Lord Puttnam: "Broadcasters not engaging enough with virtual worlds"

Virtual Reality

lordputtnam.jpgFilm industry veteran Lord Puttnam delivered the keynote address at this morning’s Virtual Worlds Forum Europe conference, and had some stern words for broadcasters, who he says aren’t engaging enough with virtual reality.

“Broadcast media is beginning to look rather incomplete,” he said. “The industry should be worried about its failure to engage more with the virtual world. We used to think there would be a natural convergence with television, but although there has been a degree of convergence, it’s not been between TV and online games. Instead, it’s been between many different forms of interactive media.”

In other words, TV firms have been slower to catch on to how they can work with virtual worlds (and Lord Puttnam sits on the Channel 4 board, so has first-hand knowledge). “The whole idea of interactivity being an add-on or extension seems quaint now. A generation of people have grown up with the expectation of being able to interact with their media. Broadcast is only half the format.”

He also made another unflattering comparison between TV and virtual worlds. “TV is and always has been an essentially passive medium. Its first faltering steps into interactivity have crashed and burned in chaos with the telephone charges scandal, which has derailed all those plans. TV made the fundamental error that virtual worlds haven’t: once you engage your viewers interactively with your product, you change the rules. Once you invite people in, everything alters.”

However, Puttnam also had stern words for companies making virtual worlds and games who expect to get government aid. “You’ll never get state aid until the product itself can be seen to have unique cultural value. It’s more than the jobs argument or the creativity argument. You have to do something that contributes to the national culture from which it emerges.”

I should explain: Lord Puttnam’s talk was touching on both virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games. I think the state funding debate is probably more relevant to the latter right now.

“Build educational capabilities into the functionality of your games, and you give yourself a chance of achieving state aid,” he said. “If you do not, you do not have a snowball’s chance in Hell, I promise you.”

The thing I took from Lord Puttnam’s talk was that he’s genuinely engaged with virtual worlds and games (it shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering he was one of the people who helped bring games into the BAFTA organisation).

He also provided a pretty clear definition of what a virtual world is: “a computer-generated space or place, accessible to more than one person at a time, with a life that goes beyond any one person’s ability to visit, and which is accessed by a computer or mobile phone”. Virtual world industry people might have their own spin, but from someone involved in government policy AND traditional media industries, that’s pretty good, eh?

His whole talk was interesting, actually. One good point was that when TV was the same age as virtual worlds are now, it had seen a World War, a coronation, the first soap opera, and advertising. And aside from the war, we’ve seen all those things within virtual worlds too.

He also talked about MMOGs becoming more accessible – even companies in the notoriously hardcore market of South Korea are realising there’s more to online gaming than swords and sorcery. Puttnam is also keen on the subgenre of ‘serious games’, citing an interview with historian Niall Ferguson in which the latter said playing a game based on the origins of the Second World War had changed his perspective.

Puttnam also addressed some of the challenges facing the virtual worlds industry. The first is addiction, although he pointed out that this accusation has been levelled at cinema, TV, console games and the Web at similar stages in their history. However, he warned against the danger of virtual worlds companies rejecting all criticism on this score.

“Advocates [of virtual worlds] take kneejerk or irresponsible positions, denying the possibility that any such problem can exist, while on the other side, people also exaggerate the problems,” said Puttnam, who refers to some recent research at the University of Bolton as a good example of sober, serious analysis into the question of addiction – apparently it found that online games can have an adverse effect on some young people’s social lives, but still aren’t as addictive as has been reported.

He also touched on the likelihood of virtual world crime. “It is only a question of time before some form of crime, probably a rather serious crime, is committed and the defence is offered that it was done at the stimulation of an avatar.” He also said that governments are waking up to the potential misuse of virtual worlds for “large-scale money laundering”.

Finally, Puttnam didn’t seem too impressed by the moves of several toy companies into the virtual world space (for example, Mattel recently launched a Barbie-focused world, although he didn’t refer to this specifically).

“Increasing numbers of virtual worlds are being created by toy manufacturers to promote their products, with incentives to buy. Are we absolutely sure about this? Do we want children to think of themselves purely as consumers?”

Check out other stories from the Virtual Worlds Forum Europe in our Virtual Reality category.

Stuart Dredge
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