What's Hybrid in Hybrid Games?

Hybrid games may not yet be a household name like VR and AR, but they seem to be getting similar attention at least from developers and researchers.

The hype around VR and AR is undeniable. Pictures of people with funny contraptions on their heads and expressions of rapture on their faces pop up on news feeds almost as often as articles expressing bewilderment about Pokémon Go. Both share with hybrid games the general lack knowledge and the accompanying large expectations that usually come with new technology, despite the fact that research on these topics goes back decades. Slowly, it is turning from apocalyptic promises of revolution (90’s virtual reality research is particularly adept at this) to practical approaches.

We’ve been researching hybrid games for a short while now, but it doesn’t take long to notice how vague the concept is. Generally, in the research literature it seems to imply trying some new technology and using it to play games. This can be anything from playing air hockey while wearing VR-goggles (it seems to have taken 20 years to get from prototype to product) to playing games on tablets.

The concept is further muddled by the fact that whenever researchers needed to define hybrid games, they have opted for the easiest way: it’s whatever we’re currently doing. The core of hybrid games shifts from tangible computing to street gaming to VR and AR depending on which prototype is being currently discussed. As you can probably guess, the definitions aren’t particularly compatible between different types of hybrids.

What then makes something hybrid? It doesn’t seem very useful to try to pin the definition to some particular technology, as the technology is constantly on the move. Just defining hybridity through technology in general doesn’t seem very useful either, as all kinds of games have always been intrinsically linked to whatever technology has been available, be it wood-cutting or virtual reality.

We wrote a short paper on this, arguing that hybridity is better understood as a cognitive category: it’s mixing together domains that are not usually seen together. This is why hybridity is so often linked to advances in technology. New technology introduces new elements to games by definition, so all kinds of new things get grouped together as hybrids when they are combined with older forms of games. This makes hybridity a slippery category, because all kinds of new things are constantly added to it, while older things slip from being hybrid to just being a normal feature of the games we play. Combining board games with digital apps may currently seems novel, but in a few years it will be just par for the course.