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The school bell rings, and teenagers flood the hallways, heading for lockers, the lunchroom, their next classes. Many pull out Cybikos-popular handheld devices that are a combination personal digital assistant, wireless messenger and game machine. Some students update their calendars with the latest homework assignments, but others check on their Cy-Bs. While the kids have been studying math, history and science, these colorful cartoon creatures have been eating, working, playing together, paying taxes-even breeding-in CyLandia, their virtual game world. The game’s goal is to raise happy, productive Cy-Bs that live long and prosper; players accomplish this by training the Cy-Bs, sending them over a local wireless network to visit other players’ Cy-Bs to improve their social skills, and helping them find jobs.

This is the new face of video gaming-mobile, networked, interactive and remarkably lifelike. More to the point for society at large, its rapid adoption by a generation of young computer users may herald aspects of the future of computing in general-from PCs, to personal digital assistants like the Palm, to cell phones. You may soon be able to take a virtual walk through your computer’s contents, interact with scores of people in real time and send artificially intelligent agents out to do your bidding; and if you do, you will owe a word of thanks to game devices like Cybikos. Indeed, games have long played a special role in driving computing. “The segment of software that has pushed hardware development most is games,” says game developer Bernard Yee, former director of programming at Sony Online Entertainment.

This influence seems to be accelerating. The 2000 U.S. census found that 54 million American households currently have computers-and Yee says that gaming is now “arguably the number one use” of those machines. “It’s reported as the number two use, behind word processing,” he says. “But people don’t like to admit that they play games.” Boston-based consulting firm IDG estimates that North Americans will own over 72 million dedicated game consoles by 2004-be they Sony PlayStations, Nintendo GameCubes or Microsoft’s new Xboxes. All this game play is likely to influence younger users’ expectations for their other computing experiences. Real-time networking, 3-D graphics, interactive interfaces, artificial-intelligence systems and the computerized home of the future will all reflect the synergy between gaming and other areas of computing. “The next generation of people that are going to be using [computers] are much more familiar with this sort of stuff and are that much more comfortable with it,” says Steven Drucker, a researcher in the Next Media group at Microsoft Research. And, he notes, they will likely demand the same technologies and user experiences from other computing devices as well.

In short, games point to where computing is headed.

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