The Apocalyptic Future of a World Ruled by Game Design

Many game designers feel the Sith Overlords have made them an offer to join the Dark Side. 

The hot topic de jour in game design is the notion that game-like mechanisms will become pervasive in the real world. Level up your Microsoft Office skills and unlock an achievement for filing your taxes early. The utopian view presents games as a way to change the world for the better ("better carpool today if I'm going to earn that Al Gore Green Citizen badge...")

But such blatent manipulation, er, incentivizing rubs some game designers the wrong way. They foresee a bleak apocalyptic future where people are ruthlessly manipulated through insidious game mechanics. All the tricks used by Zynga, er, I mean game companies that excel at utilizing psychological incentives will be harnessed to nefarious ends such as getting you to purchase Brand X over Brand Y because it unlocks an achievement (since appealing to vanity, pride, greed and lust has clearly proven ineffective in influencing consumers). The prospect of such manipulation leaves some designers feeling a bit queasy.

But let's be clear about one thing - the job of a game designer is to manipulate. We impose our will upon players. The rules we construct for our games manipulate the behavior of our players and define the bounds of their world. Chess is a simulation of the tactics of war - but while it might quite effective, approved strategies for victory do not generally include shooting your opponent dead (even though you could consider it a valid choice in the context of the warfare model). As designers, we impose our will on the players of our games and such God-like powers are a very heady brew (even in these mini-universes).

If we're going to get up in arms about the dark power of psychological manipulation, we really should be honest with ourselves. Yes, there's evidence of unpleasant qualities to many of the mechanisms used in social games and MMOs. But those game designers who have a moral objection to incentivizing product purchase decisions seem to ignore that we also give rewards for beating up hookers, shooting dark skinned people and murdering every living thing that moves up to and including any and all handy deities (and there is evidence of a cost to all this as well).

The thing is, these psychological techniques already exist in Frequent Flyer programs, credit card rebates, grocery reward programs and school grading programs. They are just pathetically designed. A gold star in the classroom is an X-box achievement by another name. And the grocery rewards program that revamps itself to look more like Farmville meets Pokemon will change that industry.

But what people fail to ultimately take into account is that we are in a relationship with our customer - and they have all the power. "Fun" is one of the most important and yet least necessary elements of life. When something is no longer "fun" (however you might define that) your customers are completely free to just walk away. I may be dying to see the next episode of "Lost" - except that it is pretty much guaranteed I won't actually die if I forget to program my Tivo.

The ultimate implication for designers is simple. Yes, we will see lots of game-like mechanisms enter into our every day lives. This will lead to a legitimacy and respect in the profession it doesn't currently enjoy. Game design will become relevant to life at large by providing something more than simple entertainment.

But with that respect will come responsibility and scrutiny. Manipulating a customer too much or pushing a player too far will lead us to being equated with used car salesmen and late night infomercial hawkers. But more importantly, it will lead to your customers abandoning you. Exploiting your customers is never a sound business strategy.

Game design is a powerful art - so use your powers wisely, young padawan.

- Sean Dugan is a game designer who will consider the Dark Side only if he gets a purple light saber.

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Image copyright: Lucasfilm Ltd.


  1. I finally started playing (is that really the right word?) some of those Facebook games, and was amazed how shallow they actually are - I imagined something much more compelling (and I wasn't expecting much). The Vampire/Mafia/Etc. games are based on the least compelling mechanism possible - the incrementing counter. The games work because they also happen to have the least demanding gameplay - pressing a button (also: peer-pressure). They have the same demand-reward ratio as far more complex games, but they're reduced both those numbers in the ratio to the absolute bare minimum. Farmville is slightly different, in that there is a toy farm to play with at its base, but if you stripped it down to that, it wouldn't manage to captivate anyone for more than a few hours, at the absolute most. If you were to apply these game mechanics to anything else, you'd break the game, as the demand made on the player could only increase, while the reward remained the same.
    Of course, "achievements" and commercial "reward" systems are similar, but they have important differences. With achievements (e.g. Xbox), usually being able to complete the activity is its own intrinsic reward; the incrementing numbers and bragging rights given by the achievement system is icing on the cake. Commercial "reward" programs rely entirely on extrinsic rewards; the point-counting is only a way of measuring progress towards reaching the goal of some concrete reward. You could add the social dynamics of a Zynga game in order to, for example, expand out the Safeway reward card system: if you get your friends to shop at Safeway more frequently, you get more reward points. This requires a surveillance system and information sharing, however, and now people start getting nervous. Jesse Schell's vision of the future includes these sorts of mechanisms, but is highly problematic in that it is premised on a dystopian future of such invasive surveillance that it makes "1984" look like a Libertarian paradise in comparison.
    Jane McGonigal has her own set of problems; I'm not sure the application of online game mechanics to real-world problems even is a part of what she's doing. The way she talks about "problem solving" in World of Warcraft makes me wonder if she's ever actually seen it; people don't spend that much time playing online games because there are difficult challenges to overcome, but because the designers have arbitrarily inserted time-spacers to act as filler to extend play. Online games are characterized by waiting and repetition not difficult problems; they're slot machines. (What does playing a slot machine for 10,000 hours make you an expert in?) I watched her presentation, waiting for her to talk about how she applies the mechanics of an MMO to real-world problem solving, because I can't imagine how that would work, but she never did. She doesn't seem to understand the mechanisms that make these games so compelling to players, and it doesn't seem like she's using any of them in her own games. (I have an issue with the idea that somehow one person spending their entire life learning about and solving a problem is equivalent to lots of people spending a couple of hours doing the same, but that's another topic.) What she's doing sounds interesting - making online games that address real-world issues and get players to think about those issues, but she's portraying them as something else.
    I've seen other attempts to add (MMO) game dynamics to ordinary activity (e.g. "Chore Wars") to make them more compelling with varying degrees of success. Ultimately I've come to the conclusion that for most things, the amount of time and infrastructure needed to "MMO-ize" things isn't worth it for the small return.

  2. Gah! my paragraph breaks got hidden... how readable!

  3. Hey Bob - yeah, you make a lot of good points. It's remarkable what Zynga have achieved through simple mechanisms like leveling. Arguably, Farmville at least is a game (in that you are making some decisions about what are the best crops to plant) and a sandbox self-expression tool. I think that's actually the key to it's success compared to Mafia Wars, etc. There's a lot to be said for adorable Lonely Cows....

    I think your point about Chore Wars et al is also good. I think those suffer from the inconvenience associated with reporting (and the inherent trust problem). Mobile and geo-location like you see with Foursquare or MyTown tries to address that with their games. But I don't think there's an iPhone sensor yet that will test to make sure I've really worked up a sweat at the gym....