Play Time – Why Games Matter

Posted: May 11, 2012 in Games
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Repost of a blog by Jeffrey Frizzell, who is a validation architect in Intel’s Visual & Parallel Computing Group. Though it’s obviously Intel-centric, his broader point about games psychology and technology motivation is well made and worth repeating.

Play Time – Why Games Matter
by Jeffrey Frizzell

This is the first of posts I will be doing on PC gaming over the next several months. As you can see in my bio, I work in software quality on the graphics driver team for Intel’s processor graphics – and my focus will be primarily on gaming with Intel’s HD Graphics on the new Sandybridge processors.

There seems to be something wired into the human psyche that makes us want to play – and to play games in particular. Games deliver the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, the adrenaline rush of competition, or just a simple diversion in our day. They allow us to get wound up or unwind depending on the occasion. They give us opportunity for interacting socially. The original Olympics even put games ahead of political and military rivalry.

Games come in many different forms – riddles, puzzles, board games, card games, raffles, races, all manner of sports. My youngest son always wants me to play games with him – generally of the Mille Bornes, mancala, Battleship, MasterMind variety. All of my children play sports – soccer, baseball, volleyball. My wife likes logic puzzles. I am a mild sudoku addict myself. I also like to watch games on TV – this shows that games stir us at a deep enough level that we can enjoy them even if we are just spectators participating vicariously. If you haven’t found a type of game to suit you, you probably haven’t looked hard enough.

Games have an interesting tendency to push technology or at least ride on its coattails. The mathematics of probability owe some debt to our penchant for gambling – we want to know how likely some outcome is and whether we should believe the coin/die is fair. Chess evolved to play-by-mail and with clocks. In the early history of automobiles and aviation, technology and racing are intextricably intertwined – competition driving an “arms race” of innovation. Before that some element of genetics is tied up in the breeding of race horses. In sports the impact of technology on the game play itself is unmistakable – better balls, shoes, clubs, rackets, artificial playing fields, instant replay, … as well as in larger benefits/issues – such as physical therapy, surgical repairs of various types, and unfortunately steroid use. A large part of the revenue stream and fan base for sports no longer depends on the fan attending the event in person; rather, we remotely celebratesor mourn our team’s fortunes – by radio in earlier decades and now on TV and internet forums. Game shows were some of the first television programs and the last decade has seen a whole new genre of “reality TV” shows which have some element of competition involved. I’m sure with a little reflection you could probably think of a dozen other ways that technology and games/competition have spurred one another along.

But I would contend that gaming experience has been most dramatically impacted in the last 30 years by the microchip as a vehicle to create games as software. Note: when I speak about computers and computer games here I am using a very broad definition – interactive entertainment mediated by a microprocessor. This includes handheld gaming devices, games on consoles in the home, web or cloud based games running on a server but experienced on any device, as well as games running locally on phone/tablet/laptop/desktop.

Computers let us play games alone that previously required a human opponent to be collocated with us who wanted to play at the same time – either allowing us to play against the computer or against other human players anywhere in the world.

In some cases, computer games mimic the mechanics of games from the “real world” (like Blackjack or Risk) – with the added benefit that the computer keeps track of the rules, keeps score, doesn’t require a lot of room for cards/boards, etc.

In others games, they let us play alone they offer novel experiences not available to us in the real world (fantasy and sci-fi settings) or let us experiment in ways that are not safe/cost effective in the real world (flight simulators). Computer games let us “save” a scenario and replay it to explore different choices and outcomes. Computer games let us be bold in situations where our natural instinct for self preservation inhibit our ability to function optimally (racing, combat).

A single computing device can play a wide variety of different games – simply by loading them as software. This offers a compactness/flexibility that physical games can’t match.

In short, gaming matters to us as humans because interactivity engages us into the experience. Unlike books or movies, games are a form of entertainment that lets us participate and impact what happens next. Computer games offer a huge variety of such interactive experiences.

Not surprisingly, computer based gaming is big business. The handheld and home consoles such as the Nintendo DS and Wii, Sony PlayStation and PSP, Microsoft Xbox have a large ecosystem. Apple’s success with the iPhone is at least partly due to the large number of game apps that developers built for it – transforming the smart phone from a utilitarian communication/productivity device to something that provides portable fun. On the PC, games like World of Warcraft and StarCraft II, Call of Duty: Black Ops have millions of players and generate many millions of dollars in business – and they are only the tip of the iceberg.

Since Intel is a major technology company, some natural questions follow:

1) What types of games are popular/growing? What are the trends in computer based gaming? In light of this, what types of hardware and software capabilities are required from the central processing unit (CPU)? from graphics?

2) Intel recently launched new processors with built-in graphics for notebooks and desktops. How well do they align to the trends above?

3) Intel has an excellent reputation for fast CPUs, power efficiency, reliable chipsets, and good execution to roadmaps. In contrast, Intel’s previous “integrated graphics” have a less than stellar reputation for compatibility and performance in games. Is that low reputation deserved? If so, why is that and what is Intel doing to correct the underlying issues?

In a word: Is Intel serious about gaming and, particularly, is Intel going to deliver good gaming experiences with its Intel HD Graphics?

In the next several weeks I plan to walk through my view of computer games and answer the questions above. I hope that you will come along with me on the journeyand share your feedback and thoughts (both positive and negative). I welcome the challenge…like any good gamer!

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