Stu Horvath

Here at DIG, we're interested in innovation in all its forms. Within the gaming space, innovation often begins with insight and inspiration from a single person, be they a game developer, an engineer, a sociologist or anything else within the industry. That's why we're tracking down these thought leaders to give you a sneak peek of the digital arts future through their eyes.

In this installment, we sat down with Eleanor Wynn, an anthropologist of computing who recently retired from Intel.

Wynn gave us her thoughts on how gaming and working with information technology are related, and she told us what she thinks is on the horizon for gaming.

DIG: Can you tell me a bit about your history in the industry?

Eleanor Wynn: I have a long history as an anthropologist of computing, dating back to 1976 when I went to (then) Xerox PARC to do my dissertation on the social context of information work. I continued to do research on emerging technologies for the workplace and, most recently, I worked in information technology, specifically on collaboration and social networking tools for workforces and how these would enhance the coordination of a globally distributed company.

DIG: Did that work give you any unique insight into gaming and technology?

E.W.: In the course of that work, we reused a 3D environment. The purpose of the 3D UI was to enhance information management in our global multitasking environment. During that research I came across the extensive research Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi, the originator of the concept of cognitive flow.

Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the notion that we achieve mental flow states in both creative and physical activities when we are fully engaged -- and that these states provide what we call peak performance. Forgetting about time passing, not noticing small discomforts … he has a set of biological markers for flow. These can be measured.

With the management in IT, although I wanted to provide productive collaboration tools, I had a hard time grasping that work can be play -- and that when work is play, we perform best. Csikszentmihalyi's work illustrated that it's all the same. In fact, the first talk I heard on flow was by Byron Reeves at Stanford. He had measured flow state brain waves and also heart rates to understand how people respond both to graphical imagery on the screen and to first-person shooter games.

If you think of information search and problem-solving as resembling a first-person shooter game, then the same biological changes would apply as you chase down that software bug or piece of accurate information.

DIG: What kind of impact do you see the social aspects of gaming having on the industry?

E.W.: I think gaming is intensely social, per Bonnie Nardi's book, My Life as a Night Elf Priest. There are games like Angry Birds where you are playing against the computer, but World of Warcraft shows how much impact the ability to collaborate with others has on participation.

DIG: Where do you see the videogame industry at large going in the near -- and far -- future?

E.W.: I am seeing more games related to practical needs and education in the middle future. Because games are engaging, people concentrate well and have the opportunity to learn. I have seen some terrific educational YouTube clips on math and physics concepts that use a lot of graphics and action. At some point, these will be more interactive. There have been educational games in the past, but they did not have the sophistication or speed of today's graphics and game engines.

I think that the power of games to engage our brains can and will be harnessed to train us in things we need to know, just as online chess and poker train players to get better at those games when they play them in real life.