What Games Are: Ok Glass, Let’s Talk Games

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

It’s very much in its infant phase, the time when the design looks a bit silly and people take photos of those who have one. Yet the Google Glass project is now a real (at a whopping $1500) toy. The reasonably familiar faces of the Valley tech scene are abuzz with the possibilities. Robert Scoble’s even taken a photo of himself showering while wearing one, presumably as some demonstration of the awesomeness of waterproofing.

There are many potentially useful applications. News headlines, tweets, your email on the go and location-aware maps are a good start. Contact recognition, ambient information about people and places and so on. And there’s even the creepy-cool stuff like video surveillance, possibilities for dating applications and so on.

Even if you do look like a dork walking around saying “Ok Glass, where’s the nearest sushi bar?”, it’s still pretty interesting. I suspect that pairing your Glass with your mobile device will be a more common way that users interact with it, because if Kinect and Siri have taught us anything, it’s that voice recognition is rarely perfect. But that too will be great. Imagine, for example, loading up a turn-by-turn map on your phone that then transfers to your Glass. Voila, turn-by-turn cycling and running navigation.

But while these are the sorts of features that gives tech bloggers the squees, for most people they lose their delight factor quickly. It’s amazing how being able to have your calendar on-the-go became something taken for granted, or how mobile email went from being exotic to humdrum in just a couple of years. Remember when it was awesome that you could check Facebook on the bus? These days you expect to be able to do that, but it’s not that exciting. If wearable computers like Glass mostly boil down to yet another notification platform, the average user might think them more annoying than amazing.

Unless they’ve got good games.

Eugene Jarvis, the seminal game designer who gave the world Defender, once famously said “The only legitimate use of a computer is to play games.” And often I agree. For most of us, computing largely boils down to being productive in the office, browsing the web, storing data and playing games. Of all of the above, games are the most genuinely compelling.

Games drive the adoption of platforms in ways that utility software rarely does. Games make computers exciting, and players then talk about their excitement. Few people ever tap you on the shoulder and ask “What app is that?” while you’re typing a document. But when you’ve got some crazy new iPad game, they do. They want to know what that cool thing you’re doing is, and where they can get one. When an Angry Birds moment happens, they do so in droves.

Games market a platform as sexy and give the user an emotional reason to buy in. Look at, for instance, the impact of games on the smartphone and tablet. While the original iPhone was cool for tech fans, for many it only came to life when the App Store happened. And what really drove apps? Games. What drives kids to want to learn to program? Games. What made Facebook go stratospheric? Games. What’s the most interesting app that you’re likely to download on your iPad this week? It’s probably a game.

So when I say that Google needs to be serious about the gaming applications of its Glass platform, I don’t mean it flippantly. Games are what will make wearable computing stick, whether in the form of smart watches, glasses or some other neat device. Fortunately Google seems to agree and has recently hired Noah Falstein to be its chief game designer.

The question then becomes: What kinds of game will fit Glass?

Some folks will immediately jump toward meta-game-y ideas and start to talk about next-generation Foursquares. Augmented reality, location gaming, gamification, digital larping and passive games (like Nintendo’s Streetpass system) all seem more achievable when the user has the ambient awareness of a screen at all times. The idea of playing a large massive-multiplayer real world roleplaying game likewise. I can see half a hundred game executives using the line “What if The Matrix was real?” to pitch that very idea in the coming months.

But meta-games are not going to get the job done. After the novelty of playing one or two wears off, the thinness of meta-games usually becomes apparent, and so they are only ever a fad. For wearable gaming to catch on, the games will have to be a bit more meat-and-potatoes than that. Simple games like puzzles, word searches, hangman, quizzes and original casual games are far more likely to be compelling over the long term.

Figuring out novel ways to use the system’s interactions (such as the touch-sensitive bridge, or the voice system) are where the really interesting stuff might happen. Using your smartphone as a controller, or your Glass as a second screen, might also prove interesting. Ultimately the future may look a little bit like a particularly terrible episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Riker brings a wearable game onto the Enterprise, and it turns out to be a brainwashing device. We may spend our days riding the bus while playing miniaturized versions of Snake, saying “Ok Glass, left. Ok Glass, right. Ok Glass, left. No I said left. LEFT!”

And who knows, that may turn out to be quite a lot of fun.