Play Life and Live Games

The Escapist has two slogans, one official and the other informal. Our official slogan – which appears in our ads and signs – is “play life, live games.” Our unofficial tagline, our mantra really, is “gaming uber alles:” gaming over everything.

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The latter phrase derives from the title of our inaugural weekly issue, way back in July 2005. In issue 1, Gaming Uber Alles, we proudly declared that games were the most important content of the 21st century, in the way that television shows had been the most important content of the 20th century.

Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot of pushback on this sentiment, mostly from people who respond “no, no, it’s the internet, and not just games, that’s really the most important type of content of the 21st century.”

But of course the internet is a medium for content, not a type of content. In casual conversation, people often make the mistake of confusing the medium for content with the content itself. Media are storage and transmission channels. Radio, newspapers, television, and the internet are media. For most of the 20th century, the medium and the content were indistinguishable; form was function. But nowadays, any type of content can be distributed via many types of media, so we need to distinguish between the two. You can read a novel as a hardcover book, you can listen to a novel on tape, or you can access a novel on your Kindle. The type of content is novel. The medium could be book, tape, or Kindle. The same thing is true of games. People confuse the form of a game – its engine – with gaming itself. Games are not game engines, and games are everywhere.

But let me go back for a second. What do I mean when I say that the television show was the definitive content of the 20th century? Consider how most people got their news: television shows. How most people watched major public events, like the Superbowl: television shows. What most people talked about at the water cooler: television shows.

For those of you in “Generation I,” a television show was a type of content defined by linear, short-form visual and auditory narrative. A game, of course, is different: it’s not linear, and it’s not defined by narrative. It’s defined by framed goal-directed interactivity. The framing is the “play ground” or magic circle, where gaming takes place. Interactivity without any frame isn’t a game – unless you consider real life a game. Interactivity without goals is not a game; it’s a toy or an interactive story. And goal-directed activity without interactivity is not a game, it’s simply linear consumption.

Game designers in the audience might quibble with me over the exact definition of a game. But the core point is that, properly understood, a game is not just limited to its most visible medium, which is the 3D graphical engine. The 3D graphical engine has made the game, as a type of content, extremely powerful and ubiquitous, in the same way that broadcast TV made linear, short form visual narrative more powerful and ubiquitous than, say, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater ever could. It’s so powerful, that people often confuse the medium of 3D graphical engine with the concept of a game itself.

But the 3D graphical simulation is actually only the second most powerful medium for games. The most powerful medium for games is so ubiquitous within our culture now that people often fail to even realize they are even playing a game. I’m talking about, of course, games delivered through 2D text and graphics on the internet.

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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