Thanks to World of Warcraft and social games on Facebook, gaming is becoming a bigger part of our culture than it has ever been. Web sites like Wikipedia and Slashdot use game-style principles to control behavior, and some see these principles moving into education and the workforce.

The fact that many people love games isn’t really that new. Retailers and even our own governments have used our love of games to sell us products and hook us on lotteries and whatever else they can think of to boost revenue. But the rise of online games such as World of Warcraft and the social and “casual” games popularized by Zynga and other companies on Facebook, such as Mafia Wars and Happy Aquarium, has arguably made gaming a far bigger part of our culture than it has ever been — not to mention location-based apps such as Foursquare and Gowalla, which have explicit game-like features built in. Online payment giant PayPal says that Zynga was its second-largest merchant last year, and PayPal does business with some of the largest companies in the world. And get ready for even more games: Flurry Analytics says that its research shows almost half of the apps that are being developed for the upcoming Apple iPad are games.

What is the impact of all that gaming on our society? One academic, Lee Sheldon of Indiana University, says the generation that has grown up with ubiquitous online gaming is bringing that culture with it into the educational system — and ultimately, into the workforce. “As the gamer generation moves into the mainstream workforce, they are willing and eager to apply the culture and learning techniques they bring with them from games,” Sheldon, an assistant professor at the university’s department of telecommunications, told ITNews. He said older managers will have to “figure out how to educate themselves to the gamer culture, and how to speak to it most effectively.”

It’s something with which Sheldon himself is already experimenting. Over the last year, he started grading two of his classes (both involved with game design) using a system based on “experience points,” or XP, similar to the way gamers in World of Warcraft and other massively multiplayer games award points for various tasks. Students started the year at level one, with zero XP, and then gained points — and higher grades — by completing “quests” and “crafting,” which corresponded to giving presentations and doing exams and quizzes. Students also formed “guilds” similar to the gaming groups that rule WoW and other multiplayer games. Sheldon says that his students seemed far more engaged than they had been before.

A similar phenomenon was the topic of a panel at the recent SXSW conference in Austin, where Christopher Poole, founder of the controversial discussion forum known as 4chan, and web historian Jason Scott discussed the site and its culture — which in some cases consists of offensive material, but also involves public advocacy through offshoots such as the Anonymous group. According to a description from Austin360, Scott compared the behavior at 4chan to a game, but one in which the objective was to come up with something more shocking and/or hilarious than your competitors.

Scott noted that another site behaves in almost the exact same way: Wikipedia. And he’s got a point — the “crowdsourced” encyclopedia relies in many cases on unknown and unpaid editors and writers to produce and structure and verify its content, people who to some extent compete for the recognition of their peers on the site, and in some cases wind up “levelling up” to become senior editors and members of the internal Wikipedia “cabal” of site managers. Although Wikipedia doesn’t explicitly award experience points, the concept is the same, and it motivates people in similar ways.

The moderation of comments at Slashdot is based on a very similar system. Users are able to gain “karma points” through positive actions such as posting sensible comments, voting on other comments and flagging abusive comments. When they get enough points, they are selected by the site’s algorithm to be official moderators, and can then “spend” the points they have removing comments. In such a system, it doesn’t ultimately matter whether someone is anonymous or not, because there is an incentive for them to follow the rules and behave properly (although there are always users who don’t care about the rewards and try to “troll” or disrupt any site).

The bottom line is that good games take advantage of people’s innate desire to compete with each other, but balance that with their need to receive rewards, including the approval of their peers — rewards that in some cases can be used to modify their behavior in certain ways. Those are principles that don’t just apply to games. Jesse Schell, a former creative director at Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, had a great presentation at the DICE 2010 conference last month in which he talked about the rise of social gaming and what we can learn from it, which is embedded below.


Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Stock Xchange and Flickr user chanchan222

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  1. The impact of culture on society, seems it can be traced back for quite some time:

    Evolution of Fairness Driven by Culture, Not Genes

  2. Why Everything is Becoming a Game « LostFocus by Dominik Schwind Friday, March 19, 2010

    [...] Why Everything is Becoming a Game [...]

  3. Dave Kaufman – Techlife Friday, March 19, 2010

    I am surprised it has taken this long for me to hear about a teacher implement a gaming style classroom. It does sound like a great idea and engaging.

    If some people remembered life is a game, I think they would enjoy it a great deal more.

  4. Brian S Hall Friday, March 19, 2010

    Can you imagine having to sit still, listen to someone give you instructions on exactly what you’re supposed to do, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week?


    And some adults, who do everything in their power to never have a minute of their day be boring, tut tut over children who spend their free time gaming.

  5. iptiam (iPad, Therefore I am) Friday, March 19, 2010

    Mathew, “Why Everything Is Becoming a Game” – its an amazing point that we need to think more carefully about – what kind of game is also important here, i think, particularly when people carry over gaming instincts to real life (its generally the other way round).

    Good Post.

  6. Quickthink » Blog Archive » Game Design as the Key to Fame, Riches, Sexual Prowess, and Everything Else Friday, March 19, 2010

    [...] But how can we learn how to design and play better games? This is the first post that I have seen on this (it is from Giga). I think many more like this will follow over the next several years. Here is the link. [...]

  7. Daniel Peiser Friday, March 19, 2010

    I think that the XP-WoW experiment Lee Sheldon carried out is very interesting.
    The balance between the frequency and the quality of rewards needs to be carefully researched, but most of all, the difficulty of tasks is the key to motivating workers and students: the difficulty level needs to be optimal in order to ensure they achieve success by putting the right amount of effort, and experience a sense of personal improvement in terms of skills, acquired knowledge, etc.
    Social media could play an important role in developing a fuzzy work/play culture, that Sheldon recreated by exploiting social bonds in the class group. Something similar to Facebook Credits could be used to motivate students: imagine you get virtual currency as a prize for completing a quest (school tasks, etc.)

  8. Mark Hixenbaugh Friday, March 19, 2010

    Great post…

    I think it’s good that a ‘gamer’s approach’ to real-life tasks breeds competition and success – but, whatever happened to the good old days when people competed simply because of the inner drive?

    Has the influx of the gaming culture created an artificial version of competitive spirit? Do we really need ‘Warcraft’ to give us incentive to kick some butt?

    Don’t get me wrong. I grew up on Dungeons & Dragons, RPG’s, eight-sided dice, and Nintendo. I liked gaming, as rudimentary as it was then; but it wasn’t the motivational force that pushed me to achieve.

    I never had much luck when it came to winning contests. I’ve lost more than I’ve won, but I can recall many times, when I just felt the juices flowing. I wanted to perform and compete simply for complacence.

    I wrote a blog post recently (http://bravenewmediablog.com/2010/03/02/gaming-transcends-cyberspace-for-humanitarian-cause/) about the fusion of gaming with humanitarianism. The gaming industry is definitely exploring new and exciting applications for social progress. Everyone can appreciate that.

    It just seems like a lot of people escaped so far into the gaming world, and now they’re looking for a reason to come out. My only concern is that we may rely too much on the ‘game’ for ambition and incentive; or as the video implied, ‘a hunger for reality.’

  9. Friday links: a bullish extreme Abnormal Returns Friday, March 19, 2010

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  10. Sanjay Maharaj Friday, March 19, 2010

    Humans are born to compete and gaming has been part of our social development. What we are seeing is a transformation from the actual physical aspect of playing a game where one had to actually go to say a field to play the game to the virtual gaming world which is accessible anywhere at any given time. The utility is now greater thus the reason why we see the huge popularity in online gaming

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