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The incredible secret future of videogames

The battle for the future of gaming has begun, but whose predictions should we believe and what really lies ahead?

Ray Kurzweil believes that "games are the harbinger of everything." The noted inventor and futurologist, who believes in technological immortality and transhuman ascension via artificial intelligence, made this statement at last year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. He argued that videogames were where the future manifested itself. "Ultimately," he said, "they're going to be competitive with real reality." A bold claim indeed.

Futurologists and science fiction writers have long been predicting the role of technology, either speculatively in futurological texts, or simply as entertainment in science fiction films, books, and comics. But they've only recently begun to take videogames seriously as a major part of our future. And they are a major part: driven in equal parts by technological progress and cultural expressions. Games are a hybrid thing: a fusion of art and science. As both disciplines push onward, so they push games ahead of them. And further ahead of these are the people who deal in the future. Writers, designers, prophets.

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One such writer, a man who is regularly questioned about the future, is Charles Stross. He is the author of a number of books set in the near future. "The book which, I think, is the reason I get invited to talk at computer games conferences and similar, is Halting State," Stross says. "It's a book about skulduggery in the computer games industry, and in particular about the future of MMOs." Halting State doesn't sound all that fanciful when you consider the kinds of scams and gold-farming exercises that already take place in the real world. Stross's book sees a crime inside a futuristic virtual reality MMO linked to real world espionage and crime. That could almost be a PC Gamer news headline.

For Stross, the catalyst of his imagination is the current trajectory of technology. Right now he's excited about the implications of rapidly ballooning bandwidth. "If you go back just a few years, WiFi hotspots were rare and data on a mobile phone cost extortionate amounts of money," Stross says. "Nowadays it's got much cheaper, and this trend is accelerating. We're seeing the roll-out of 4G, with which we can expect very high data rates, which means we can expect to see mobile devices which have the equivalent bandwidth of full-bore WiFi wherever we go. And it's going to go a lot further." Already, as we pointed out in PCG 201, you can play Left 4 Dead via mobile broadband. That is only going to become easier, faster, and cheaper.

But Stross sees another trend too, a blurring of real and game worlds. He argues that the sea-change will come with "ubiquitous location services." Those systems that can pinpoint our mobile phone down to a single street. "We haven't quite gotten our heads around the idea of having devices on our person that always know where we are," says Stross. "This is less obviously gaming related, until you start thinking about augmented reality, or live-action roleplay. You can play games in the real world without having arranged to meet. If you're in the same area as another player of one of these games, for example, your phone could steer you towards each other, so that you could interact."

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Game developers are already working with this idea. London-based Mudlark are making a mobile phone game in which players use GPS to try and walk rings around each other in the real world. Which means a player stuck at his desk might really get in trouble.

This kind of stuff is little more than an augmentation of the existing strata of gaming technology, as Stross observes: "It's not going to render the tiers of gaming we already see obsolete. What it will do is allow for a greater number of games to be possible: live action roleplay, spatial location games, MMO's accessed from your mobile. These won't replace high end PCs or consoles, but they may tie into them, or act as alternatives when you're on the move." The future of games, according to Stross, is mobile, connected and multitudinous.

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