Publisher's Note

Publisher's Note
Play Life and Live Games

Alexander Macris | 16 Nov 2009 13:00
Publisher's Note - RSS 2.0

What sort of games are these? MobWars, on Facebook, is an obvious example - by obvious I mean the game-like nature is readily apparent. But consider the Xbox Live network itself as a game - a game where the goal is to have the highest GamerScore through interacting with the various components embedded within the Xbox platform (each component is itself is a game, of course). Even less apparent, consider all aspects of social networking as a game. I would argue that no one has 4,000 friends on MySpace or Facebook because they actually have or need to stay in touch with 4,000 friends. They have 4,000 friends because acquiring friends is the goal within the interactive framework of the social network, within the "MySpace game." If you don't think that the number of friends is essentially the same thing as a videogame high score, than ask yourself why the number of friends, Twitter followers, and so on is made public.

Conventional arguments hold that social networking exploded because it offered a convenient new way to find and stay in touch with friends. But that's untrue. Dating sites already existed. Email and instant messaging already existed. It was already easy to find the contact info of people and add them as contacts to your Outlook, AIM, and Trillian lists at any time. It was already easy to create a blog where you could update your friends with short messages if you wanted to, or to post your email so people could easily reach you. You just didn't want to.

You had no interest in staying in touch with your second-best friend from third grade, or your distant cousin Jones, or that guy you met at the networking mixer last Thursday. What was lacking was not the means and method of communication, but the motivation to do so. What social networking did was frame it all as a game. Now it was not just about getting and staying in touch. It was about having other people see how much and how often you get and stay in touch, and how many other people think it's important to get and stay in touch with you. You may not care if you talk to your mother in law. But if you get points for talking to your mother in law, suddenly an email on Mother's Day seems like a good idea.

In an unframed, informal way, of course, we have been playing these kinds of social games all our lives. But nowadays, these games have been framed and formalized. And the framing, the formalization of activities into a game is incredibly powerful.

And that brings me back to The Escapist, a website about gaming. Astute readers will have noted by now that The Escapist is itself a game. The website features an extensive series of badges, titles, mini-games leaderboards, and other features that reward our members for engaging with the site. Read enough articles, and you earn a badge. Play enough quizzes and you unlock a new badge. Make enough posts on the forums, and you get a better title. The Escapist is a game for gamers that rewards them for talking and reading about gaming.

The framing of activities into games works so well that it's spreading everywhere. Consider Nike Running as a game for runners that lets them track their runs and challenge their friends. It turns everyday running into a game. Spark People is an online community that's made a game out of dieting and healthy living. And Foursquare is a nightlife game where users get extra points for being the first to visit a new place, going out every night of the week, and adding new information about clubs and restaurants.

Think about that: There was a time when reading news about your favorite hobby, or working out, or eating at a new restaurant, or going out to a bar every night, were things you did for their own sake. Nowadays, they have been framed as goals within a game and people are responding incredibly strongly to these rewards. How long until the answer to the question "did you just sleep with me to get a better score on the dating game?" is answered "yeah, of course!" The answer is: not very long.

We're all playing games all the time now. You might just say we're playing life, and we're living games. Or you could call it gaming uber alles.

Here, have a badge.

Alexander Macris is co-founder and publisher of The Escapist, as well as president and CEO of its parent company, Themis Media. He has also written two tabletop wargames, conceived and edited the book "MMORPGs for Dummies," and designed the award-winning web game "Heroes Mini." After hours, he serves as president of Triangle Game Initiative, the Raleigh-Durham area's game industry association, and runs a weekly tabletop roleplaying game campaign of concentrated awesomeness.

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