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The untapped potential of games to shape the future

"The popular imagination of games hasn't quite caught up to the reality," says Near Future Society co-founder Oliver Lewis

The debate surrounding video games has changed dramatically over the past ten years.

We've long moved past defending games against mainstream detractors who decried the medium as little more than a series of gratuitous violence simulators, we've won the debate that games are in fact art, and esports could even have a future in the Olympics.

Each new horizon presents unforeseen opportunities and challenges for the industry. But as we consider the role of games in society, we're increasingly seeing that it stretches far beyond entertainment. The scope for video games to have a positive impact is greater today than it has ever been.

Near Future Society co-founder Oliver Lewis

It was earlier this year during the UK government's Wilton Park think tank at Warner Bros. studio in Los Angeles that the Near Future Society was formed, based on this very potential.

With trustees ranging from Labour MP Shabana Mahmood to UKIE CEO Joe Twist, the Near Future Society is an interdisciplinary organisation of leaders from the creative industries, technology sectors, and government. Its stated purpose is to "consider the near future by combining the creativity of speculative fiction and entertainment, the depth of understanding and impatience of technologists and entrepreneurs, and the pragmatism and respect for complexity of policy makers" to bring about positive change.

Speaking with society co-founder Oliver Lewis detailed how games grew to have a role in that discussion, and the power of games to engage people in a more critical, thought provoking way.

Games technology has applications far beyond entertainment, says Lewis. Technology and public policy makers ignore the fact that artificial intelligence in games is probably the most advanced there is, and has been for some time, he argues.

Lewis also suggests that not only do games have the power to impact someone's ability to think critically and reason morally, but the audience is so much greater than any other potential way to get people critically engaged in the world.

Part of Lewis' work as a civil servant has revolved around "setting the intellectual baseline" for future government policy and decisions.

"I'd rather a crystal ball built by games developers than a palantir developed by the CIA"

"What used to frustrate me about that is that we had a fairly consistent and homogeneous set of participants giving us advice," he said. "Professional futurists, some decent academics, some decent military and national security figures, but what we consistently failed to get involved - and there were various reasons for that - was anyone more creative or unusual or progressive."

Unsurprisingly Lewis has a long history with games, but it wasn't until his time working at the London-based startup Improbable, the firm behind SpatialOS, that the potential of games really hit home.

"The popular imagination of games hasn't quite caught up to the reality," he said. "The reality is incredibly complex, nuanced storylines, the quality of the games themselves are exceptional. The impact of experiencing a game on your ability to think critically and reason morally. Games, we genuinely believe, are so much better at it than a lot of contemporary entertainment."

He draws comparisons to how the US Department for Homeland Security successfully engaged science fiction authors to think about the future "because typically those creative people have been better at predicting the future than our futurists."

"That's what makes me so excited, it's that ability to represent independent, complex systems, to show the possible impact of emergent behaviours when you have local, national, regional economies interacting with each other," said Lewis. "Massive cloud computing and games technology, it's the closest to crystal ball that we can get. I'd rather a crystal ball built by games developers than a palantir developed by the CIA."

Lewis not only points to explicitly political games such as This War of Mine and Papers Please, but to games that engage users in understanding complex systems, and how small changes can have sprawling, unforeseeable consequences.

Games like Democracy 3, Cities Skylines, and even Reigns all tackle this idea to one extent or another, with players having to consider the intricate machinery beneath a game's surface, and the long term impact of seemingly small decisions.

The Near Future Society is also inspired by the potential of games as tools for learning, and as means to teach critical and moral reasoning by engaging players directly with the mechanics and decisions in a way that simply isn't possible with other mediums.

"It's the community at large being quite fearful at taking the moral stance that at their core they believe"

"It's the recognition that games make us have that extraordinary emotional power and with that a responsibility to make people think," said Lewis. "It can present, because of that interactivity, the incredible moral ambiguity of real life. It's not black or white. Moral choices as an adult are deeply ambiguous, and games represent that really well."

However one of the biggest problems with games in the political sphere at present is that developers are politically engaged, but often unwilling or unable to put that into their work. Lewis suggests there is a "hesitancy and an anxiety" among developers when it comes to taking a political stance. This could be changing slowly, however.

Far Cry 5 executive producer Dan Hay said that the game, set in a fictional Montana county overrun by religious fanatics, is not trying to make a political statement.

"We have the ability to explore some of these different themes and these different ideas and so I think we knew that we were going to make something that was interesting," he told the BBC.

"And I think sometimes I get asked the question, 'well did you know and does it have a specific political comment?' And it doesn't. We made this game, athe idea for the game, three years ago... we had no idea sort of what was going to happen in the world."

The same can be said for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Pete Hines, VP for PR and marketing at Bethesda, said that the company doesn't "develop games to make specific statements or incite political discussions." However, Wolfenstein is set in an America where Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members freely roam the streets, and was released during a resurgence of white supremacy in the US. That said, Hines did concede that "it's disturbing that Wolfenstein can be considered a controversial political statement."

"It's not black or white. Moral choices as an adult are deeply ambiguous, and games represent that really well”

Speaking to the issue, Lewis said that it's not a problem exclusive to the games industry. "It's something more broadly we see in politics," he said. "It's something we've seen over Donald Trump, it's something we've seen consistently over Harvey Weinstein and people's abusive behaviours. It's the community at large being quite fearful at taking the moral stance that at their core they believe."

So where does the Near Future Society go from here? Well there are a number of small projects in the works such as animations around critical thinking aimed at primary school children. Another involves working with a well known but currently unnamed portrait artist to create an immersive art installation that uses games technology to demonstrate the consequences of sharing information online.

"We're starting small, discrete, and we'll build up from there," said Lewis.

Game jams will also play a role in the evolution of the society and its aims, and Lewis says he would like to see the inclusion of games in schools.

"Education doesn't have to be just textbooks in the national curriculum," he said. "You could just as feasibly do some quality assurance on a game and make that a core part of the curriculum and it's just absurd that we don't already.

"I still remember the few classes in school when we went through a medieval life simulator, a text adventure, and it still sticks with me, the difficulty of trying to be catholic religious leader in early modern Europe."

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Ivy Taylor avatar
Ivy Taylor: Ivy joined in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.
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