So according to Kotaku, everyone is (or at least was) talking about this presentation by Jesse Schell from the recent DICE convention. Not wanting to be excluded from the “everyone” category, I’d like to offer my response, even if it is a few days late.
For those who haven’t seen it, I’ll summarize briefly. First, Schell asserts that the success of Facebook, the Wii, Guitar Hero, Farmville, Webkinz, etc. blindsided most industry experts and reveals a marked change in the desires of players and the strategies of designers. The world, Jesse says, is awash in artificiality and the masses are weary. We crave the real, and so corporations have responded with real Angus beef burgers and cell phones that let us be our authentic selves.
Game and toy makers, at least this handful of insightful innovators, understand this change and have developed products that discard the old notion that game should be immersive, instead designing games that blend reality and fantasy. Webkinz are physical objects with a related virtual world. The Wii and Guitar Hero create situations where people enjoy both the game and the spectacle of others playing the game. And social networking games take advantage of our desires to compete and collaborate with our real friends.
I think the first part of Jesse’s talk is fairly sound. Yes, people have grown tired of all that is “fake” but the fact that they’re being satisfied by corporate supplied solutions is proof that this isn’t a genuine shift in behavior and desire. An Angus burger from McDonald’s is still about as far away from a slab of grass-fed beef as a plastic plant is from a redwood. Farmville is not farming and it is precisely its differences from real farming that made it successful. People may crave authentic experiences, but they still want those experiences to fit within their generally comfortable, sanitized life. The “adventurous” among us go on eco tourism trips; they don’t bushwhack the Yukon navigating by the stars.
In regards to games, I think the growth of games that straddle the virtual and the actual is exciting, but not really new. Most games have always had a social component, and at least as far back as MUDS and MOOS people have used the internet to play socially. As online socializing has lost the stigma it once had and internet-connected technology has become more ubiquitous, I think it only makes sense that games have more overtly incorporated social play.
This is easy to say in retrospect, of course, but I just mean that we’re not seeing some revolutionary shift in how people play and relate to each other, we’re seeing designers begin to take advantage of new technologies to meet desires people have always had. I also feel pretty certain saying that the immersive high fidelity AAA game isn’t going anywhere. People went in droves to see Avatar in 3D Imax and now we’re hearing rumblings of 3D television. Escapism is here to stay.
While I have some minor differences with Schell’s opinions in the first part of his talk, it’s his conclusion that I really want to discuss. In his grand finale, Schell describes a sweeping vision of what Eric Zimmerman and other have called the Ludic Century. Marketers are in business to develop ways of motivating consumers to have prolonged interactions with and develop personal relationships with products. They manufacture desire and then ideally, loyalty. We have points and rewards for everything from airline travel to coffee shops and games from soda cup scratch offs to movie tie-in ARGs are increasingly being used as lures to draw the consumer to the product.
Schell postulates that as digital displays and cheap sensors proliferate, society will turn into a giant game, with citizen/players racking up points for everything from brushing their teeth to taking the bus to displaying advertising on their bodies. Corporations and governments will utilize the same game-based reward structures to motivate citizen/player behavior from cradle to grave, morning noon and night.
I have always been critical of the Ludic Century thing in part because it sounds like more shortsighted utopianism to me. I’m reminded of how in the early 90s cyber theorists thought the internet would end race, class, and gender issues as we all merged harmoniously into the virtual. It didn’t quite work out like that. Play and games are fundamental activities for human development that produce great good in the world. Harnessed to achieve corporate or political aims, however, they can be just as destructive as sex, humor, and family have been when used as lures for consumerism.
There is also something beautiful about intrinsic motivation. Part of being a sentient creature on this earth is making decisions and acting based on desire, need, and reasoned thought. I don’t want to be constantly stimulated by the potential of earning reward points, bouncing from game to game (or level to level) as I move through the day. If we are only good because we want a pat on the head or a treat we have lost some vital part of our humanity. I meditate and there’s no making a game out of meditation. It is what it is and that’s all it’s supposed to be. I don’t want to level up because I put an hour in at a soup kitchen.
Second, at least as described by Schell, the Ludic Century is a horrific transformation of “The Factory in the Living Room” into “The Factory in Your Mind.” The little reCaptcha games that Luis von Ahn has developed to help Google identify blurry words in pdf’s and tag images are interesting, but they are also an example of a corporation using a game to extract free labor from players. I can imagine a marriage between this type of game and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to produce a whole range of games that help corporations not just advertise to people, but actually get them to parse data or complete mundane tasks in exchange for achievement points or simply for fun.
While it may seem harmless enough to have people playing games that accomplish real work, in an age where automation and digital technology are increasingly replacing human jobs, mechanisms that induce people to work for free present the potential to radically alter the labor market.
I think there are really interesting ways that games can be used to motivate people in the real world and accomplish legitimate good. Superstruct is one great example. Free Rice is another that I like less but still respect as a valiant effort. If implemented on the scale Schell envisions though, games could easily become prison bars, or the walls of a Cretian labyrinth. This would be a world where nearly every waking moment is spent grinding. Even worse, we could live in a world where everyone we meet is an ally, an enemy, or just a game piece. London has already initiated a website that lets people watch CCTV cameras with the opportunity to win cash prizes if they catch a crime taking place. I shudder to think what this system could do to social relations in the long term.
Finally, just when Schell reaches his (as I perceive it) apocalyptic peak, he makes a giant leap of logic to assert that living in corporate sponsored World of Lifecraft will actually make us better people. Because data is permanent in the digital age, our grandchildren will be able to know every book we’ve ever read, movie watched, blog post written, etc. The understanding that our digital self is immortal (and thus, can be judged by future others), then, will motivate us to be better people, read higher class books, and stop being so obnoxious and snarky when we comment on Wonkette articles.
As I said, I have only minor disagreements with the first part of Jesse’s speech, and I can mostly agree with his vision of the future if it’s merely prophesizing and not cheerleading, but I completely disagree with his conclusion. First, there is a massive gulf between data being available and data being accessed. Even if there is a list of every book I’ve ever read available online, there’s no reason my grandchildren would read that list. Or care what’s on it. Or even recognize any of the titles.
More importantly, and 1,316 words into this post is where it finally becomes relevant to game-based learning, none of Schell’s examples of ubiquitous gaming are games for development. He describes games to make a monkey push a button to get a food pellet. Games for learning induce reflection, metacognition, and a real understanding of systems and rule sets. If games are to be employed en masse as a means of helping us become better people, we’ll need to learn a lot more about how people learn and how they transfer understanding from one knowledge domain to another. Unless we make more progress there, and think hard about how to help people develop into their best selves instead of their best consumer selves, we’ll be making Brave New World, just using games instead of pharmaceuticals.