Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I was invited to GDC Prime this year to talk about "More than MMOs: Let Them Build It. How user-created content has transformed online games into a new web platform."

What is GDC Prime? "GDC Prime is an executive-level conference that takes place during the week of GDC. This event includes tailored content as well as exclusive networking and VIP access to GDC. Space is limited and passes are available by invitation only."

The next obvious question is, what is GDC? "The Game Developers Conference (GDC) is the official trade event "by developers for developers" of computer, console, mobile, arcade, online games, and location based entertainment."

If you're in the game industry, you know about GDC. If you're like me and were never a game industry professional, odds are you didn't know about it... at least until now.

Anyway, having never attended this conference, I decided not to prepare my talk until I arrived and got a good look at my audience. It's actually a fascinating mashup of the old-school, hacker, anti-establishment gaming culture that I remember and a slick Hollywood-style "buzz" of a multi-billion dollar content industry.

I'm in the middle of reading Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever by John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade. It's an HBS book from 2004 that argues that "they" (the baby boomer generation the authors represent) are misinterpreting and underestimating the size and impact of the gaming culture. They describe gamers as a newer and bigger generation than the baby boomers and assert that the thing that ties them together is gaming. They explain that gaming is bigger than the commercial Internet and only slightly smaller than TV in its cultural impact.

I had a slightly awkward feeling reading this book and talking to some of the game industry execs, I think I've started to understand. My first experience with computers was writing software in a research lab during the day and writing my own games on the lab computers at night. All of my teenage coding experience revolved around writing games or hacking game code. Later, I played MUDs and one of the main points of trying to become a max-level Wizard on a MUD was to be allowed to create your own worlds and monsters. Although I had interacted with parts of the gaming industry, for some reason, I still had the image of the gaming industry as a bunch of hackers who understand hacking... or at least the importance of "user-generated content."

The sense that I got yesterday was that the gaming industry was basically the same mass production and mass distribution content industry machine that Hollywood movies and television are. And... while there are certain companies and individuals who are bridging the gap between the gaming industry and the Internet, the gaming industry is making the same mistakes that the content guys have been making since the beginning of networked computers. They ALWAYS over-estimate the importance of the content and vastly underestimate the desire of users/people to communicate with each other and share.

History is riddled with examples like Minitel, the French videotex service that survived through personal communication despite the designers almost forgetting to put that feature in. There was Delphi whose architecture blew up because it was designed to deliver pages of information to users, not information between users. More recently there are the commercial video streaming companies continuing to struggle as user generated video sites like YouTube boom.

One way to think about this evolution is that as we empower the user through better computers and better networks, we are going from content to context. We used to listen to records and later CD's to wallow in our loneliness with self-pity laced teenage tunes. Later karaoke and video games came out which allowed us to interact with the content and feel a bit more involved and less lonely. Now we have MySpace, texting, blogging, Wikipedia and an explosion of online community generating content models. It is becoming less and less about content and more and more about context - less about professional content and more and more about us. The professional content is important and will never go away, but it is becoming more of a platform or substrate on which the users build their own communities, interaction and play.

My fear is that many game industry executives are losing touch with the new gamers that are emerging as our devices get networked. "Got Game" clumps MMORPGs together with other games as sufficiently similar to each other. I believe that for the purposes of trying to contrast the gamers from the baby boomers, this may be true, but I think that imagining that you can make games like you've always made them in the Internet era is a big mistake. The problem is that the gaming industry is so huge and profitable... and arrogant... that the lessons that we may be learning on the Internet are having a hard time penetrating the board rooms and design meetings of big gaming companies.

On the other hand, a lot of the usual suspects who "get it" are here and appear to be thoroughly networked. I'm hoping that these catalyst/bridge types will connect these two disconnected worlds and help the gaming industry from making the same mistake that the music industry made - getting disconnected from the needs of their users and waging a "war on piracy" against them.


I also think that imagining that you can make games like you've always made them in the Internet era is a big mistake


Interesting to see that even in a tech-savvy industry like gaming, executives face conceptual problems similar to newspaper executives.

For newspapers, barriers to entry (buying a press) formerly allowed newspapers to monetize access to the audience through monopolies on distribution - by making advertisers pay to reach their readers - and intellectual property - by making readers pay to read the publication.

Now both distribution and content are emerging from within the audience.

Not surprisingly, the newspapers have been struggling with how to react at all levels.

I would argue there is still a strong role for newspapers (and trusted news brands), but their employees and shareholders need to make a leap of faith and concept.

One newspaper in Germany actually fired all their staff, saying it was easier to hire new journalists instead of retraining current ones.

Joi, Beck and Wade have a more recent book out called "The Kids Are Alright." Not sure if it does a better job of differentiating, but keep in mind that a book published in 2004 was written five years ago, when MMOs had a much smaller impact.

I'm hoping that clueful degree programs like RIT's (Andy Phelps' BS and MS degrees in game design & development) and USC's will help turn out a new generation of clueful developers and even executives. :)

Liz: Yes, I was going to add a line that the book was written in 2004 before the YouTube, Myspace, WoW boom. I agree that new work could shed light on this and improve the situation greatly.


History is littered with attempts to enable online gaming in one form or another going back to the days of the Atari 2600. The 3rd party modem for the early Ataris was only for game downloads, but by the 8 bit era there were modems for the Famicon/NES and the 16 bit era had first and third party communication devices (modem and satellite) in the US and Japan, and so on. I have fond memories of playing EA's NHL 94 using an X Link modem on my Sega Genesis. I strongly suspect that the failure of all these attempts up until very recently has more to do with the poor infrastructure, additional costs and unfamiliarity of most consumers with the concept.

I know you are big on the social aspects and the "user generated content" thing, but allow me to propose a counter thesis: the important thing about online gaming, be it console or computer, is the chance to compete, not cooperate, with someone else at any time. The draw of playing any game against a human is much stronger than playing against the computer. I suspect that even WoW is like that in the sense that you are competing with others even if its against the computer. If it was just social, its easier and cheaper (tho not always as convenient) to see people in real life.

Not saying you are totally off, but just offering another view.

So, wait, you twit came to SF and didn't either tell us (we're at GDC) or at least meet me for a beer?

Liz, I thought The Kids Are Alright was disappointingly oversimplified. It may serve a useful purpose setting parents' minds at ease, but it doesn't address the complex dimensions of the cultural transition Joi points to here.

But that being said, I’m (predictably) fascinated by the pedagogical implications of this inflection in our students’ mode of engagement with their worlds.

Hi everyone, Hi Joi -

I worked on the book with John and Mitch - helping do some of the research and the writing - so I'd just like to offer some words in its defense... :)

The research for the book did indeed start in 2001, and we finished the book in 2004. Long lag time! And indeed, at that time, MMOs were just a blip on the radar screen for us. If we were to write a sequel (FYI - "The Kids Are Alright" was NOT a sequel but rather a repackaging of "Got Game" for a different audience), we'd definitely focus more on MMOs and some of the social aspects emerging in gaming (Wii, Playstation Home, etc).

Our audience for "Got Game" was definitely boomers to try and make them understand the impact of games. We think we made a dent, but we're not sure...anyway...thanks for reading!

@ Brian_b

"the important thing about online gaming, be it console or computer, is the chance to compete, not cooperate, with someone else at any time..... you are competing with others even if its against the computer. If it was just social, its easier and cheaper (tho not always as convenient) to see people in real life."

WOW.....I'm not sure where to start except to say there is a significant amount of reading available to dispute this.

OTOH that opinion is exactly why the game companies are having issues and will have similar issues as old media. Total disconnect with consumers.


"My fear is that many game industry executives are losing touch with the new gamers that are emerging as our devices get networked."

Bang on Joi, but its worse than that, Gamers can turn on TV if they want to be broadcast to, but they are choosing something else, theres a whole generation of them choosing otherwise in fact, and theres the rub, how many people in the VIP section for whatever reason avoided walking around the expo floor and seeing what was attracting people.

There was some very cool stuff going on all over the GDC, gamers were talking to developers and companies who could be bothered to talk to thier consumers.

And how many people in the GDC VIP knew thier booths were getting little to no traffic?

Do they understand that (this is a true example)there were medium sized game studios that had thier VP of sales/PR/marketing on hand to field questions and set up meetings as follow-ups with people who can potentially send them traffic and customers?

Or were thier booths staffed with interns who handed you a post it pad with a preprinted URL and told you to use the online form.

I'm not sure which is worse, that I was handed the post it pad, or that I already knew thats what my experiance would be, or that I even bothered to stop...

I hope the VP's of those companies enjoyed the good old boys VIP club and thier exclusive mailing lists, because the medium sized company with informed staff on hand is who I'm talking to this week. will address the multi-player game on-line and a community is being built out of it - if you are lucky enough to be exclusively invited via the "community"