With the dawning of a new year and decade I found myself recently considering the year gone by; achievements and failures, good decisions and poor. I suppose it's the same internal conversation that most of us have on one level or another, weighing up these heavy thoughts and making plans for the future. And it has been a busy year.

This was all very serious business and before long my mind wandered a little to lighter matters. I ended up thinking about gaming, probably because I'm a gamer. It's what I do in my spare time, it's my entertainment medium of choice.

And so my musings turned to where gaming has been and where it is going in the coming years.

Whenever my mates and I (who are now scattered around the country and I wish we could do it more often) get together for a few days it inevitably turns into a drawn-out geeking session. Between BBQ's and beer drinking we'll be waging the unending war on relentless Nazi zombies and displaying various levels of Guitar Hero prowess. It's not because we're a particularly unusual group of people, on the contrary we're a fairly typical group of friends. We knew each other whilst growing up, we have diverse careers, diverse domestic situations, different interests.

It would seem to me that gaming itself is becoming more and more of, not just a social activity, but a socially acceptable activity participated in by an increasing broadside of the community.

Nowhere is the social change in gaming more evident than the rise and rise of MMO's.

After playing World of Warcraft for four and a half years I quit playing seriously in the middle of last year. In fact the only thing that kept me going through those the last few months were the fantastic people I played with and not wanting to let them down. I now only log on to keep in touch with how they're all getting on. I'm lucky enough to be in a fantastic guild (Reliance, US-Frostmourne), a group of talented and enjoyable folks who get the most out of a good raiding team, success without being excessively serious. Playing a game should be fun and this is a group of people who have hit the mark between enjoyment and a level of achievement.

It's that social interaction, that collective team pleasure that is often as important as the game itself, possibly even more so. There's little more interesting in gaming than human interaction aspect.

Be it vigorously competing against others or accomplishing feats with friends the face of gaming is changing. My experience has been that along with the younger people you might traditionally expect to be gaming you also find if you choose to look, especially in MMO's, a developing cross section of society, from the early thirties down most strongly. Males predominantly still, but also an increasing population of female players stamping their mark on a level playing field. Some of the women I've had the good fortune to play Warcraft with have been the hardest workers, fiercest of competitors and often best administrators too.

Whether this is the growing appeal of gaming in general amongst the community or simply the ageing of those first generations that grew up with a home computer time will tell.

As the people who have grown up with gaming as a form of entertainment begin their own families I would not be at all surprised to see the average age of gamers continue to increase. I have no doubt that developers will be readying themselves for a maturing customer base and the second generation gamers who'll accompany them.

Still across the decade past the media feedback for the gaming industry has been far from unblemished. One of my personal flaws is that I listen to talkback radio and it's not unusual to hear video gaming vilified as the root of all evil in modern society. The Grand Theft Auto series for example being fingered more often than not as corrupting youth and causing them to carry out acts of crime and mayhem in modern society.

These issues are complex and for a long time now the television and movie industries have been presented with the same arguments. Before the popular rise of home television, rock and roll in the 50's and 60's had the same stigma attached to it. One vice for each generation.

It has long been my opinion that if a young person can grow to the appropriate age where they might play a restricted violent game and still be impressionable enough to be influenced to carry out acts of violence against other people and property based solely upon that game, then in the years preceding something has gone badly wrong. For every violent person who's played Grand Theft Auto and commits a violent or criminal act, there would be thousands of people who have played the same game and do not.

Make no mistake, there have been the occasional few titles banned in New Zealand, but blaming general gaming for what could probably be more accurately attributed to poor parental control or other social failings then it is simply swatting at easy targets and ignoring how those issues arose. I wonder perhaps if the current generation will be more tolerant to whatever the vice of the next generation is? Perhaps, but most probably not.

The technology progress in the last ten years is marked. From blocky, mostly 2D or primitive 3D environments to magnificently rendered worlds, with hundreds of square miles of landscape to explore and experience. Consider the tantalising prospects that another ten years of development offers. How about having the processing power that Weta Workshops used to create James Cameron's Avatar sitting on your desktop, or in the palm of your hand, or clipped onto your keyring?

The one thing that really excites me about the prospect of gaming in the coming decade is that surely with the continued exponential increase in processing power and complexity being introduced to titles, there must only so much that can be achieved while relying on a PC or console and screen to bring the stories to life. How far away can the next step to virtual environments in which you literally walk around in be? Sounds far-fetched? Possibly, but then again fast forward a player from ten years ago to 2010 and they'd probably be flabbergasted with how developed modern gaming has become. Perhaps flinging a virtual fireball from your hands or standing sideline at the Superbowl coaching an NFL team to victory isn't that far away.

In addition to the technological development there are at time mega-budgets involved in the creation of games. Gaming as a culture is leaving it's adolescence and growing into an industry that has eclipsed Hollywood in year-on-year revenue. Through the recent recession is seemed common to hear about movie productions in trouble, or poor box-office takings, but the gaming juggernaut rolled on. Indeed, when Grand Theft Auto IV was released in 2008 it racked up $US500m in sales worldwide in the first week. Last year, Modern Warfare 2 smashed this record by selling 4.7 million units in both the United States and the UK in the first 24 hours of its release. It's big business and the clientèle expect a quality product.

Could this unending demand for quality control push gaming back "into the cloud", forcing users to have regulated access to a data stream in a similar fashion to the model proposed by OnLive? Will developers seek to further crush piracy by removing modding options and client-initiated changes to game code in a similar way that Activision reigned in the PC version of Modern Warfare 2? For every seemingly brave step forward we see game developers take, there are many opportunities to head backwards by over-zealously restricting the end users ability to experience a game in a way not intended by the developer. Could it be that the future of gaming involves more restriction, more corporate involvement, and less creativity?

As we kick off the new decade with anecdotal tales of returning consumer and developer confidence, it's probably best to sit back and pause for a second, if only to imagine exactly what kind of a gaming future you'd like to see, and just what kind of technology will be required to make that possible.