I have teenage boys who love playing video games on their PlayStation. To be honest, I like playing on occasion, too. It’s an outlet for stress, frustration, and creativity when I can’t walk, or travel, or have a glass of wine. Like parents the world over, I have lectured them against playing too much. We often view video games as a useless, though enjoyable, waste of time. But we should realize that gaming is not just about playing games. Our kids are opening a portal into the future. We need to recognize that.
That might sound a tad dramatic but it’s true. The engineering behind the games that let us play virtual football, fly in space and kill zombies is going to change every aspect of our lives profoundly. We must understand this growing technology as it turns our world upside down, even if we wouldn’t know a PS4 from an Xbox One. These changes will impact everything from how we communicate, to how we work, and even how we build our communities. I can’t tell you yet exactly how that will play out. Nobody can. But we have to pay attention.
Video games have evolved far beyond Super Mario into virtual reality gaming where a headset immerses you in another world. It replaces reality. Then we have augmented reality that leaves you in this world but with “value added” bonuses. It augments reality. Think of it this way: wearing a virtual-reality headset cuts you off from this reality as you swim with dolphins or walk on an alien world. Augmented reality, using a special pair of glasses or even your iPad, allows you to see the real world but with information overlaid in your field of vision. It’s like the heads up display used by fighter pilots. A more familiar example is the game Pokemon Go that was a craze a few years ago where players caught virtual monsters in the real world using their smartphones. IKEA has created an augmented reality app that allows shoppers to use their iPad or iPhone’s camera to overlay virtual versions of IKEA products onto images of their homes so they know what it will look like before making a purchase. Some hotels in Europe are using the technology linked to wall maps that give tourists, when viewing the maps through a smartphone or tablet, more information on points of interest.
All of this has its roots in gaming. Kids that have been gaming for years know better how to use it, manipulate it, and how to adapt to it. But this is not kids’ play. American Air Force pilots in Nevada are controlling unmanned drones over Iraq. How long do you suppose it will be before pilots fly commercial jetliners using augmented and virtual reality technology without ever leaving the ground? We are almost there now. Pilots will continue to be on planes, at least for a while, because people won’t feel safe flying without a skilled human at the controls. But that may change. When fully automated elevators were first introduced into buildings a century ago people were afraid to use them without a skilled human at the controls. So, the building owners hired elevator operators to stand inside and push the buttons. Nowadays you’d think it laughable to find an elevator operator. Flying may well be the same.
Wars, though, will never be the same. Experts tell us some soldiers may be in the field during combat wearing super suits and viewing the battlefield through augmented reality but most of the “troops” they command will be machines controlled by other soldiers far away. Soldiers will be trained for exceptional hand-eye coordination, problem-solving, and strategic thinking skills. In other words, gamers. Research and exploration of the seas, volcanos, and other planets will be done using remotely controlled units guided by a new generation for whom piloting and navigating virtual and augmented reality worlds is first nature. Doctors already do surgery with remote biotic robots.
Besides the very real changes this technology will bring to our lives, there is an ethical and moral facet to the video games themselves that I, as a once-upon-a-time philosophy major in university, find fascinating. The games don’t just help kids with eye-hand coordination as they drive virtual cars and shoot virtual bullets. Some games require puzzle-solving skills and teamwork. Others make us question preconceived notions. I was introduced to a game this summer that didn’t just draw out and nurture empathetic feelings and thoughts. It challenged the enduring Wild West white-hat/black-hat ethos that still endures in our culture today. Movies have been teaching us that good guys are always good, even when they do bad, and that bad guys are always evil, no matter what. That just isn’t the way the world works. And it’s not how the more sophisticated story-telling video games work, either.
I’m not saying that playing video games all the time is the answer to the future. Far from it. However, video games are producing skills and encouraging a comfort with technologies that will soon permeate almost every aspect of our lives. The future does not confine us to sitting in a cockpit or standing in a surgical room or even commuting to work. Reality is expanding. It can be virtual and it can be augmented. Though video games may seem trivial to older generations, they have value and are teaching valuable skills to our children. We need to recognize that.