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Why Everything Is Becoming a Game

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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

29 Responses to “Why Everything Is Becoming a Game”

  1. Whats great about video games too is that it has made us more productive. After playing, we feel more refreshed and really using our frontal lobes and want to get tasks done.

    Basically beneficial caffeine for our brains.

  2. Life is not a game. You cannot restart everytime something goes wrong. You don’t get 3 lives. You are “playing” with trolls in the real world too but they are in your face not your bandwidth.Gaming is not part of my social development. I was born in the late 40’s. I was, however, on-line in 1991 and adapted to a new world that was moving fast.

    Humans are not born to compete. You have fallen for a load of lies. Some are. Most are tribal. They need and want cooperation. We have not changed in 20,000 years and are still team playing apes. WoW and other games of its ilk are cooperative games. You may compete against yourself or your friends but not everyone does. Not everyone joins guilds.
    I like to improve and move on, like a puzzle not a sport. I love it when I can help others improve. I don’t care if I win if the game is fun. That does not work in the real world. WoW is almost completely a matter of individual accomplishments. No winners and losers.

    As a retired teacher, I would like to know how this works for kids who are not “socially connected” or are completely disinterested in competition. There are lots of people who don’t like to compete and should not be forced to do so. They are demotivated by it. I loathe competition and have been wildly successful in life in IT. I have complained about this competition push all my life, most loudly as a teacher trying to help all my students succeed. It is not everyone’s way.

    “I wanted to perform and compete simply for complacence.”

    Complacence: “a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation, condition, etc.”

    Nope, I don’t want complacency in my life. I want to move on and forward. I want to fight the actual enemies of my culture not let them run roughshod over the lot of us. If this is what gaming does it is a very bad thing. I don’t think it does but the word does describe way too many of our citizens: bottom feeding cowards who pretend to be warriors in games and then haven’t got the balls to stand up to real challenges in the Big Room.

    Are we going to introduce digital bullying along with this movement of games into the classroom? Will teachers turn a blind eye to this like they do other forms of abuse? Competition in schools is, whether you like it or not, a source of much bullying. It may be too early for this. What about the kids who do not have a computer at home and do not play games? Are they expected to know how before the games begin? Or will all the kids who do game sit in boredom, plotting what to do to the kids who are holding up the show by having to be taught how to manipulated the controls and GUIs.

    Humans do not naturally have trouble with ambiguity. Some humans have trouble with it and I think games would be good for learning how to handle it. Dragon Age would be fabulous for this but they are not introducing games just game methods. It is not the only way, and, again, not all humans have problems. Overstatement and pseudo facts do not help the cause.

    A lot of research needs to be done on this; well beyond a teacher or 2 playing with it. Whatever they do will be permanent for these kids. Long term studies of long term gamers of various ages need to be done over time. We all know they deliberately crank up your adrenaline in some games to get you hooked on the rush. We don’t need this in the classroom. This has potential but a bunch of geeks making up their facts about human nature is not going to do it.

  3. Interesting topic, and one that’s being covered more and more.

    Another talk at SXSW titled “Augmenting Maps With Reality” focused on gaming, too, and how it’s quickly becoming an important part of how we do and learn. The panelists weren’t sure whether this was a good thing, but agreed that it was inevitable.

    I’m curious to see how game-like incentives work for more “serious” endeavors: are we going to reward ambulance drivers for getting to the ER on time, pilots for landing safely (what’s the alternative?!) or kids for reading newspapers instead of Perez Hilton?

    Games are fun, but are a double-edged blade.

    • @Felix – Just had a discussion with two school teachers on the value of “teaching history” when “it can all be looked up online since it happened in the past.” The gist of our discussion ended with teachers helping students see how analyzing and critical thinking is the true reward.

      Do we reward safety for the pilots? Many workplaces have signs that indicate days since last accident, is that a better product? For newspapers vs. Perez Hilton, again critical thinking is key.

      The best games involve constant evolution of the player AND the game.

  4. structured environments offering a reward are nothing new. Greenstamps in the 60’s etc. many events are structured as games. The “land rush of 1893” in oklahoma started with a canon:

    the only difference is the narratives can be richer and the feedback more intricate or tuned. understanding human dynamics and structured narratives allows experience designers wether for starbucks or a hospital to provide better service. as patrons pursue goals in a structured environment.

    This could be an airline check in kiosk, hotel reservation or ordering a cup of coffee.

    • @Nick – “structured environments offering rewards” is everything that exists in econmoics. Your examples of stamps, land rushes, airline checkins, hotel reservations and ordering coffee etc are economic based where the people involved received goods and services.

      Educational games of course have been around a long time but normally they end as the students get older. They also aren’t normally for grades.

      Terrestrial games taking place in the real world were the basis of the 1985 film Gotcha, so this type of gaming in real life has been around a long time. It is certainly much more mainstream.

  5. Stevo Steve

    Competition is definitely a factor, but there’s a whole lot more to it. Humans naturally have trouble understanding the ambiguous–problem is, instead of attempting to understand complex concepts, we oversimplify in order to compensate, and sometimes we simply overlook or avoid stuff like this. With quantifiable outcomes that are well-defined, that’s easier to comprehend, and it’s easier to get motivated when you can clearly see the results. That’s why people always tell you to write out your goals and all that crap.

    That teaching method is really smart and I bet it works very well. While the numerical grading system is quantitative obviously, it’s still ambiguous most of the time. If a student somehow were to know that if he studied hard for 4 hours he would get an A for certain, a lot more students would study more. But using a point system like that, based upon smaller incremental steps, could work like that. Problem is there’s a reason we get tested over large amounts of material–you learn more that way. In the end, concentration is hard work, and a lot of students would much rather “multi-task” these days, as if loggin on Facebook and texting at the same time on your cell phone is a reasonable substitute for learning.

  6. Awesome article. It just locks in my views on how we are heading. I look forward to using this knowledge to jump ahead of others in making my websites ‘achievement portals’ to get people to get involved.

  7. 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

  8. 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 ( 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. 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.)

  10. 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.

  11. 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.