There is nowhere to hide: the Gamepocalypse is nigh

IT MIGHT seem unlikely that the same technology that lets you blow up zombies in an ultra-realistic fashion will also one day help send astronauts to Mars. But that is precisely graphics company NVIDIA’s line of work. The California-based firm manufactures 3D graphics chips both for games companies and the Russian federal space agency in order to process 3D simulations of landing on and exploring Mars.

And it is not just video game graphics that are being transferred from your PlayStation into the professional and scientific world. The psychological strategies and competitive structures that make your favourite games addictive are increasingly appearing in other walks of life, for educational, commercial and military purposes.

But where will it all end? Professor Jesse Schell of Carnegie Mellon University has a simple answer: “The ‘Gamepocalypse’ – the moment when every moment of life is actually a game.” He points to some of the most successful games of recent times, including Facebook games like Farmville and Webkinz, a kids’ programme that sends your child a toy and animates the toy’s avatar on screen, letting you play with it for points. He puts their success down to a simple factor: “They are all busting through to reality. Games used to be about fantasy, escaping from reality. But now, everything is suddenly about reality.”

In other words, players now want games that somehow break out of wholly simulated environments and manifest in the real world. But the effect of this is not just to put your social and professional world into games; it is to put games into the rest of the world. Already, there are taxpayer-funded schools where children are taught exclusively through games: the Quest To Learn School in New York uses them as “rule-based learning systems”. Professor Lee Sheldon at the University of Indiana rewards his students with “experience points” instead of grades and in the UK, Brighton-based developer Relentless Studio has made games for the government.

This is happening in the commercial world too. Schell highlights game-based mechanisms like collecting Starbucks loyalty points or using WeightWatchers to slim down as applying competitive bonus-point systems in order to get you to spend money. And, he argues, with technological advances that make it easier to monitor your activity (like sensors that track your eye movements or GPS to trace your whereabouts) more and more of our activities will become games, in many cases for someone’s commercial gain.

Richard Wilson of TIGA, the UK’s games industry body, is more optimistic about the “gamepocalypse”, which he calls the “gamification of society”: “I wouldn’t be so gloomy because video games can be used for good. They provide an enjoyable way of learning,” he says. For example, he highlights one study at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Centre in which surgeons were made to play Nintendo Wii’s Marble Mania for an hour before going into a simulated gall bladder operation. Mistakes among surgeons who had played the game dropped by 48 per cent.

No one can say no to better surgeons, but the gamepocalypse will bring pernicious innovations as well as advances. As computer games continue their quiet expansion into the rest of the human world, the only certainty is that at some point in the next half century, we will wake up to find that life has become one big game.

• 20 per cent of game developers in the UK derive at least a part of their business from making games for educational, professional or military purposes.

• PlayGen has made games to train employees in data security.

• Red Redemption makes a game called Operation Climate Control to teach GCSE students about climate change.

• The US army used web-based game America’s Army to recruit and uses a game called Ambush for training.

• PIXELearning is a firm making “serious games” for diversity and social responsibility training.