the video game industry pulled in a record $179b in revenues—more than the global film industry and all of North American sports combined.
The largest media franchise in history isn't Star Wars ($65b) or the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its 23 feature films ($29b). It's a little video game that launched on the Nintendo Game Boy in 1995 and has since gone on to earn over $90b in game sales, tv shows, movies, trading cards, and merchandise… it's called Pokémon.
The audience is growing.
Games not only have players, but massive audiences now as well. At first, it can seem unthinkable that anyone would choose to spend their time watching someone else play a video game. Nonetheless, it's huge. Jump on Twitch or YouTube, and you'll find millions of people actively watching other people stream live video game sessions. These platforms have anointed some of the internet's biggest celebrities (Ninja, PewDiePie, Dream) with fanbases larger than Hollywood A-listers.
Esports (electronic sports), where audiences gather to watch individuals and teams battle against one another in popular games like League of Legends and Super Smash Bros (often filling stadiums), is on a meteoric rise expected to grow 15.1% each year when many mainstream sports are stalling. Professional gamers earn millions in prize money and sponsorships and are championed by big names like Michael Jordan and Drake.
Where big events happen.
When the pandemic shut down in-person concerts, Travis Scott turned to gaming to create his Astronomical concert event inside the world of Fortnite. This wasn't just a video. This opened a new creative door for musical experiences that included new scenes, surreal visuals, and premiered new music—all experienced live with your friends.
The record for the largest attendance of an in-person concert tour was set by Ed Sheeran in 2019 after a two-year tour where he connected with 8.7 million fans. The Travis Scott Fortnite event reached 27.7 million fans over three days!
And it's not just music. Everyone is looking for creative ways to connect with new fans through their favorite games. The film Tenet had its world premiere in Fortnite, Balenciaga released their 2021 Fall collection in the form of a video game, and even Louis Vuitton partnered with League of Legends on a custom skin. Brands are moving into video games and redefining what luxury means to a digital-first generation.
Now in the driver's seat for modern culture.
While video games have long found inspiration in great films, recently that flow has begun to reverse course. The movie industry is increasingly mining gaming IP in search of the next blockbuster franchise. The Witcher (Netflix's biggest original series release to date), Tomb Raider, Sonic, Pokémon, and Resident Evil are just a few video game franchises that have crossed over into film, and a slew of others are now in development: Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid, Halo, Borderlands, and The Last of Us
All of this points to a shift that is becoming increasingly obvious. Games have become the dominant force in shaping the course of popular culture. Like the 2000s, when the golden age of TV with its longer and more provocative stories snatched the cultural torch from theatrical films, video games will take the lead this decade. We're entering the Golden Age of Gaming.
Deeper, richer experiences.
Video games offer some of the deepest story experiences ever created where players can explore the world and connect deeper with the characters than ever before. Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2) is a game with a main quest that will take you 47 hours to complete. Compare that to a typical 2-hour feature film or the 10 hours it takes to binge a season of your favorite show. Now consider that RDR2 is an open-world game that can be replayed in numerous different ways with different side quests that branch off the main storyline. In all, you can spend 161 hours and never experience the same thing twice.
And this doesn't even touch on the near bottomless depth of experiences one can have with social games.
A better kind of social.
When the pandemic shut down social gatherings, many turned to video games as a place to gather with their friends. Animal Crossing was the big hit last Spring. Among Us crossed 100m downloads. Minecraft hit 131m in Oct. Fortnite crossed 350m regular users. Roblox hit 150m active users in July and just became a publicly-traded company. In all, 2.7 billion people played games in 2020.
Why have social games proven to be so good at maintaining friendships during this time? Because the prospect of doing something fun together draws us in, while the structured play of the game organizes and facilitates our social interactions. — Why Do Video Games Work So Well As Social Experiences by Peter Rojas
At a time when "social" has become a dirty word in the tech world with social networks battling data breaches and misinformation, video games seem to be offering a more positive path forward for social interactions online. Unlike social media, social games are not about sharing but about playing together.
No longer just for kids.
I fully understand that to many non-gamers, this can all sound a bit depressing or even dystopian. And I might agree with you if it wasn't for the fact that games have gotten really, really good.
Without a doubt, the biggest surprise to me since diving into video games this past year, has been just how much the medium has matured. Not just in technical advancements and realism but in the breadth of experiences, storytelling, and connection that are now possible.
You no longer have to be an expert with a controller, or have a taste for glorified violence, or have 100+ hours to burn. The breadth of games has exploded. There are casual puzzle games you can complete in an hour (Monument Valley). There are calm, meditative games (Abzu). There are joyful, creative games (Dreams). There are philosophical explorations that challenge your notions of good & evil. There are personal stories about grief and heartbreak that will bring you damn near to tears.
Video games are not just for kids. The truth is they never were. They're not simply escapism or entertainment. Gaming has become a way in which people connect with new ideas and with each other. It's become one of the most powerful art forms today.
The foundation for a new generation
Every weekend, we offer our two young kids the choice to either watch a movie or play a game. Without hesitation, their reply is always… "Play games!" They don't want to watch Frozen II. They want to battle the fifth boss in Shadow of the Colossus. I love 'em.
I think about what video games they will play as they grow up. Kids today will learn about life, love, and loss, not through movies or tv as we did, but through the video games they play. They will carry those experiences for a lifetime, forever shaping how they understand the world around them. If you hope to design for them, you need to understand them.
Games will shape Design.
Video games are right now shaping the patterns that will define the next generation of Design. Many of the hot topics in tech today like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and remote collaboration have been brewing in video games for decades. As a16z investor, Chris Dixon said a decade ago, "the next big thing will look like a toy."
Video games open up new tools, new business models, and new experiences all built upon a very foreign set of values to those of us in Design. Games embrace the positive benefits of play and seek growth through challenges rather than solutions. And, honestly, it might be just what today's performance-obsessed Design culture needs.
If you've been curious about video games, there's never been a better time to jump in and play.
Here are a few of my favorite beautifully-designed video games that are easier to jump into:
Casual & Meditative
- Monument Valley (ustwo)—Escher-inspired puzzle game where every screen could be a poster.—iOS
- Windosill—One of the best surreal puzzle games.—iOS
- Islands : Non Places (Carl Burton)—A beautiful trip through old memories of malls and bus stops.—iOS
- Townscaper (Oskar Stalberg)—Build beautiful towns with no effort. It's a masterclass in generative design.—Steam
- Everything (David OReilly)—You are floating consciousness and can inhabit anything from a floating bacterium to a planet.—PS/Switch/Steam
Deeper & Gripping
- Limbo/Inside (Playdead)—Both are amazing, creepy puzzle games that you'll never forget.—iOS/PS/Switch/Steam
- Journey (That Game Company)—A masterclass in profound simplicity. Having less can direct attention to what matters.—iOS/PS/Steam
- Abzu (Giant Squid)—Here's a lesson in taking an annoyance in most games—the water level—and turning into a beautiful strength.—PS/XBox/Switch/Steam
- Shadow of the Colossus (Fumito Ueda)—A beautiful journey to slay 16 giant beasts.—PS
Know others?→ Let me know on Twitter