Roly Keating on Broadcasting
I may be rubbish at RuneScape, but it's shown me the future of TV
Monday 17 July 2006
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
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