December 5, 2023

If you’re interested in the landscape of the virtual future — not just in theory, but how it’s really taking shape now — you need to be paying attention to video games.

We’re far beyond the point where gaming can be treated as a novelty or distraction. It’s a culture-shaping, $200-plus-billion industry of its own. If you’re reading this, you know all that, of course. But in a moment when questions like “what is the metaverse” are becoming central to how the future gets built, games may be the most important part of the story right now.

Yonatan Raz Fridman, co-founder and CEO of the gaming company Supersocial, argues that despite the size of the industry, the extent to which video games shape both technology and our overall culture still isn’t quite appreciated.

“Some of the most innovative companies in technology, like Nvidia, started as part of the gaming industry and are now supporting every industry — industrial companies, enterprise applications, and the like,” Raz Fridman said. “That came from pushing the boundaries of what technology enables [in gaming], which isn’t surprising, because entertainment and immersive storytelling and playing and socializing are human needs.”

If you’re not fully sold on how central of a role video games have to play in shaping tech policy, governance and innovation in years to come, just look back at some of the biggest tech and business stories of 2022: Microsoft’s acquisition of the video-gamegiant Activision Blizzard, which inspired an FTC lawsuit last month; a settlement between the FTC and “Fortnite” creators Epic Games over the invasion of children’s privacy; and games like “Fortnite” and “Roblox” continued to develop the parameters of the nascent metaverse. (Raz Fridman’s company is almost entirely built around Roblox development.)

So what’s coming next?For one, the fight over children’s privacy is far from over. Despite narrowly missing a ride on the omnibus spending bill that closed the last Congress, advocates will almost surely re-introduce the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) and Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which will give even more ammunition to regulators at the FTC and beyond. And the merger fight over Microsoft and Activision Blizzard is just beginning, with huge implications for the increasingly complex, market-moving gaming industry.

“We’re at a low point in hardware competition right now… and when you can’t compete on hardware, you compete on software,” Will Duffield, a policy analyst at Cato, told me. “Game franchises in particular then become more desired, and a larger part of controversies like the Microsoft-Activision Blizzard merger… both sides in that case are arguing around the fact that [Activision’s] Call of Duty had a very good year, and [Electronic Arts’] Battlefield had a bad year.”

The world of misinformation and radicalization is another where gaming has somewhat unexpectedly taken center stage. Manygames essentially serve as social media platforms in their own right, with chatrooms and marketplaces that contain all the same risks as their more prominently debated counterparts.

“Mainstream platforms clamped down on all kinds of far-right speech after 2016, but the gaming space is often harder to moderate, and it’s been less politically salient up until this point,” Duffield said. “I expect that because of that clampdown, NGOs looking for the next frontier in the war on extremism will have a renewed focus on concerns about extremist communities in gaming.”

Even beyond the world of mergers and politics, gaming is increasingly pushing technology itself forward. VR companies await the kind of “killer app” that will bring people into a fully immersive metaverse. As your car becomes a rolling software stack, gaming is along for the ride. And despite a rough year of high-profile hacks and bad press, the crypto gaming industry is trudging along in an ongoing effort to develop additional, ever-elusive “use cases” for blockchain technology.

“We have a member, Star Atlas, who has been working on a AAA game that has digital goods in it and incorporates DeFi and different financial transactions, and I think that’s somewhere new economic activity can happen,” Kristin Smith, president of the Blockchain Association, told me last week at CES — the convention floor of which was jam-packed with gaming companies making a (persuasive) claim to centrality in not just the tech world, but alongside other consumer goods in the American home.

Which brings home another truth about the future — the future future, the one Whitney Houston was talking about — that is to say, the children. If you’re under the age of 20 you likely grew up with social games like Roblox or Minecraft as just as centrally formative to your worldview and cultural outlook as, well, your school, or any other institution.

Research from the firm GWI shows that roughly half of children who play games use them as a social platform, and they top the lists of interests for boys ages 8-15. It is statistically likely, in other words, that the future will be built by avid gamers — which puts Congress’s push to regulate the environment in a different, far-seeing light.

These worlds that historically have been multiplayer experiences for core gamers, like World of Warcraft, are now available in a different form to a new generation of kids who started to look at them not as multiplayer environments for games, but just as the next iteration of where they live with their friends,” Raz Fridman said. “These are evolving into environments that will feature all other types of human activities.”

Conservative futurists occupy a tricky philosophical position, not least when it comes to the seeming contradiction between the two words themselves.

In the Winter 2023 issue of The New Atlantis, the writer and attorney John Ehrett charts an ambitious course for tradition-minded conservatives who might hope to seize the moment of “techlash” and steer American tech progress on their own terms. Ehrett starts with a simple dilemma: That “to many in the conservative tradition, technological progress is often no progress at all, but merely leaves us more estranged from nature and from each other.”

He then steers readers through a history including “Lord of the Rings,” the book of Genesis, and (stay with me) an obscure Russian intellectual who believed that every human who ever died on Earth would ultimately be resurrected — before landing on his prescription for conservative thinkers and policymakers.

“The Internet and its derivative products need not be ignored, if that were possible, but rather should be brought into a social framework built in accordance with higher principles,” Ehrett writes, before proposing making server power a public utility, investing in new and innovative building materials and orienting computer science toward preservation of digital content, among other things.

Another post-Brexit blow to the U.K.’s ambitions: The country’s leading science minister has warned in a speech that it needs to set “realistic” expectations for leadership on research and innovation if it’s denied access to European Union resources going forward.

As POLITICO’s Cristina Gallardo reported for Pro subscribers this morning, in remarks to a think tank today Science Minister George Freeman “acknowledged Britain cannot rely only on bilateral collaborations, nor it can match the scale of the U.S., China or EU science budgets,” as Cristina writes, and that the U.K. “will need to carve out a realistic role which draws on our historic strengths” like polar research; agritech and gene editing of crops; space, and biosecurity, among others.

All of which Freeman tried to put a happy face on, saying “If we cannot play in the European Cup of science, then we must simply have to go and play in the World Cup of science,” and that ““There’s a possibility if we move with bold vision … the European Union will see that we are committed to doing this and I think it’s more likely that they will pick up the phone and say, ‘look, come back in and let’s do the ERC [European Research Council] together’ and learn from some of the things that we are doing.”

It’s another example of how, as with global trade, the nationalist turn in policy of the past decade is rippling through the science world.