Identity Innovation: Video Games beyond Video Games

Daniel Harley


In Ottawa, the official Canada logo is everywhere: “Canada,” with the Canadian flag over the ‘a.’ It’s on government buildings, it’s on signs, on the train that rolled me into town. I’m seeing it enough to finally realize that it is on purpose. Canada’s Federal Identity Program: a brand. I’m attending a one-day conference called Beyond Entertainment: How Video Games are Driving Innovation, sponsored by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC). Their stated goal is to “learn more about how a fast-growing entertainment sector is now also driving efficiency and innovation in other sectors of the economy.” The conference is held in a theatre at the Canadian War Museum. A roomful of men, mostly. This is a conference about technology, about games, about industry, about innovation. It is also unintentionally about gender: of the 21 speakers/panelists, only three are women. Discursively, government and industry appear to meet under buzzwords: the ubiquitous, dynamic, immersive, superclusters of multidisciplinary innovation. “Innovation,” says Tanya Woods of ESAC, “has multisectoral applicability.”

There are four sessions to demonstrate the reach of games beyond games: Graphics, Healthcare, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, and Artificial Intelligence. In each of the sessions, the speakers discuss a technology or process that was invented for (or popularized by) the video game industry and applied elsewhere. We see a picture of Justin Trudeau wearing a VR headset and giving a vague thumbs up. The president and CEO of ESAC, Jayson Hilchie, provides opening and closing remarks. The day after the conference, he posts an effusive summary titled, “Your next car might just be designed by a video game.” The title is more illustrative than accurate (he is referring to Graphical Processing Units that were first created for video games and are now also developed for AI in autonomous cars), but accuracy is not really the point. The point is to shape the identity of an industry: “Video games,” he writes, “are at the heart of an innovative ecosystem,” in which technology “evolves” and artificial intelligence is the “new frontier.”

Midway through the conference, Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, is introduced as a promoter of diversity and inclusion. Off-script, he is charming and self-deprecating, and he apologizes for having missed the earlier talks. He mentions his daughters, and their envy of him being at a games conference. On-script, he speaks about “our” government (never “the” government) and mentions the need for STEM education, the CanCode program, digital skills, “growth opportunities,” collaborations between Canadian cities, the Strategic Innovation Fund, the Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative. As he speaks, a photographer takes pictures. When he finishes, he shakes some hands and leaves. He doesn’t stay long enough to be off-script, off-brand.

There are, however, some off-script moments in the panel discussion after the Healthcare session. The speakers raise concerns that they neglect to mention in their prepared talks. There are problems, we learn, with new technologies in medical settings, especially when working to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Health Canada. The speakers suggest that when the FDA reviews a technological artifact and/or its software in place of a drug, the FDA looks for consistency. The speakers stress the need for “clinical efficacy” and “measurable outcomes.” But as one of the speakers notes, the unknowns and the side effects of a newer device can negatively affect results and can impede the development of a technologically-mediated treatment. Older technologies can appear more stable, but the corporations that own these technologies can issue mandatory updates that alter functionality, or they can discontinue products entirely. The FDA-approved treatment discussed by one of the speakers uses a Kinect camera. Just a few days after the conference, Microsoft officially discontinues the Kinect.

During breaks I’m browsing the shop on the War Museum website (Slogan: “Your Country. Your History. Your Museum”). Night vision goggles would set you back $1,400. We’re back on-script and on-message for the VR and AR speakers, with the “transferable knowledge” of video game designers, “immersive” experiences and “exponential” technologies. Then, the panel discussion during the Artificial Intelligence session seemingly drifts off-message. Ethics, they suggest, are a concern in AI development (as if ethics aren’t a concern for other technologies). The speakers note that technology moves faster than law and policy. Ethics, says Sebastien Miglio of Enterprise Solutions, has to be built in by design: we don’t know what the future holds for these technologies. But I suspect that this is only seemingly off-message, because the possibility of robot uprisings is what make AI discussions fun. It is both serious and not serious. It is a distraction from a conversation about present day AI, present day technologies. There is no time to talk about how ethics might be built in by design right now. A few days later Justin Trudeau tweets, “AI is changing our world & we need to make the decision to not only keep up, but lead – start-ups at #mkt4intel are doing just that.” So, we need to keep up with technology, and we’re already keeping up with technology. Or perhaps, we need to lead, and we are already leading.  

Dr. Neil Randall from the University of Waterloo gives the closing keynote. He discusses his SSHRC-funded work and the benefit of games as “deep simulations.” He is the first to look out at the crowd and note that this is a room of predominantly white men (as he is, as I am), noting briefly that we need equity, diversity, and inclusion in the tech industry. He states some of the goals of the Digital Oral Histories Reconciliation Project, the IMMERSe project, and AVENIR: multi-institutional, multidisciplinary projects that strive to emphasize the social value of technologies. He ends with something of a plea: collaborate with us. Collaborate with universities. We need to develop ways to learn from other people. I’m inclined to agree, but his talk is too brief for me to really understand what these projects are actually doing. The Canada logo is embedded in the SSHRC logo on Dr. Randall’s slides. Here the Canada logo represents investor, innovator, stakeholder.

As the Manual for Canada’s Federal Identity Program states, “It can be said that every organization, regardless of size, has a corporate identity, and it can be either formal or informal. The question is whether an organization manages its corporate identity in the most effective and purposeful manner possible.” Multi-institutional, multidisciplinary, multi-sectoral but still not yet demonstrably multicultural and diverse. Inventive and innovative but still not yet demonstrably inclusive. Corporate Canada and the video game industry are shaping a new identity together. It is purposeful, formal, and managed. And, at this conference at least, it is still mostly represented by a roomful of white men in a museum.