By David Gillespie | Several years ago, I made video games. Actually let me clarify that – I managed people who made video games. I’m not a developer sadly, I learned skills which would only be useful in industries nobody really needs like Professional Cloud Watching or Advertising. Still, I got to work with some tremendously talented people and had a lot of fun doing it.
I’d always had a lot of fun playing games too. I’d grown up in Hong Kong where the only patch of grass I remember that didn’t have horses racing on it had a sign instead that read “Please keep off.” Subsequently, we tended to play inside. And that tended to mean video games. Now these games have had a raft of reputations over the years, and been blamed for inciting violence in disaffected youth the world over.
A funny thing has happened in the past few years though. I’m not sure where it began, whether it was the arrival of Wii Fit, Farmville or Webkinz, but I don’t hear people complaining about games anymore. I hear them being embraced more and more, being used in cancer treatment and in classrooms, and I see brands falling over themselves to try and get in on the action. Media companies are doing it too – in the news just this week News Corp’s EVP and GM of Games is moving to Facebook to head up the development of Facebook’s own gaming platform. I don’t know if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, but if “News Corp had a GM of Games?!?!” is it, then we’re on the same page.
In a now infamous talk at DICE, which was expanded in a talk for The Long Now Foundation (embedded below), Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell espoused a vision of the future which involved the “gamification” of life in any capacity you could think of, from sensors in a tooth brush earning you points for brushing the way you earn frequent flyer points with a credit card to “levelling up in class”; a concept drawn directly from the Dungeons & Dragons games that were apparently turning Generation X into Satan-worshippers but is now being used to increase not just class attendance but the overall quality of work.
(the talk by the way is absolutely worth watching however you will need to set aside the best part of 2 hours to do so)
What we’re seeing amidst all this is not the sudden realisation that games are not turning us all into gun-toting exorcisms-in-waiting, but the wider world becoming not only aware but increasingly adept at the design of complex systems. A game is nothing but a set of rules you agree to abide by for a period of time – that can be Charades or it can be Call of Duty. Or, increasingly, that can be Foursquare or Facebook Places where I will check-in to a location via my smart phone in return for some sort of benefit from that business.
Ultimately, we’re talking about incentivising behaviour, be that to collect all the stars in a Mario game, to have a successful farm within Farmville on Facebook, or to have someone share the name of the cafe they visit in the morning by offering them a discount if they do. And amidst all this, we’re unleashing a quantity of game design we have never seen before. Some of it will be properly awful, but over time we are going to get better at building systems that incentivise desired behaviours, be it in the classroom or in the department store.
I don’t know if the Hong Kong City Council necessarily wanted me spending so much time playing video games, but the behaviour they incentivised kept me off the grass.
And I bet there’s a hell of a lot of meaningful stuff we could be incentivising in place of what we’ve got going. Some brands are starting to realise this, everyone else needs to catch up fast.