follow the gamers

This month's issue of Wired (US) includes comments from thirteen people at various ends of the spectrum, talking about the implications of the arrival of the Tablet. Here's the extended version of the contribution made by Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book

Although we date the "age of print" from 1454, more than two hundred years passed before the "novel" emerged as a recognizable form. Newspapers and magazines took even longer to arrive on the scene. Just as Gutenberg and his fellow printers started by reproducing illustrated manuscripts, contemporary publishers have been moving their printed texts to electronic screens. This shift will bring valuable benefits (searchable text, personal portable libraries, access via internet download, etc.), but this phase in the history of publishing will be transitional. Over time new media technologies will give rise to new forms of expression yet to be invented that will come to dominate the media landscape in decades and centuries to come.

Twenty-five years ago, when I founded the Criterion Collection and Voyager, my imagination reached only as far as multi-media — enabling authors to express ideas with a more complex palette that included audio, video, text and graphics. The CD-ROMs of the early nineties hinted at these possibilities. However, with the advent of the internet, particularly the web browser, it's now clear that locating works in a dynamic digital network promises even more fundamental changes.

Although we grew up with images of the solitary reader curled up in a chair or under a tree and the writer alone in her garret, the most important thing my colleagues and I have learned s from a series of experiments with “networked books” is that as discourse moves off the page onto the networked screen, the social aspects of reading and writing move from background to foreground. This transition has profound implications for readers, writers, and publishers, as traditional hierarchies flatten and online communities proliferate. A book is on its way to becoming a "place" where readers congregate, sometimes with authors. Lest this sound far-fetched, Motoko Rich, who covers the book industry for the New York Times, took note of this trend on January 24th, writing that "Reading might well have been among the last remaining private activities, but it is now a relentlessly social pursuit."

The arrival of the Apple, Android and Nokia tablets ups the ante for publishers. Simply moving printed texts to the tablets (as they have with the Kindle) will be of value, but within five to ten years the most successful publishers will have enthusiastically embraced new multimedia-based forms. More importantly, they will have figured out how to structure these works as vibrant communities of interest.

My sense is that this time around it's not going to take humanity two hundred years to come up with the equivalent of the novel, i.e. a dominant new form. Not only do digital hardware and software combine into an endlessly flexible shapeshifter, but now we have gaming culture which, unlike publishing, has no legacy product or thinking to hold it back. Multimedia is already its language, and game-makers are making brilliant advances in the building of thriving, million-player communities. As conventional publishers prayerfully port their print to tablets, game-makers will jump on the immense promise of these shiny, intimate, networked devices.


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