It’s easy to think we know how technology is changing the world. It’s altering how we select political leaders, how we interact with one another, which industries are thriving, and even our notion of truth. But one of the biggest ways tech is changing things is often unseen, under the noses of many supposedly informed people, in the world of online gaming. Consider these astonishing stats: about 2.5 billion people worldwide play digital games, according to research firm Newzoo, and they’ll spend over $150 billion doing so in 2019.
I recently had lunch with someone whose life and career is devoted to transforming the world through games, and came away slightly dazed. Herman Narula is CEO of a London-based startup called Improbable. It has been most noted for the scale of funds it raised, from–who else–notoriously big-spending Softbank. In 2017 the Japanese tech investment firm put just over $500 million into Improbable at an undisclosed valuation that all estimates nonetheless put at over $1 billion. Many found it hard to understand what could make a nascent gaming platform company so valuable.
Well, listening to Narula makes it a little easier for me to understand. He is, to say the least, a big-picture thinker about what gaming is and could be. “Games are the next stage in human culture,” he said at lunch. “They help people understand what and who they are.” He added that gaming already “consumes more of peoples’ time than social media.”
That latter point reinforces one that Wall Street Journal columnist Andy Kessler made at our recent Techonomy 2019 conference. Dismissing the popular view that Facebook faces little competition, he singled out as a potent competitor Fortnite, the massive multi-player game phenomenon. “Fortnite is a social network,” Kessler said, “and even better, with audio, in real time, and with a much better visual display.” (Fortnite has about 250 million registered users, with as many as 11 million playing at a time.)
Narula, too, thinks social media is gradually being supplanted in large part by gaming. “The next social platforms,” he says, “will be really interactive. It will no longer be about building a global museum of social experiences, but about actually doing things together. It’s the internet of experiences.” He sees this as implying truly radical–and positive–possibilities for human society.
As gaming gets more sophisticated and ubiquitous, the empathy created through shared play and experiences could engender similar lessons about human society and create more harmony, says Narula.
Narula explains that the communications inside games, particularly when you bond with other players on a team, builds relationships. We learn about human society there, he believes. “How many people before have ever been in groups of hundreds of thousands?” he asks. His point is that doing so engenders new insights in the participants. “Virtual worlds are a bad news machine,” he goes on, for an example, “showing people the consequences of their conflicts before they happen in real life.” He even brings up the famous World War I “Christmas miracle,” in which soldiers who were otherwise shooting at one another stopped for the holiday and fraternized, exchanged small gifts, sang carols, and played football. He believes that as gaming gets more sophisticated and ubiquitous in society, the empathy created through shared play and experiences could engender similar lessons about human society and possibly create more harmony. That, of course, is contrary to the impression many older non-gaming observers have.
Another point Narula makes is in many games, inequality does not exist in the same way as it does in human society: “In games, the people who are most successful are the best, based on merit, regardless of their nation or race.”
“In a game with 100 million players, where 1% may earn their income there, what does that do to how they vote, or what they value or who they are?” I had to acknowledge that these are good questions, for an activity that is so widespread and all-consuming.
Separately, the Financial Times recently published a column by innovation editor John Thornhill that noted the growing trend of people actually making their living by playing games. He wrote that on Twitch, the Amazon-owned streaming entertainment site, 15 million viewers a day watch others play games, and tens of thousands of the three million gamers who play in public make money doing so. His point was that for all the talk about how digital technology will change the nature of work, we hear much more about the jobs that are being destroyed than the ones being created. Who would have guessed that it might be partly inside online games that new jobs would emerge?
“Being a gamer is a cultural attribute,” says Narula, “like being born in a particular era or speaking a different language.”
This all matters to him because Improbable’s main business is selling a set of tools and a platform on which others can more efficiently create massive multiplayer games and virtual worlds. “Our technologies enable worlds to become gigantic in scale and scope,” he says. “We’re the power company.” Improbable is also developing its own games.
It’s early in this company’s life. But Narula and his co-founders, most of whom graduated from Cambridge University, aim to make it far easier to make more high-quality games. “The real problem with games is the shortage of high-end content,” he says. “It’s just too bloody expensive to create complex multiplayer games.”
As a baby boomer who never played games except mindless diversions like Bejeweled, I cannot speak from experience. But my gut is that Narula is on to something. With several billion people worldwide playing online games, and the average age of a U.S. gamer now a surprisingly-high 34, this is one digital phenomenon the rest of us need to pay much more attention to.