How interactive media fits into the cultural landscape

Online gaming, virtual reality experiences and mixed reality apps are among the fastest growing parts of the digital economy. But are they what we’d traditionally label as “culture”?

A new report argues that not only should these “interactive media” be talked about in the same breath as movies, music and books, they’re also essential to the future of culture.

The report, entitled Interactive Aotearoa (9MB PDF), was released this week by the New Zealand Game Developers Association. Although the report itself is locally focused, there’s a lot to unpack from a global culture-tech perspective.

What is interactive media?

The report uses the term “interactive media” to cover a variety of media experiences, including video games, educational games, cross reality (virtual, augmented and mixed reality) experiences, mobile apps, interactive storytelling and other forms.

The definition of interactive media, according to the report, is any media that combines “creative content with software code.”

“It is media content that responds to user interaction, rather than being scripted in advance. The content adapts to our actions, answers, behaviour and input, leading to unique entertainment, education or cultural experiences.”

Citing NewZoo statistics from June 2019, the report claims the global interactive media market is “worth USD$152.1 billion in 2019 with digital revenues accounting for over ninety percent.” What’s more, it’s expected to grow 9% year over year.

The cultural significance of interactive media

Part of the reason the NZ Game Developers Association felt the need to produce its report is that the New Zealand government does not currently recognise interactive media in its culture and art programmes. As the report put it:

“Interactivity offers many innovative ways to express New Zealand stories and culture. However, current Government arts, culture and screen funding is organised into traditional categories that need to be modernised to include interactive media.”

It’s not just governments the world over that need to “modernise” what they categorise as culture and arts. Most of us have yet to come to grips with interactivity in cultural content, let alone explore the artistic possibilities.

Historically, we’ve thought of cultural content as being exclusively created by professional artists or producers. There is little, if any, “user interaction” in the creation of this type of content. Hollywood movies are scripted by screenwriters and then made by directors, musicians record songs and albums, authors write books, and so on.

Even the more recent Web 2.0 phenomenon of user-generated content (UGC) has little user interaction, in terms of the actual content published. When YouTuber PewDiePie posts a video of himself playing an online game, for instance, the ‘content’ that attracts viewers is predominantly his running commentary. He may interact with viewers in the comments section, but (as far as I’m aware) he doesn’t alter his game tactics based on that or regularly ask his audience to make decisions for him.

I mention UGC because, regardless of what we think of the quality of the content, it’s undeniable that it’s a part of our culture now. Certainly if popularity is the indicator. A recent PewDiePie YouTube video about Minecraft currently has 16m views, which is comparable to a moderately successful Netflix show (Stranger Things season 3 had an estimated 40m viewers as of July, but that’s one of Netflix’s most popular shows).

We can think of online gaming (playing it, not watching it), VR experiences and other “cross reality” experiences as the next evolution of UGC. Thought of this way, UGC is no longer just about commenting on what a creator is doing or has published online, it’s about the content itself responding to and adapting to our interaction. The content is shaped by what we, the users, bring to it.

As with the emergence of Web 2.0-style UGC, the increasing popularity of interactive media will gradually drive its acceptance as a part of our culture. The Interactive Aotearoa report shows it’s already enormously popular:

As for the future, I expect interactive media to become more and more intwined with traditional cultural content – if for no other reason than the audience will demand it. There’s a generation of kids and young adults (Gen Z and millennials) who are growing up playing online games and using interactive experiences. As they increase their spending power over time, they will want – will expect – interactivity to be baked into movies, tv, music, books, museum and gallery exhibits, and so on.

I’ve written before about VR movieshologram entertainmentAR in museums and other promising developments in interactive media. But it’s early days, and the technology itself is still relatively immature. VR and AR technologies have a ways to go before they’re mainstream, while even online gaming isn’t fully adapted to the cloud world yet.

Interactive media is the future of social too

It’s not just the ever-increasing consumption of interactive media and how it’s evolving what “content” is that makes this trend culturally significant. It’s likely to also transform what we currently refer to as “social media.”

As I wrote in a recent edition of Cybercultural, the future of social will be much more immersive than at present. Andreessen Horowitz VC Andrew Chen captured this idea nicely in a recent tweet:

Chen made the comment as part of a thread (and blog post) about his firm’s $16.5 million Series A investment in a stealth gaming startup called Singularity 6.

TechCrunch report on the funding said that Singularity 6 aims to create a “virtual society.” CEO Anthony Leung said in an accompanying interview that it’s all about “combining a strong virtual community with deep and compelling gameplay.”

For some reason this all reminded me of the genesis of Flickr, an early Web 2.0 success story that evolved out of a never released ‘massively multiplayer online game’ called Game Neverending. I wrote about the game on ReadWriteWeb in December 2003, before Flickr had even been launched (that happened in February 2004). I described Game Neverending, based purely on my research at the time, as “a virtual world in which creativity and social interaction are the main drivers.”

A copy of the Game Neverending website from the Wayback Machine notes that it was “a social game” where you can “make friends, gain acquaintances and grow your social network (and social index score).” Remember this was before Flickr existed, not to mention Facebook. So it’s pretty cool to see this vision (perhaps) about to finally become reality in the form of Singularity 6 and similar interactive media startups.

Now is the time…

There are plenty of questions about precisely how interactive media will evolve from here. My main question is, when will virtual reality become a major factor? VR has been in the ‘highly promising’ category for several years now, without yet managing to tip into mainstream adoption. We’ll also have to wait and see whether socialising inside an online game is something that will appeal to a wide audience (I’ll actually be a good test case, since I’m not a gamer).

Despite these and other variables, it’s clear that now is the time to start taking interactive media seriously as cultural content.

Cross-posted from my Cybercultural newsletter.