“Video games are another important medium. Our vision is to blur the lines between the virtual sports game world and the real sports game world. When you’re connected online, you can stay immersed in your game world and you don’t need to go to another device to see what’s going on in the real sports world.”

EA XBox 360 MaddenA report from Reuters called Electronic Arts in another league with ESPN, started me thinking again about the dissolving boundaries between traditional, passive watching of real life competition (sports, survival’esque challenges or fantasy games) and their virtual equivalents. As the quote above from Raphael Poplock (ESPN’s Interactive Gaming manager) suggests we are clearly moving down the road of real time, online games being watchable entertainment and traditional entertainment being simultaneously mapped into virtual worlds. To continue from the article that also points out that media seamlessly flows in and out of both environments:

“We will continue to explore lifestyle programming around video games, and we’re also taking a strong look at tournament gaming,” Poplock said. “We explore opportunities on a day-to-day basis with our partners at EA, and we think these brands coming together is pretty compelling, especially for sports fans.” The “Nation” line of lifestyle shows could expand to incorporate other sports and creative projects. To introduce new gamers to the show this year, EA is releasing “Madden NFL 07 Hall of Fame Edition” on August 22 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2. The special version of the game will include a bonus DVD with additional content, including the entire first season of “Madden Nation,” as well as an inside look at EA’s Tiburon Studio (where “Madden” is made) hosted by ESPN anchor Trey Wingo.

CNet BaseballThis kind of hybrid, merged-media entertainment is also appearing inside services like Second Life. Last week Major League Baseball teamed up with Electric Sheep and broadcast the All-Star-Game on several screens into a shared, virtual baseball arena. I won’t go into my usual cynical diatribe when I refer to real world events, brands and sports entering Second Life and breaking down the 4th wall, or talk again about how advertising inside game environments is not being received very well at the moment. No not for now, but as reported in CNets item Second Life makes and All star pitch

For months, a company called Electric Sheep has been undertaking large projects inside “Second Life” for corporate clients and many others. Past corporate visitors to the virtual world have included Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo. But the simulcast of the home run derby, in which participants gathered in a brand-new digital baseball stadium and watched a (nearly) live feed of the competition on a series of video screens, was one of the most high-profile projects to surface publicly.

To move on to the obvious important question here – will large numbers of people (numbers we see addicted to traditional TV) watch an online game without necessarily participating in it? I personally think we are at the tipping point now where the richness and detail of the environments and the more engaging gameplay narratives start to make watching others play, a potential new form of entertainment. In the UK there were a few attempts over 5 years ago at putting one on one gamers inside a typical magazine show. Gamesmaster on Channel 4 in the UK to name but one, failed because it was all about ‘scores’ and not about story, with high res graphics, and did not make good TV. When I was at the BBC’s Imagineering team there were a few projects, that I have mentioned in previous posts, that had viewers creating characters online followed by a higher rendered ‘robot wars’ type event – sadly even though the graphics were better the story was a too simplistic – shoot-em-up narrative that did not have any complex turning points or levels. But things have moved on and the Sydney Morning Herald reported back in April of a new batch of cable programmes trying this again, with big money prizes, to the masses. Inventively entitled Video Gaming to debut on US TV, the article talks about video gaming as being the new ‘extreme sports’. Games such as Halo 2 become the new baseball…

Among them: Bonnie Burton, also known as “Xena,” a 15-year-old from Pennsylvania who is the only female in the pro league and one of the best “Halo2” players in the world; and Tom Taylor, who’s known as “Tsquared,” an 18-year-old from Florida and budding entrepreneur whose Gaming-Lessons business has already helped hone the video-gaming skills of numerous celebrities and star athletes. “I’m excited to compete on TV in front of an audience. This will take video gaming to the next level,” Taylor said. Taylor, who gained more fame after he was recently featured on MTV’s documentary series, “True Life,” takes his sport seriously – from keeping a healthy diet to daily practice sessions of three to four hours a day. He’s also ended habits that could harm his hands, such as letting his pet dog routinely nip at his hands and using a knife to pick the bread out of the toaster. “It is an extreme sport,” he said. “It’s about quick reflexes and also outsmarting people.”

I wonder where this is heading. Will services like second life and halo become the new theatre? Within a year there is the potential to have viewers animating their avatars (avies) in real time, scripted and recorded from a range of camera angles – the worlds first virtual soap, but with superman potential. Machinima is the cross between machine and cinema, but by definition recorded then fine edited. The puppeteers of the virtual ‘real time’ space, become actors, already rehearsed and giving live performances, streamed over broadband to PC, Mobile and TV screens. What would we call this new form? Machinitv? But this would be more like virtual theatre surely. The 21st century puppet show in close to photorealism quality. Virtual Theatre, Virtuatre, Theatual. OK, won’t start word-smithing now but there is an exciting road ahead as merged-media becomes all virtual and self contained, mixed reality extravaganza. Following this we get ready for the next stage where emotional, artificial intelligence and self constructing narrative based on a million digested scripts, removes the need for the human puppeteer, but that is another post.

Posted by Gary Hayes © 2006