Roly Keating on Broadcasting

I may be rubbish at RuneScape, but it's shown me the future of TV

I have an alter ego. I can't reveal his name for security reasons - let's call him "Brian" - but I can describe his costume: a fetching combination of light-grey slacks and a sort of pseudo-medieval jerkin. This individual is my avatar on RuneScape, the popular multi-player online game set up in 2001 by a pair of young British graduates, Andrew Gower and his brother Paul, and now valued at approximately £40m.

The bad news is that Brian has never done anything of any significance in the game because, unlike certain other members of my family I am the most rubbish RuneScape player in the universe and have never devoted any time whatsoever to learning its complexities. I have guilty visions of poor Brian standing awkwardly where I last left him more than a year ago (somewhere near the entrance), waiting vainly for orders from his hopeless master.

But I'm the exception. Most of the game's millions of members worldwide are devotees, addicted to its fiendish blend of fantasy, community chat and deeply competitive play. They're fighting, chatting, learning skills, acquiring wealth, building a whole virtual economy. Globally the estimated membership of multi-player online games is at least 30 million, and growing all the time.

In the TV industry at the moment people are deeply preoccupied by the challenge of broadband internet and the new world of participation it unlocks. On BBC Two we like to think we were pretty quick off the mark in recognising the basic potential of broadband. We upgraded our site in February and rapidly found serious audiences for the video-rich content we offered: our Apprentice trial alone triggered some four million video requests across its run.

But from the perspective of mature web users this is just entry-level stuff. Offering video catch-up and DVD-style extras is essentially a matter of doing the rights deal and sorting the infrastructure: not trivial, but neither is it a creative paradigm-shift either.

The serious challenge is to understand that there are whole new models of entertainment out there, and that they are offering a serious alternative to our lovely linear programming, however accessible we make it on the web.

What fascinates me about the best online games is that even more than other higher profile web offerings - and unlike disc-based games - they have some intriguingly fundamental resemblances to broadcasting. They are mass, screen-based entertainment. Their success depends on hundreds of thousands of people watching and engaging simultaneously. They are highly authored and designed, with bags of narrative invention, humour and imagination. Like TV and radio networks, they respond constantly to their audience and to real-world events, evolving and innovating all the time.

They are even beginning to generate linear video of their own. Great or notorious moments of gameplay now get recorded, set to music and posted as clips on the web: a popular YouTube video at the moment captures the minutes when a software glitch on Runescape led to an outbreak of illegal mayhem in the game.]

Of course, in a hundred other ways these games are quite different from what we broadcasters do, and the sceptics who say we have little to learn from this marginal medium have a point: linear broadcast entertainment remains alive and well. But my hunch is that we ignore this new world at our peril. The sub-Tolkien style of some early examples may have strictly limited appeal, but the underlying dynamics - the thrill of the chase, the fascination of the deal, the fun of communal play - have very wide appeal indeed. And if games can be devised where enjoyment doesn't depend on a colossal investment of hours then even time-poor grown-ups like me will get seriously interested.

In the mini-hothouse of BBC Two's broadband laboratory we're grappling with these ideas and beginning to realise that the journey the TV industry has embarked on could take us far beyond our collective comfort zone as programme-makers and broadcasters. It's not our job to enter the games space or compete with the RuneScapes of this world, but it certainly is our job to learn the lesson they can teach us: that in an already converged world the meaning of that venerable phrase "mass entertainment" is changing in front of our eyes.

Parry's 'Tribe' is a revelation. Don't miss it

Bruce Parry's adventures with indigenous peoples across the globe in Tribe have single-handedly revived anthropology as a television genre. He has eaten locusts, hunted crocodiles and had a bone through his nose.

The sheer entertainment value of all this has led some to question whether Tribe can really count as anthropology at all. Bruce is, after all, an explorer and expedition leader, not an academic, and Tribe overturns the rules of traditional anthropological film-making by foregrounding Bruce's own experiences and the tribe's reactions to him, rather than attempting to "observe".

This breaking of the old rules is what makes the series so great. Next Sunday's episode is a case in point. Bruce submits himself anxiously to the Hamar people's legendary coming-of-age ritual, which involves stripping naked and leaping across the backs of half a dozen cattle, one of the most entertaining sequences in the series.

But there's darker theme in the film: the ritual whipping of women by men which takes place before the jump. Bruce is visibly shocked, and makes no attempt to conceal his confusion and dismay. He expresses his feelings, asks questions, and reacts honestly and empathetically, without ever betraying the hospitality of the tribe. No easy answers are offered or simple conclusions drawn.

"Pure" anthropology this is not. It's something better: true, humane and revelatory programme-making.

Roly Keating is the controller of BBC Two

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Reach Volunteering: Volunteer Trustee with Management, Communications and Fundraising

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission, Benefits, OTE £100k: SThree: ...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada