AI is representing the voices of the world’s 3 billion gamers

Clovis McEvoy
April 12, 2024

AI will disrupt video game industry Goliaths and usher in a new era for independent game makers, elevating cultural voices that the industry once shut out.

Five thousand years ago, in ancient Mesopotamia, someone laid down the rules for a game. It was a simple thing – played by rolling dice to race game pieces around a board – yet the Royal Game of Ur spread throughout the region and endured for millennia, standing strong as kingdoms rose and fell.

The human desire to play games is a constant thread running through our history. That thread has spun into a rich tapestry in the modern era. Beyond rules and point scoring, video games of the 21st century have evolved into a gestalt artform in its own right, combining not only competition and socialisation, but poignant storytelling, visual arts, and music.

They also unite people across generations and communities. In the UK, 88% of 16-24 year olds, 76% of 25-34 year olds, and even 41% of those aged 55-64 play video games. It is estimated that by 2027 video games will be a $312 billion market, and that by 2029 over 3 billion people around the world will count themselves as gamers. In other words, the majority of people with an internet connection.

Modern video games evolved into an artform in its own right.

Yet whilst video games have taken on new levels of cultural relevance, the industry that makes them has become increasingly consolidated. The last few years have seen an accelerating wave of acquisitions, with small studios getting snapped up by large ones, and those large studios getting snapped up by tech giants, like Microsoft’s record $69bn acquisition of video game giant Activision Blizzard.

At the same time, many of the largest studios have been plagued by accusations of racism, sexism, and toxic work environments. All of this has a direct effect on where games get made, who gets to work on them, and which stories get told. A highly centralised industry is a recipe for exclusion; shutting out the cultures, perspectives, and voices that fall outside the dominant ‘norm.’

Into this landscape comes the AI revolution. Artificial intelligence is already being used at 49% of game developers’ studios. The industry looks like a shoe-in to meet the expectation that, a decade from now, generative AI games will account for half of the industry. In the most eye-popping example, Google’s Genie model is able to generate “interactive, playable environments from a single image prompt.” While Genie is currently more proof of concept than industry-standard, practical applications are not as far away as you might think.

Its impact will be felt across the industry, but the largest benefits may in fact be felt by the smallest teams.

In South Africa, there is a thriving game developer community – but the time and cost to produce a finished product is a major hurdle that forces many studios to make do with less. A 2021 report by Wits University in Johannesburg found that, of the 60 game studios estimated to be operating in the country, only 6 studios employ more than 10 people and the vast majority employ fewer than 5.

These are exactly the kinds of groups that AI would empower. Story development, character and world design, visual assets, sound and music – not to mention coding the actual gameplay – are all areas where generative AI can support small teams and accelerate production timelines by essentially automating large parts of the job

More people around the world able to complete and release games means increasingly diverse stories and better cultural representation in the industry. Almost two thirds of gamers want more diverse games to play: AI can make that wish a reality. However, a larger and more decentralised market is only part of the picture.

Despite the gargantuan resources of the big studios, many of the most poignant and artful gaming experiences have been created by small independent developers. Acclaimed titles like Papers, Please, Her Story, and Banished were all created by solo developers with a bold vision. Even if we focus purely on raw financial returns, the most successful game in history, Minecraft, began its life as the passion project of a single individual.

The gaming world is a space where David can outperform Goliath, and AI tools will help sustain this dynamic.  

The foundational productivity gains of AI will empower small teams to reach new levels of quality, complexity, and immersion. What was once the domain of AAA studios with blockbuster budgets might soon be produced by video game’s solo auteurs.

For some, video games are merely a fun diversion. But for others they are as essential as literature and music. People use video games to make new friends and stay in touch with old ones; they use games to relax and to learn. Some games comfort us, some challenge us, but all help us see the world in new ways.

Across this continuum, one thing is clear: games matter to us. From the simplest of boardgames to the most immersive open-world adventures, play is part of who we are, and video games are a key part of that, in the 21st century..

As our digital era opens the door to artificial intelligence, creating games will become more accessible than ever. And the games we make will inch ever closer to a true expression of ourselves, our imaginations, and the perspectives we have to offer the world.

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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.