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Keep Calm and Carry On Playing

Technology and data systems are rapidly changing the way we conduct our lives. In this Autumn’s Connect magazine we’re exploring how this ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is impacting our working lives.  But what’s the impact on our precious leisure time. One University expert gives her view.
Keep Calm and Carry On Playing

Once-upon-a-time, boredom on a wet, Sunday afternoon was relieved by putting music on the stereo, watching an old film you were lucky to find on one of only three channels, or, as a last resort, ‘enjoying’ a family game of KerPlunk. Once the preserve of simple pleasures, leisure and entertainment at home now encompass gaming on a myriad of different platforms, online shopping, a coffee-table box answering simple inquisitions and the possibility for real-time, face-to-face communications with anyone else on the planet. 

Welcome, to the techno pleasure dome.

Leisure time has always been influenced by the available technology and, as advances are made, the competition for our attention has intensified. Not for the first time, we pleasure seekers are left wondering if technological innovation heralds a) the death of our leisure time or b) innovative and thrilling new heights of fun and excitement.

Dr Sarah Martindale is a research fellow at Horizon Digital Economy Research at the University of Nottingham, and she explores the ways people attach meaning and value to digital interactions and new media. Horizon brings together researchers from a broad range of disciplines to investigate how digital technology may enhance the way we live, work, play and travel in the future.

“The domestic situation you initially described might superficially the look the same today with multiple generations sitting together watching content on a main screen, like a television,” says Dr Martindale.

“But the difference now is in all the additional devices like tablets, mobile phones and even watches and wearable devices which may be notifying people about content which might interest them or actually might be taking the majority of their interest. This means that whatever is on the large screen is just a moving wallpaper, an excuse for people to gather around together. 

“This does alarm some people in terms of how it might alienate individuals in a family group but is that anything new? When I was growing up it was a big thing for kids to get a TV in their own room. So a counter argument could be that screens and devices have made entertainment more portable so you don’t have to be physically separated to be consuming different types of content or enjoying entertainment in the family home. 

“It can of course lead to greater social tension around the dinner table, for instance, where there might still be strong incentives to check devices and that can apply to adults as much as it does to children". 

The range of entertainment now is mind-blowing. The idea of re-watching something over and over in the way we used to is becoming alien given how much choice there is for every taste and interest.

“One criticism of mass media is that it offers a normative view of what’s entertaining, interesting or worth knowing so a more positive spin today would be to say that there is now more varied content available to people which allows them to identify with more meaningful things which actually matter to them or represent some part of their life or personality," contines Dr Martindale. 

“The range of entertainment now is mind-blowing and the idea of re-watching something over and over in the way we used to is becoming alien given how much choice there is for every taste and interest. If you have a niche interest it’s also easier now to create your own content, to take pieces of media, re-mix them and share with others who share that interest, even if they’re scattered across the globe.

“I think the creative industries are resilient to automation. Human creativity and human artistry is going to stay central to our entertainment for a long time. There are some interesting experiments going on at the moment using AI to write scripts and create pictures but there’s a long way to go before you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

“Technological advancements in our leisure time are a moveable feast and everything is changing very rapidly so that does create anxiety and unease. It’s important that we study these things in order to pick up on patterns and trends, so that, for instance, we’re aware of children’s digital literacy and can equip schools to support children as they grow up in this new world. 

So what does the future of leisure time look like?

“I wouldn’t want to pin my flag to any particular mast here but making games more multi-sensory is very interesting. The recent film Ready Player One is really thinking through what would need to happen for physical interaction with a Virtual Reality (VR) world. VR is the buzz but that doesn’t mean it will end up being the future mass technology because there have been previous cycles of VR where it was predicted to become mainstream and didn’t. The technology and cost for consumers has come on apace but for it become a ubiquitous technology might still be some way off. 

“Working with colleagues in the mixed reality lab I see some interesting projects including a  virtual reality museum experience where six people at a time can be in a physical space wearing VR goggles and headphones. Physical space maps the virtual space, people can still navigate the space, touch and feel exhibits and not bump into each other but still have the experience of stepping back in time".

VR is the buzz but that doesn’t mean it will end up being the future mass technology because there have been previous cycles of VR where it was predicted to become mainstream and didn’t.

“Also, one of my PhD students is a film maker and he has developed his own brain controlled films which are currently on tour" adds Dr Martindale. "The film, The MOMENT has been shot from different character perspectives and ultimately has 18 billion different combinations of content. During the film, viewers wear small sensors attached to the scalp to pick up electrical signals produced when brain cells send messages to each other. As people watch the film, small drops in attention will alter the signals and trigger a change in the story the film shows. 

“The personalisation of our entertainment will continue to increase but with innovations like The MOMENT we’re still looking at how people might actually use the technology and discovering what its applications might be, so It’s fair to say that, as academics, we still need to work out what questions we need to ask.

“We need to be sensitive and aware of the innovations but also we need to temper the debate with a keep calm and carry on attitude because if you look at the history of moral panics around modern media, whether that Penny Dreadful's or video nasties, there are always fears that we’re on the cusp of the end of civilisation. But we have to see how they develop and then decide as a society how these new developments should be governed or regulated.”