Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Keeping Score: Games of the Future and the Future of Gaming (extra points for comments)

Games are successful if they can achieve one vital goal: to keep you interested. Loyalty is priceless in the game world, and it’s achieved via reward systems that give you just enough satisfaction to keep you engaged.

But reward systems aren’t isolated to games. They have played a part in our consumer reality for a long time. Jesse Schell, game designer and teacher at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Center, is waiting for a game revolution to take over even the mundane aspects of our everyday lives.

He envisions a world where your toothbrush gives you points every time you brush, and a bonus for brushing for the recommended three minutes. Your health insurance can read your digital shoes for how much you’ve walked in a day, and gives you points for getting your heart-rate up. Your cereal box has digital games on the back, instead of word-searches or mazes, and the games link up through Facebook to rate you against your friends.

(Did you think there wouldn't be consequences?)
It may sound extreme, but credit cards have long been giving away airline miles with great success. Best Buy has a “Reward Zone” that gives you points based on how much you spend. Restaurants and cafes have punch-cards that try to push you to come back enough to win that free 10th cup of coffee or free sandwich. It’s all a game.

Schell simply extrapolates that notion one step further. The reward systems that we already have are no different than the points that you accumulate by watering your digital crops in Facebook’s Farmville. He gives the example of the new 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid and the little digital plant display that lives in its dashboard. The more eco-friendly your driving habits, the more the plant grows.

But Schell isn’t naïve enough to think that it’ll all be good-natured and healthy-habit-forming. After a talk given at Boston’s Coolidge Corner theater (after a 15th anniversary viewing of the film “Hackers,” which was awesome), he talked to me about the potential benefits and risks that he feels are inevitably coming our way.

The doling out of points is made possible by the obsessive tracking of the minutia of our lives. We’re already getting more and more accustomed to sharing our most irrelevant thoughts in the vast public forum that is social networking media. People are already sharing what they’ve eaten, read, seen, liked, and disliked with fervor. Attaching a point-value for every Tweet would hardly be a step outside the box.

Unfortunately, what this allows for is ridiculous amounts of advertising. Your toothbrush may compel you to keep better habits, but it might also start recommending a toothpaste brand and offering bonus points for making the purchase.

Schell knows that it’s coming, but he says we’ll overcome the backwash of ads and manage to do some good with reward systems. If experience points can keep kids glued to a monitor for hours on end, maybe it’ll get them a little more excited about doing their homework.

Would you feel compelled to play along if you could get experience points for taking public transportation or using a coupon?  Or does it sound like a sugar-coated version of Big Brother?

Learn more about Jesse Schell and link to his lectures at his awesomely-envisioned website, Schell in a Handbasket.  

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