The media has always been a fast moving sector, but few could have predicted how quickly things would evolve and converge in the digital age.
The barriers that previously kept media separate are rapidly crumbling as the traditional notion of “broadcasting” is broken down, with audiences now choosing their own schedules and viewing television content via smartphones, computers, tablets and even games consoles.
It’s this last platform that was the centre of attention at Games Fusion, an event held at Salford University on November 28th in conjunction with the BBC. A day of seminars and panel debates, the aim was to bring together leading lights from games and television to thrash out the ways in which interactive digital media will shape the future. In that sense, we are all “playing the long game” as Salford’s Vice Chancellor, Martin Hall, described it.
Highlights were plentiful, with an opening keynote from games industry veteran Ian Livingstone OBE, as well as sessions covering the sociology of “gamers”, interface design, the search for funding, the process of game creation, and the role of interactive content in education. 70% of the population now plays games regularly in some form or another, while games generate billions in revenue. Microsoft has already teamed up with both Sesame Street and National Geographic to produce exclusive “seasons” of interactive TV content that can be played via its Xbox console and Kinect sensor. Clearly, this is not a fairweather shift.
It was the final panel of the day, “What future for games and broadcasting?” which really grappled with the issue of interactivity, raising the important questions that both industries must answer. Conclusive answers weren’t necessarily forthcoming on the stage, as panellists drawn from the BBC, Microsoft, UKIE and academia debated the role and meaning of games content, but common threads were easier to find.
While the open-ended user-controlled experience of a game may seem the polar opposite of linear authorial television, there are definite lessons that can be carried across the narrowing divide. As they transition from standalone products sold at retail to a purely digital service, games excel at “stickiness” – retaining users through brand extensions and content updates. Television, on the other hand, has a better grasp of ancillary markets and narrative development. Panellist Professor Martin Wright points out that a recent survey showed that no TV viewer under the age of 30 now watches without a smartphone or tablet to hand. This, he suggests, is an opportunity rather than a threat.
How to seize that opportunity? Communication. Many of the games developers in attendance expressed disappointment that commissioning editors don’t include them in conversations regarding projects in development, where interaction can be built in at an organic level. Equally, there’s a sense – voiced off the record by more than one gaming professional – that TV companies are seen to be needlessly wrestling with problems that the games industry has already solved.
It is clear that while the days of a truly unified medium which is both game and television in one may still be a science fiction dream, these strange bedfellows are being drawn closer together by simple virtue of audience behaviour. The days when interactive content could be packaged away in the corner of a website under the reductive banner of “games” are coming to an end. Interactive content must now stand by itself, complementing and enhancing broadcast material rather than crudely promoting it. The knowledge of how we can do this is out there, waiting to be shared by our colleagues in the games industry, if only we knock on the right doors.