I’ve actually been thinking of this for some time now. But I’ve been way too busy to write anything about it. And I actually think it is ironic that at this time, probably the busiest time ever in my life, I feel it necessary to finally get my thoughts on this out.
Through the years I’ve read about how companies and products are slowly implementing gaming features so that users will be 1) more entertained and 2) more easily tracked/mined/advertised too/etc… And lately I’ve seen a video of a presentation at DICE by Jesse Schell titled “Design Outside the Box” garnering a lot of attention. The presentation is a good one and here is one of the many sites you can view it at.
I agree with the core of what Jesse says. It is unfortunate that most of his speech is either a comical recount of social gaming emergence in the past year or a satirical story of what we can expect in the future, but I do like his main point which is this: Gaming mechanics are finding their way into all aspects of life. However, I wasn’t quite sure if Jesse had any call to action about what to do about this. He had a very short bit at the end basically saying it is in our (the game designers’) hands, but I wish he would have gone into the meat of it more. What are the ethical ramifications? What leads us to believe we will be better people with these systems in place? I think I would have even enjoyed an extreme position: maybe a rant about how this is big brother 2.0, or how we should be happy that our society is on the cusp of transforming into a superior transhuman collective working toward common goals structured originally through game design.
It is possible that the point of the talk was not to focus on ramifications and our personal influence on the future, but I find it glaringly missing. Not only do I find it missing from this talk, but from many other discussions I have heard. Honestly, I don’t even know who agrees or disagrees with how I feel about the subject. That’s why I felt the urge to post this and start a discussion.
So, assuming these sorts of game mechanics continue to trickle into our everyday lives, what should we be thinking about? As both game designers and users of “the system” what should we worry about and what should we start to change, now, to make sure these mechanics end up bettering our lives? Or should we throw the whole thing out the window?
I’ll start with some of my thoughts on the matter.
Firstly, I am acutely aware of the ethics gap that new technology often creates. An obvious target here for argument is that on the back end of these gaming systems are corporations who want to make money off of users. Or utilize user data to make more money. I’m not sure this is inherently bad, but it can obviously be extremely bad if not used properly. I often think about the gowalla’s and foursquare’s out there: The geotargetting programs that track where you are… no, that you TELL where you are… and award points for doing so. Obviously this data is very interesting to companies. And they surely keep people engaged and connected, in a way, which is their other intended purpose. But what evil can be done when the whole world knows where you are, and where you’ve been. Even if the companies themselves don’t misuse the data, others could. There was an interesting article on techcrunch about this, to a degree, but it focused on the fact that you are letting others know you are out of your house. I actually think this is a little silly, but still it shows people have it on their minds.
Now, I don’t want to focus exclusively on the horrible things people can do to you with all of the information easily available to anyone on the net. That is a different discussion. I want to focus on issues with game design, but I DO think it is important to realize that these dangers do exist and we need to have them always at the forefront of our minds when designing and implementing systems.
And really, that is what is at the root of my fears; that designers and developers do not think of the good of the end user, and user flow, before pumping out systems with game mechanics. This is another thing I wish Jesse would have covered. He pointed out that we game designers could have a phenomenal impact on the effectiveness of these systems, but he did not point out that we could also have a similar impact on the ways they truly improve life for people and furthermore, do no harm. And by this I don’t even mean personal harm by giving away user information, but indirect harm by being so narrowly effective they actually damage a process they are trying to improve.
Let me use an example. Microsoft recently released an Office add-on called Ribbon Hero. Basically it turns your work into a game. You get points for writing documents or filling out spreadsheets etc… Basically the thought behind it is by introducing game mechanics you can increase your productivity. They even brought on some game designers to help them, which I think is great. I have to admit, I have not tried the product, but from what I’ve seen from several videos and heard from a few sources it seems to be a really cool system. And I would bet it is effective in many cases. However, I have one main issue with this, and it holds true to almost all other systems that implement game mechanics. Any system containing game mechanics to reward users will be gamed by the users. This is crucial, so let me emphasize it: Any system containing game mechanics to reward users will be gamed by the users. Now, you may be thinking that there are cases where this doesn’t fit. Surely you’d only be cheating yourself to game a system meant to increase productivity in your work. But think back. Remember the days you were in high school or college and your teacher/professor would assign a paper that had to be 5 pages long. What did you do? You triple spaced the document and increased the margins and did everything you could possibly think of to get that 2 page paper to be 5 pages. And if you didn’t, most of your classmates did (and you don’t need game mechanics to improve your productivity!). So, using Ribbon Hero, let’s create a hypothetical scenario. You run a company and you have all of your employees run Ribbon Hero so that they all can compare their scores to each other and have fun as they do their work and the hope is their productivity goes through the roof. At first this works great, but then Bob (oh that Bob), finds a way around the system that lets him do half the work, but get the same score as everyone else. Soon, Bob is half as productive as he was before. Eventually, he lets his little secret leak and others in the company do the same. Now, I could go on with this, but the point is to show the issues with putting game mechanics in places they weren’t originally. If you don’t keep in mind the end goal things could work out counter to what was intended. And in this case, you can’t even blame the employees. What happened is that you, the boss, gave them an incentive and they worked towards that incentive. If anything, the problem was that you gave them a flawed incentive! Even if you stressed that the points didn’t mean anything, by merely introducing the mechanic you changed up the atmosphere and created a new goal everyone was working towards.
I believe this will be one of the biggest, non-obvious, issues with introducing game mechanics into systems. Influencing actions in ways not intended. I often think about a calorie counter program I have on my iPod touch. Not only does it count calories, but you can record activities you do and it subtracts those calories. One of the actions is “sexual activity.” Now, the first interesting thing about this is I wonder how many people would truly be accurate with this if they knew there was even a possibility of the data being viewed publically, but another thing I think about is that if this system had a point system (I know of other calorie counters and health programs that do) how would that activity choice influence people? If it were worth, say, 10x what other activities were worth, don’t you think there would be a great new pick up line for guys at bars? “Hey baby, how about you and me go and score 500 points?” Or excuses for adolescents to pressure their significant others? “But, babe, we HAVE to do it… I’m only 50 points from level 5! Would you keep that from me?” Humorous, yes, but with a sliver of truth. The main point is that gaming systems are intended to influence behavior, not merely track it, and if we are the ones responsible for implementing these influential systems, shouldn’t we be thoughtful to their impacts?
I sometimes joke that it is sad that I can easily find the player who scored the most goals at the game last night, but I can’t find an easy to view list of who the top brain surgeons in the US are (but if you’re interested in the band, you’re in luck!). So why don’t we create a point system and a leaderboard for surgeons? Now, this is meant mainly as a joke. Of course there are huge ramifications in doing something like this, but that is exactly what I am concerned about. How can we accomplish both things? Or can we? Can we create a system to appropriately reward the best surgeons without causing ill effects on other surgeons and patients? Would such a system truly make surgeons perform better or would they do worse feeling the constant pressure on them? To challenge Jesse’s suggestion that these mechanics, when added, improve us as people I ask: “Are we more likely to be better people, or make it look like we are better people by doing whatever is most highly rewarded through these systems?” And on that note, but to discuss another time, does that mean hackers will be our future idols?
Jesse’s closing remark is something I’m on board with. Game designers, though I’m sure they will go by different titles, will have a great impact on the future of the world and how we interact with it. We should seize on this opportunity, for sure. However, we should not do so without careful thought and consideration of the impacts beyond short term gains.