I Told Ya So: Interactivity

For nigh unto 14 years now I’ve bumbled through this business, and over the years I’ve made plenty of prognostications, a great many of which were heretical at the time but which since have been borne out. For example, back in 1982, I remember arguing with other Atari employees that our videogames needed more depth, that we needed to broaden the appeal to a larger audience, and that if we failed to do so, our future was at risk. My gloom-and-doom predictions were the stuff of much derision at Atari, which closed its year with $2 billion in sales, the darling of the business world, and a seemingly rosy future. Eighteen months later I and almost everybody else had been laid off, and the company was on the verge of collapse. The only thing wrong about my gloom and doom was a lack of urgency.

Of course, I’ve been wrong, too. I will never forget a 1982 interview about the future of telecommunications networks. The interviewer quoted me some of the usual rosy predictions that within twelve months, everybody and his grandmother would be hooked up with a modem. I tut-tutted politely and suggested that such a happy outcome would not be forthcoming until at least 1985. Oops.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to occasionally point out those cases where I really was right, using the pages of this Journal as source material. My chosen topic for today is "interactivity". Perhaps you’ve noticed that it has become quite the buzzword these days. We see Baron’s, Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, and a host of other serious business publications gushing over the future of interactivity like debutantes contemplating the upcoming ball. No doubt about it, interactivity is all the rage these days.

Of course, this doesn’t surprise any of us does it? All of us pros knew from the start that interactivity was going to be the wave of the future. That’s why we got into this business so early. It took a while for the rest of the world to catch up with us, but we all knew it from the start, right?

Hogwash! The truth is, interactivity was not recognized as an important element of what we do, even by some of the most august figures in this industry. They talked about a lot of things, but interactivity was never considered to be the important factor.

I remember a day-long discussion in my home back in July 1989, five short years ago, attended by half a dozen people, all of whom are now in positions of authority in our industry. We spent the entire afternoon arguing about the role of interactivity in our industry. I took the position that interactivity is the most important thing that we offer. Everybody else in that room denied my claim and asserted instead that interactivity is only one feature among many. A good game, they claimed, must offer many features: graphics, sound, animation, user interface, and yes, interactivity, too -- but let’s not get carried away and give interactivity a higher priority than any of these other features. The discussion was heated, and I was frustrated to discover that these people just didn’t get what I considered a fundamental point. As a consequence of that discussion, I wrote an article for the Journal (Volume 2, #6) that presented the same reasoning I used so ineffectually with these industry pundits. I suggest you go back and re-read that article now. It was the purest of heresies back then, universally rejected by those in the know. Here are some highlights:

"The one thing that the computer can do better than anything else is interactivity. Indeed, the computer doesn’t just do it better; the computer is the only medium capable of providing interactivity. This is why interactivity should be the proper focus of effort of the entertainment software designer."

"Yes, the computer can do graphics and animation and sound, but these capabilities are not the primary strength of the computer. Interactivity is the real strength of the computer, and it must be given primacy in our designs."

"None of this suggests that graphics, animation, and sound should be eliminated from our designs. These are necessary supporting elements in the overall design. The better we are able to marshal them to heighten interactivity, the more successful our designs will be. But necessity does not convey equality."

Looks pretty tame, doesn’t it? But back then, it was a different story.

Here’s another way to assess attitudes just a few years ago. I went through the first two volumes of the Journal, counting up the number of mentions of the string "interact" (ah, the joy of macros!). This would include the words "interaction", "interactivity", "interactive" and so forth. I found that my own writing mentioned such words 2.07 times per page. Everybody else’s writing mentioned such words 1.13 times per page. However, 51 of those other-author mentions of interactivity came from a single author who was attacking the notion that interactivity is important (sample quote: "Interactivity is highly overrated.") If we subtract out those antithetical references to interactivity, we find that the other authors in the Journal mentioned interactivity only 0.75 times per page.

In other words, most authors back then weren’t thinking much in terms of interactivity. They were thinking about a lot of other things, and interactivity was a minor factor in their assessments of the industry.

There are two morals to this little exercise. First, I’d like to take a moment to address a few words to those cognescenti who argued against me so furiously that summer day in 1989:

"Nyaah! Nyaah! Nyaah!"

Gosh, I feel better already...

Second, those of you who are tempted to dismiss my ravings as heresy, just remember: yesterday’s heresy is today’s gospel truth. I’ve been wrong before, but I’ve also been right on some pretty extreme heresies.