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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
Humanising technology
Quake III
Games like Quake III push computer developments
JC Hertz rose to fame with her book, Joystick Nation, a history of video games. She now uses the principles of game design to develop applications, with the aim of humanising technology. Go Digital's Tracey Logan caught up with her in Los Angeles.

Question: What trends have you seen emerging out of video games?

Answer: Well, games are four to six years ahead of everybody else in terms of the questions they are asking and the technical demands that they are making. Unless you are in a military installation, the most demanding application on any computer will be a game.

If we can get things prettier and prettier and prettier, how can we get them to act intelligently?

JC Hertz
Which is why the Intels of the world loves the game industry because it is the only thing that pushes their chips to go fast and also the only thing that inspires people to actually replace their computers.

Q: Is that because of the graphics, the movement, the speed of action?

A: The only thing that will push a computer to its limits is a game. No one admits it but no one needs a new computer to do a spreadsheet programme or Word document.

The big trouble now is that with everyone going onto computer networks, the limit is no longer the processing speed of the computer but rather the bandwidth that is coming into the home. So all the computer makers are now praying for everyone to get high bandwidth with high-speed connections so that the computer then again becomes the bottleneck.

Faster and more realistic

Q: And then gaming becomes a much more networked activity?

Everquest graphic
Everquest: 350,000 people inhabiting a virtual society
A: It already is and it is going way more that way. If you look at game like EverQuest which is on Sony Online, you have 350,000 people inhabiting a virtual society and at any given time, there are 100,000 people living in this place and paying $10 a month to do it. Q: What have you seen emerging which has excited you? A: Every year things are faster and more realistic. If you look at things like Final Fantasy, in the history of its life there used to be blocky little creatures and now it's these huge humanistic things with real hair.

Now the question becomes, if we can get things prettier and prettier and prettier, how can we get them to act intelligently? You don't care if a thing that looks like a little block doesn't act intelligently because it doesn't look like it should act intelligently.

But when you see something that looks like a human being and it doesn't respond to you and it doesn't seem to have any will of its own, something seems wrong and that's the next big hurdle that we have to clear.

Games are very aware of their own learning curves so you don't encounter things until you are ready to experience them or learn them

JC Hertz
Q: There are a lot of games now that actually involves the users changing the plot or developing the characters. Do you see that as a trend that will continue?

A: Certainly there is a big trend towards user customisation and giving someone a level editor or tool of some sort so that they can make their own level of a game with their own variation and their own character because that's how people make games their own.

Technology to help people

Q: How about yourself JC, what are you up to at the moment?

JC Hertz
JC Hertz: Technology can alienate or connect us
A: I am designing a lot of projects, some games and then sometimes I am bringing game design to normal applications that aren't necessarily games.

I was talking to a telecom company a few months ago about their media strategy for the 3G next generation phones. They said, oh well maybe we should get into the media industry and give you film trailers on your mobile phone and I said, first of all that's not what you want to do because people aren't really terribly receptive to that.

But second of all it's not about consuming media. No one wants to get a trailer on their mobile phone. What people want to do is take a picture of themselves and their spouse in front of the Eiffel Tower and send that image to their teenage daughter back in England and that's what it's about.

Q: And you are working in education as well?

A: You have this onslaught of information coming at you whether you are a teenager or a college student or even someone who is in their forties who is trying to keep up for professional reasons. How do you use technology to help people learn?

The interesting thing that games do is that they are very aware of their own learning curves so you don't encounter things until you are ready to experience them or learn them, as opposed to most computer programmes which give you 100 features, only three of which you will ever use.

Technology can either alienate us or it can connect us and that is a design decision

JC Hertz
What a game would do is immediately give you those three features and then as you progressed and became a more powerful character it would give you more features.

At the end of it, you really do understand what you are working with. This is an intelligent strategy that you have to have in a large world that people have to traverse that people who have software monopolies don't necessarily think about.

Q: It is a much more human way of learning isn't it?

A: The big mission and it is pretty much my job description right now is to humanise technology because technology can go either way. It can either alienate us or it can connect us and that is a design decision. It is something that we decide as designers and trying to bring the humanity back into this.

Reclaiming our humanity through this is the next big wave of the things that people are going to want because they have enough stuff.

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JC Hertz
"Technology can either alienate us or connect us"
See also:

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Hackers kill off heroes
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Computer games get smarter
04 Jun 01 | New Media
Sales of computer games rising
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Happy 40th, computer games
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