Ever since the very beginning of personal computing, programmers have been trying to figure out how to use programming principles to create virtual worlds, worlds in which objects, characters and environments are all rendered by code. This is how many of our favorite computer games were created, often within the sphere of what we generally classify as game development.

When you think about it, gaming is a really fundamental way to use computer programming principles for a practical purpose. Or maybe just an entertaining purpose. Either way, looking at new gaming technology can provide a glimmer of insight into how those technologies could be used more broadly or in more advanced ways. Here we'll take a look at gaming history, gaming principles and what they could be saying about the virtual world - and the world in general - of the future. (For some background reading on gaming, check out The Most Important Trends In Gaming.)

The Evolution of Gaming

To today’s 30-somethings and 40-somethings, a generation that includes this writer, the incredible transformation of video gaming is something we've seen in action. A survey of game design can trace this meteoric advance from the 1980s, where relatively tiny amounts of memory rendered simple dots, lines and blocks, to a world where high-tech games are built on 3-D rendering, gigabytes and terabytes of data, and a slew of other brand-new resources that create brighter, faster-moving and more immersive experiences that barely resemble the machines and interfaces of our childhoods.

In the new book "You" by Austin Grossman, the author chronicles these changes expertly, leading readers to not only look back at the evolution of gaming, but to consider what all of these changes have really meant. The narrative, which details the trials and tribulations of a fictional video game company, is highly conceptual, but it also points to a lot of the technical aspects of game development along the way.

Game Engines

One of the key technical points and premises of Grossman’s book is how evolving games can be driven by "game engines" that remain hidden from view, with new graphics tech and other extras loaded on top. It's the story of a crew of young game designers and their innovations through a couple of decades (with a detailed recounting of an IT summer camp around the time of "War Games"). There's also a game engine (in the book, a piece of code called WAFFLE), which can maintain its control of game technology through radically different platforms. Through this idea, Grossman explores the emergence of today’s visual interfaces, where successive iterations of WAFFLE-driven games went from a simple mono-color displays of ASCII code to three-dimensional environments relying on algorithmic representations of sunlight, texture and all of the other details that make today’s game worlds so visually rich.

In fact in today’s tech world, developers are using different kinds of game engines quite broadly, in education, health care IT, and other sectors (see, for instance, this presentation from Jared Bendis at Case Western, or this video from Imperial College London on using the popular virtual game platform "Second Life" to train doctors using "virtual patients"). What’s different about Grossman’s fictional narrative, though, is that the game engine also functions as a premise for a stray coding feature that comes alive and lurks within multiple generations of games, to the consternation of developers decades later. This, of course, isn't just fiction: It illustrates the epic struggle between human and machine that runs through the history of programming. (For more on this, see Slow Dancing with Technology: Debugging, the Programmer, and the Machine)

Choice and Artificial Intelligence

These ideas are part of what make "You" such a compelling read, but there’s another idea that drives the story forward, and that has a lot of actual relevance to the potential for future virtual worlds. In a nutshell, it all comes down to choice.

Grossman presents the book’s world through a specific kind of character: a college graduate with IT skills who came of age during the time of PC-DOS and the Atari 2600, a friend of the guru who creates WAFFLE, and someone who is casting about for his own identity in a chaotic business world that can be unkind to the visionary. However, what the book accomplishes here hits very close to a key principle of AI theory: through a large number of long stream-of-consciousness type monologues, the author sets up the idea that the choices his main character is making in real life are somehow parallel to the choices that a gamer makes within a game. In other words, truly advanced games revolve around offering players the widest variety of choices within the virtual world, which in turn relies on ever larger data sets, more skillful and complex programming, and design principles that eventually start to push on conceptual limitations.

Even with today’s technology, it’s impossible to build a virtual world that’s infinitely functional the way ours is, but that doesn’t stop the most romantic coders from trying desperately to simulate, within a coded world, as many of the intricacies of the real world as possible. It's this tension that has driven how we see artificial intelligence. However, whereas in many simulations the goal is to create a "true representation" of complex objects, in gaming, the goal may be to create a world with more choices.

Building Game Freedom

The game developers in "You" pursue a Turing-esque presentation of choices in key ways, for example, through identifying the main action verbs (kick, talk, buy) that a game character may use, or by asking why a character can’t make certain choices, such as attacking random characters, jumping walls, or flying off into the sunset. In a recent interview with Wired, Grossman gets into the idea that’s presented in the book, that instead of "cracking down" on player activity that doesn’t follow a game narrative, designers should encourage this kind of rebellion. Grossman compares player and developer psychology to the theology at play in John Milton’s "Paradise Lost," and suggests that developers should build designs around that yearning to have choice, to be free within the game world.

While it’s arguable that this kind of "freedom" isn’t really very prominent in game design or anywhere else, a recent video by Rajat Taneja, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Electronic Arts, talks about how game companies are collecting more and more data about game play that gets funneled back into game design, so that game environments may eventually be able to process the choices that players make and adapt to them. These kinds of actual revelations from today’s game companies show that in some ways, the industry may be evolving toward the kind of future where games, by offering more choices, begin to seem more real. Who knows, one day in 2025, 2035 or 2045, we may be able to look back on today’s games as conceptual dinosaurs, the way that we think of Pong, Asteroids or Pac-Man today.

Grossman's point is that is that players' adventures in game world are as important to our lives and who we become as those that happen in the "real" world. In the future, that line between real and digital is likely to get even blurrier, as the technology behind our virtual worlds continues to evolve.