Thursday, July 5, 2012

Generation Alpha's Fantasy Land

"What's your pleasure? We got it all here." - Rufus Riley, Minority Report

It is complex indeed to predict the impact of future technologies, especially when they lie many years down the road. However, the phenomenon pertaining to this essay is right around the corner; and perhaps dangerously so. As children born from 2010 until 2025 are considered generation Alpha, it is their group which will suffer the consequences of the first true virtual worlds, with upcoming hardware and software capable of emulating a hypher-reality similar to that which can be seen in sci-fi movies, yet whose repercussions can tentatively be surmised.

For my generation, known as Gen Y, coming after Generation X, the clash of two realities was hardly palpable, as the games we were brought up on had often rudimentary visuals and lacked realism. But imagine, for a moment, playing Resident Evil 15, completely immersed in the dread and horror, for hours without seeing the light of day, with most of the five senses engaged; enough exposure could affect minds, young and old, considerably, if that is not happening already. What will these people's frame of reference be in the long run; games or reality? This brings me to two products on the market, namely Skyrim, a first-person fantasy RPG, and Google's augmented reality glasses. If that is not enough, there are true-VR glasses also being developed.

Skyrim, the highly praised and addictive RPG, which is by default played from a first person perspective, may begin to offer a glimpse of what's to come. Like the quality-starved GTA series, yet with a fantasy backdrop, Skyrim offers a vast, beautiful snowy land to get lost in. Like its sibling, Fallout 3, the game is non-linearity itself; seeming less like a film soundstage and more like a movie shot on location, so to speak. The player can loot objects and sell them; a winning game mechanic, granting it a Mad-Max feel, as characters fight for resources. The indoor world-building is impressive as well, with hints of the classic game Enclave. Devoid of cut-scenes, the game builds its story through imagery; from the depressing Windhelm to the paradise-like Eldergleam Sanctuary. In Skyrim, you can get married, not to advance the plot, but for the sake of it. The extra content is nearly infinite, since much of it is generated by the user community.

In a culture where there is a tendency for individuals to narrativise their lives, everyone will be able to be a superhero, an antihero, or whichever stance the games on offer may have; the notion that TV will at one point watch us instead of us watching it, will regain significance, if it wasn't evident already. The coming generations may even live in a technological hedonistic state; whether it is a paradise or a hell remains to be seen. Globalization has made people all over the globe a little more similar, a little less distant. The west has steadily exported its individualist culture, reaching even colectivist regions. Yet people crave for transcendence in a silicon era. This army of sedentary people, our hive mind, is begging to jump on the next fad, and if science and technology are coupled in just the right way, the allure of a VR existence, away from existence, could prove to be inescapable for most.

While the next generation of consoles will not quite pass the Turing test, the assumption is they will nevertheless carry enough punch to go further than Team Bondi's realistic characters from LA Noire; which, in addition to the virtual expanses offered by games like Skyrim, will undoubtedly capture the imagination of both casual and hardcore gamers. This scenario presents the possibility that people may no longer care about mundane activities, as fantasies which far surpass the film medium will be available at a low cost. Hence, the fate of the Alpha generation and beyond may be an interesting, yet bleak one. Perhaps, like Geoffrey Miller argues, we've never met aliens because instead of interstellar travel they chose to look inward as an alternative.