Game of Life

Social and casual gaming are only one facet of wider change, as society embraces games in exciting new ways

Working in or around the games business, it's easy to become focused on issues which seem to be of crowning importance, but which are actually only one facet of a much wider picture. The industry obsesses over the pace of the transition to digital distribution, for example, and its debates often fail to give full credence to the much broader debate over the future of copyright, intellectual ownership and property of which that is merely one aspect.

Equally, every industry conference or gathering in recent years has talked at length about conquering "mainstream" markets - the march of progress into casual or downstream sectors, the opening up of new fronts in social and mobile gaming, and so forth. This, too, can be seen as merely one expression of a larger movement within society - a movement on which the games business can enjoy a unique perspective.

That movement is, in simple terms, the integration of video game mechanics into non-gaming tasks - the steady "gamification" of the world around us, as more and more actions in our daily lives come to be governed and (perhaps arguably) enhanced by interactions, rules and systems learned from the world of games.

My most recent brush with this shift in our behaviour came courtesy of my vocation as a (decidedly average) learner of Japanese. Casting about for a better way to learn the mounting piles of kanji characters required by my course, I was recommended an online learning tool whose remarkably effective methods would be instinctively familiar to anyone who has played MMORPGs or social games in recent years.

Each day, the system tests you on previously learned characters while gradually adding new characters to the mixture - an educational concept as old as education itself. However, the front page of the site presents your progress in terms of numbers and graphs. Progress over successive days is shown, along with overall progress towards your goals. The human brain is simply incapable of seeing data like this and not viewing it as a challenge - it becomes a game to ensure that the graphs go upwards, that today's progress bar doesn't fall behind yesterday's, and so on.

It's not hard to see the same underlying psychology at work here which drives gamers to level up in online games. As a linguist, the improvements you might demand from such a tool would probably be focused on the definitions it offers, perhaps the range of different ways of examining characters, and so on. As a gamer, however, I know that the most compelling - and probably successful - changes the developers could introduce would be those which bring the system further down the trail blazed by MMOs and social games.

They could create milestones where learners unlock rewards which are visible to their peers, for example, or group challenges which apply the addictive social nature of games like Farmville to the learning process. The raw numbers and graphed statistics presented now are the stuff from which the compelling nature of games are hewn - adding more of the trappings of videogames would tap into that power and drive learners to return every day. If there's one thing social games have taught us, after all, it's that a powerful framework for progress in a game can be more important than moment to moment gameplay - learning kanji characters may not be terribly fun, but neither is ploughing fields in Farmville.

Edutainment, of course, is nothing new - products which aimed to combine interactive entertainment with education have been around for over thirty years. Our growing understanding of the mechanisms of compulsion in games, and of just how strongly our brains react to the kind of statistical and social impulses provided by online gaming, is pushing this kind of idea to the forefront - and this in itself is simply one example of a much wider trend.

Consider, at the other end of the spectrum, the humble banner ad. Over ten years ago, slightly unscrupulous marketers hit upon an insight which seems superficial, but is actually quite profound - that banner ads which promised interaction, a gaming experience, were much more compelling and more likely to be clicked than those which were simply attractive or alluring. The fruits of that insight have ranged from the once-ubiquitous "Click the Monkey" banners, through to more modern efforts which have embedded relatively complex Flash games in roll-out banners.

Or how about an even more unlikely candidate for the application of videogame mechanics - vehicle fuel efficiency? One of the masterstrokes in the design of Toyota's famous Prius hybrid cars was the placing of a large, flexible LCD readout on the dashboard, which allowed the vehicle to display precise statistics and details of how its hybrid systems were functioning. The driver doesn't actually need this data, of course - any more than the driver of a standard car needs to see precise readouts of how many CCs of fuel are flowing into the engine, the exact mix of air to fuel, or graphed statistics of RPM over the past ten miles.

Presented with such data in a compelling format, however, Prius drivers are gripped by instincts which are incredibly familiar to videogame creators. They begin to play the car's systems exactly like a game, using the information readouts to try to maximise fuel efficiency, experimenting with different strategies and evaluating their effect on the figures. This, I suspect, is exactly what Toyota's engineers had in mind from the outset - a cunning leverage of the brain's affinity for games.

None of this, of course, is any suggestion that human behaviour itself is actually changing. That affinity for games predates recorded history - it flows naturally from the competitive, challenge-focused nature of our psychology, which millenia ago we learned to harness in order to make dull tasks tolerable by turning them into games. As a result, we are tuned into interactivity and gaming stimuli just as surely as we are tuned into the sounds of music or the colours and shapes of artwork.

Rather, what is changing is our society's understanding and appreciation of that side of human behaviour - and at the same time, technological progress has delivered to us a greater understanding of what makes games compelling, and the toolset required to build that compulsion into more and more tasks.

The videogames business, more than any other, stands to benefit from this change. Just as great musicians found their sphere of influence widening as the communicative power of music was more broadly understood in society, and film-makers have found their talents in demand in a host of businesses which have little to do with cinema, game creators' understanding of the interplay between interactivity, compulsion and psychology will be more and more in demand as the world continues to take notice of the power of games to alter and improve vast swathes of our lives.

It's not hard to envision a future where almost everything we do can be manipulated to obey some kind of gaming rule-set - from brushing our teeth, to going to the gym (surely already a market ripe for capitalisation by the minds behind Wii Fit or EA Sports Active), to commuting into work, shopping, driving, or any of a host of other activities.

For game creators, this represents an opportunity to sell the combined experience and learning of the past three decades to a much wider market. Some will balk at this idea - mostly those who are already concerned that the growth of the casual and social markets has "diluted" gaming in some negative way - but the eventual prospects of this opportunity are incredibly tantalising. For years, games pundits have talked about the industry being as big as movies; one day, it seems, the gaming medium could rival not only the movie business, but the medium of film itself, in its cultural importance.

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Latest comments (11)

James Claxton Studying Computer Games Technology, University of Portsmouth7 years ago
This is a very interesting article as I fear to say I am one who plays the Prius Display game although I do not drive but instead will the driver to try and gain more battery charge or to increase MPG consumption and cannot help to check every few minutes to see if the next segment of histogram has been calculated.

Additionally surely there is already a game for walking to work with the Pokewalker (or any pedometer) as you constantly strive to get the required 10,000 steps a day? With the benefit of training your pokemon as you walk.

These small games will surely become the future and anything that can entertain me whilst I complete mundane tasks is all good I feel.

EDIT: What is this site for kanji learning as well I would be interested to try it?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Claxton on 6th August 2010 1:16pm

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Joe Bognar Junior PR Manager, Techland7 years ago
Very nice article!

I would like to comment on almost all the paragraphs but that would take too long...
Therefore I will just comment on the last paragraph instead.

"For years, games pundits have talked about the industry being as big as movies; one day, it seems, the gaming medium could rival not only the movie business, but the medium of film itself, in its cultural importance."

I think this time is already here. When I wrote my dissertation, I've tried to dig a little bit into this. If you think about just a basic thing. The entertainment value of a movie and a game. Probably we shouldn't even compare them. Movies (1-2 times attended in the cinema and bought the DVD) will give people about 8-10 hours of entertainment. Whereas videogames are usually 8-10 hours long anyway. Plus the possibility that the gamer will replay it comes only on top of the multiplayer experience.
In addition to that, Videogames have more effective social tools than movies.

Now I'll go and play some games! :)
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Martin Walfisz Founder, Planeto7 years ago
This is a very interesting vision that I wholeheartedly agree with. Russel Davies introduced the concept of Barely Games ( a while ago. And Jesse Schell has an interesting talk on a similar concept ( It's a fun future indeed! :)
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Show all comments (11)
Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief7 years ago
Great post Rob, although if I were being mean, i'd say that you took many of the themes from Jesse Schell's DICE talk with a smattering of Gabe Zicherman's Funware book. :-)

I've already brought online game concepts to online collaboration, and working with other sectors (like healthcare) to do more of it. It's a growth area, that's for sure.

Of course, it's a different time of game design - it won't help out of work console designers unless they embrace Farmville style designs. And if you read GamaSutra comments, you can already hear the howls of anguish:
"Farmville is NOT A GAME."
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emily newton dunn designer, Electronic Arts7 years ago
and don't forget the forthcoming Epic Win app for the iPhone (launching soon I believe) - it combines a to-do list with an RPG so as you tick things off the list you gain XP to level up your character and win loot. Very cool.
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Edward Buffery Head of LQA (UK), Testronic7 years ago
I've always spent much of my life generating games inside my head out of mundane tasks and decisions from walking down the street avoiding pavement cracks, calculating odds on the outcomes of risks I take, to monitoring and making (internal) predictions and challenges on regularly updated stats like the Prius fuel efficiency information. It's an unexpected but most welcome pleasure to see more and more 'real life games' becoming reality as wider industries latch on to the compelling nature of gaming and how the rules and challenges can be applied to almost anything with a little thought.

P.s. I'm also interested to know the Japanese learning site mentioned :)
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Joe Bognar Junior PR Manager, Techland7 years ago
@Emily: Wow! I need to get that!
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Josef Brett Animator 7 years ago
Another great article. I've just finished 'A Theory of Fun' by Raph Coster which covers similar topics (and the psychology of the challenge). Great book.

Epic Win sounds good too.
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Elikem Jubey7 years ago
I would LOVE to know what Japanese language tool you're using to learn Japanese, Rob. :-D
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Rajat Paharia Founder, Bunchball7 years ago
There's a lot of action around gamification these days, which is great. My company, Bunchball ([link url=,],[/link] has a gamification platform that companies like NBC, Comcast, Hasbro and others are using to drive engagement and participation across multiple industries. In the health and wellness space, HopeLab ( is a non-profit using game mechanics combined with a physical activity monitor to combat tween obesity, and they've been able to increase activity in tweens by 30%.

We tweet whenever we find anything interesting about gamification at
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Victor Perez CEO, Games GI7 years ago
Delete Game an add Digital Entertainment, you will see how easy is to understand all of thatů
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