Interactive Gaming–To Boldly Go…

In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Bay, renowned film director with cinematic blockbusters such as “The Rock,” “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” to his credit, is quoted as saying, “I make world-class images. Why not put those images into a game?” Indeed! The new investor and co-chairman of Digital Domain, the effects studio evolving into a production studio, is making a bet on convergence—the application of digital technology to reduce costs and expand the horizons of entertainment and new media.

Remember watching those old cowboy movies and pretending you were the new sheriff in town? Did you secretly imagine you wielded an elegant light saber and might save the Galaxy with Luke Skywalker? How many times did you imagine yourself as Legolas, drawing an imaginary bow in the air to shoot an arrow and save Middle Earth?

But even in Middle Earth—where presumably there were no computers—there are digital effects. You trivia buffs will enjoy knowing that Orlando Bloom’s eyes are really brown. But as Legolas in Lord of the Rings, his eyes are blue, thanks to CGI technology. For example, watch Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and right outside the Black Gates, in a close-up, you can see his eyes are CGI blue. However, in a scene right after that, Gandalf is in the foreground and Legolas is in the near background—and Legolas’ eyes are clearly brown.

We love to be entertained, but we also love to play—play is the basis of leisure time, enjoyment, learning, and game and number theory. Play makes us active participants with interactive relationships and activities that are make-believe—in much the same way that motion pictures can move us with stunning visual sequences and transport us to places we might never see or even imagine in real life.

The computer game market represents a new—or rather a different—frontier. New motion pictures have spawned merchandising for decades—dolls, action figures, and stuffed animals, from Tarzan and Mickey Mouse to Spider-Man and G.I. Joe. In fact, product placements in motion pictures, which have gone mostly unregulated in the United States, have been used for years by advertisers to promote both reality in the movies and brand awareness to consumers. See the logo on an airplane taking off—someone paid for that. Picking up a soft drink can at the stadium with a familiar brand—someone paid for that. Watch Jack Bauer drive away or make a phone call—recognize that car or that mobile phone—someone paid for that. Do you really think Microsoft paid an estimated $6 billion for Internet advertising company aQuantive, because it does not understand the importance of convergence? Wonder why Apple Computer changed its name to “Apple”? Go to China or India or Brazil—which has more brand and name recognition, a MAC or the iPod? Which creates more buzz, the iPhone or a new operating system code named “Leopard”?

Whether you are arriving at the flash point starting as a consumer-driven technology company manufacturing the Xbox 306; a motion picture studio that has spawned PlayStation or ImageWorks; an entertainment giant acquiring Xfire and Harmonix; or an automotive company like BMW that has transformed short films into some of the most watched advertisements on the Internet, directed by world-famous directors; or creating an automobile showcase—convergence is reality.

General Motors has created Motorati Island, 96 virtual acres that GM bought in Second Life, a popular virtual world, which, for now, will offer the Pontiac Solstice GXP in any—yes, we mean any—color scheme you like. Toyota has already sold more than 200 virtual automobiles through its virtual dealership; and while none of these vehicles comes with any warranty or service contract at all, I am assured that these vehicles will never need repair (at least until some hacker removes my virtual electronic ignition coil).

Yes, folks, advertisers have begun to take advantage of the fact that people like us may fast-forward through the television commercials, but we willingly and gleefully stare at the television (aka monitor) for hours playing World of Warcraft or Guitar Hero. Let’s include a poster or billboard, a store front. What about an actual video playing on that virtual Times Square jumbotron. Wait, if Harold and Kumar can go to White Castle, why can’t I play MTV: Music Television Spring Break Volleyball…head for the beach kiddies. Technology is opening doors to worlds we have yet to know. Interactive gaming can be one person—I drive a virtual car, pretend to be 007 saving the world from the bad guys, or screaming Wii as I hit the tennis ball back to my virtual opponent. Or it can be massively multi-player, exploiting the World Wide Web and involving teams and participants from around the world.

But in the world of technology, I may be able to see your IP address and know you are in Finland or Argentina or Macedonia or on the West Coast of the United States. If I know that, I can tailor the images you see on your monitor to the language or culture I think may be familiar to you—even if we are playing the same game at the same time. I can alter the background, the signs, the advertisements and, pardon the pun, virtually anything that doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the game. Perhaps I can develop profiles—the so-called “dossier” effect of cumulative information that is never forgotten in some computer file—so that I develop a better understanding of your preferences, for games, for products and for advertisements. After all, real products and images create more realistic entertainment. This is rocket science; technology has given us a brave new world to either use and enjoy or abuse and regret.

Oh, and legal issues abound in this convergent and exciting new world. Copyright law—a legal principle owing its origins to moveable type, printing presses and, more recently, photocopying machines—is not only being challenged, but is also undergoing radical change. Advertising to children is becoming a major issue as advertisers use entertainment and gaming to advertise and promote the sale of goods and services. What if your game-created alter ego is given specific powers in your virtual world (or perhaps is able to move up to the next level or even win) by using your product in a game. What if the game (remember the hugely successful “Grand Theft Auto” games) encourages behavior—even if only in play—that is considered socially unacceptable or even deviant.