Playing For Our Future

There will come a day in the near future when there will be no more gamers. Not because they’ll have killed each other in some Grand Theft Auto-induced mass rampage, but rather because the term “gamer” will be irrelevant. Much like how we do not call people who view TV shows “watchers,” or those that enjoy music as “listeners,” playing games will become similarly as pervasive and commonplace as to render the “gamer” distinction archaic.

At DICE in Las Vegas, game design guru – and former Disney Imagineer – Jesse Schell blew the socks off the assembled games industry veterans with his preview of the future of gaming and engagement. Schell posited that, in short, we’ll be playing games on the back of our cereal box as we eat breakfast each morning and scoring points each time we high-five our buddy. It was a rare and cogent attempt to describe a future where everyone is a gamer – and everything is a game.

But never mind the future, current examples and basic statistics are clearly pointing us in this direction. From the revelation that nearly 70 percent of US households play computer and videogames, to the estimated $50 billion+ in global retail game sales, or even the 11.5 million worldwide subscribers to World of Warcraft, or that Apple’s App Store boasts over 20,000 games for download, or how social network game developer PlayFish’s user database grew to 50 million unique players in under 20 months – games are all around us.

That’s just looking at what one might call the mainstream, or the traditional notion of the games business. Most games industry outsiders view the business as fitting into a tidy box that includes, well, the Xbox along with the other consoles, perhaps portable devices like the Nintendo DS, and maybe acknowledge that there’s some game stuff going on via the Internet. The reality is that the games industry is not a single industry anymore, but a vibrant ecosystem of activity across a broad spectrum of technical platforms, distribution mechanisms and business models.


In one corner of this ecosystem are more serious games, where game tech and design aesthetics are used in such applications as corporate training or health care. Another pocket of the ecosystem boasts passion-driven indie pursuits created in Flash and uploaded to the web for all to enjoy freely. Yet another pocket is the use of mixed-mode games, or “alternate reality games,” for highly engaging and often covert marketing campaigns. Not to mention the online virtual worlds kids can log into after getting a new stuffed animal from grandma. Games were used in the run-ups to the past two US presidential elections, and, similarly, a whole genre of games called persuasive games are politically driven explorations of current affairs.

While some of these activities represent better business opportunities than others, a key point is that game technologies and techniques are being commoditized (in terms of one’s ability to create and distribute a game) and simultaneously being elevated to a viable form of artistic expression, able to address the full range of the human condition.

Recommended Videos

Society has witnessed the exact same type of appropriation with other forms of art and entertainment. It is this parallel activity – partly driven by big industry interests, partly driven by artists experimenting with games as their canvas – that is leading to both the pervasiveness of games, as well as a growing play ethic within our culture.

Indeed, videogames are a pervasive part of our pop-culture and media landscape, and we can see countless examples of how games are affecting other aspects of our lives. The most obvious thing to pick up on is visuals. From the camera angles and interface widgets used for National Football League telecasts, to the popular Coke commercial riffing Grand Theft Auto, the influences of games on TV and film are plain to see.

Last fall, viewers of Shane Acker’s animated film 9 couldn’t help but walk away feeling like they had just viewed a videogame on auto-play. From the visual style to the narrative structure, 9 evoked a game-like experience. This blending of styles, or convergence, is often noted in the typical discussions amongst media pundits about how games are now influencing more than just the spending dollars of pimpled teen boys.

But, this visual convergence is in fact the least interesting or valuable aspect to “borrow” from videogames.

At their most basic, games are systems: there’s input, the magic that happens in the black box of the system, and then there’s output. In fact, the human expereience can be broken into systems in this way, too. And it is this systems way of thinking that is at the core of what makes games so interesting. In short, it is not how games look, but how they enable us to play and engage in systems-level thinking that is going to have the greatest impact on society and influence over our culture.

The potential effects of gameplay are far reaching. For example, game-like mechanics are making the world a greener place. The competitive nature of maximizing fuel efficiency with a Toyota Prius is driving people to adopt better fuel consumption habits. Key to this is the real-time display, and how the Prius provides extensive metrics on fuel economy. In short, the Prius interface makes fuel economy fun, and as such, has been able to directly influence the behavior of drivers as they try to beat their high score. Honda is taking a step further with the Insight, with a game-like progress meter and virtual trophies that reward efficient driving recorded by the vehicle’s onboard computer.

We are now realizing that making something more playful can directly influence behavior.

Researchers in Sweden wondered if they could get more subway commuters to use the stairs (instead of escalators) if they made it more fun. So they transformed a set of stairs into giant functioning piano keys. As a result, 66 percent more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator.


What is it about play that is so engaging? Or, more specifically, what can we learn from videogame design to make other things more playful and engaging? While exploring the art and science of game design is beyond our scope here, two key principles to start off with are flow and social validation.

Being “in the zone,” or reaching a state of zen-like flow and concentration, is common with games, and is often the cause of many sleepless nights for bleary-eyed gamers. Via their natural ability to engage in problem solving and pattern recognition at an ever increasing level of difficulty, good games are paced to keep the player on the edge between their ability and the next challenge – pushing them to achieve more in order to reach the proverbial next level.

We see this kind of mastery with the drive to achieve high fuel-efficiency with the Prius, and it is equally applicable in many other contexts. Scientists turned the super complex problem of protein folding into a game, and engaged the pattern matching skills (and tenacity) of the population at large. The FoldIt game-like application enabled young students to playfully solve tough science problems, and compete with experts around the globe.

Even such innocuous functions as image labeling have been turned into games. The Google Image Labeler is based on The ESP Game, developed at Carnegie Mellon University. In The ESP Game, two anonymous players are shown a random image while a clock counts down. The players must then type words that describe the image. When both players have typed at least one word in common, they both score points and a new picture is shown. By turning a fairly mundane task into a game, over 20 million image labels have been harvested in just a few years.


With regards to social validation, games provide an unbiased judge: The rules of the system are arbitrated by the unfeeling computer. This is transparent, highly detailed and visible to the community as a whole. The micro-blogging site Tumblr has embedded a game-like points system and high-score table. This “tumblarity” feature has amped up user participation and raised their retention rate to 85% – rare for the often transient Web 2.0 crowd. Another social app, Foursquare, is the latest example of leveraging game mechanics and herd behavior in order to get people gaming without realizing it. Even non-profit membership associations are looking to turn the very act of associating into a game as a means to further engage – and hold onto – their members. Comment on an article? That’s 5 points. Volunteer for a committee? That’s 50 points. Refer a new member? That’s 100 points. Highest score is recognized and rewarded at the annual industry conference.

The possibilities are endless. Reading The Escapist has been a game for the last two years, unlocking badges and new titles simply by consuming content. How about weight loss and exercise? Web sites like Zyked and SparkPeople turn fitness into a shared, fun experience. They use game-like competition, metrics and transparency over progress in a group/team setting to keep exercisers engaged in the process.

If that kind of play ethic can get kids to drop their Xbox controller and willingly make their beds, there’s really no limit on how play – and smart game design – can be embedded into the fabric of society to engage people. And, possibly, make the world a better place in the process.

Jason Della Rocca is a jet-setting strategy consultant for the games industry. He tries to game everything, and blogs about it via

The Escapist is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more
related content
Read Article Jane McGonigal Lives the Game
Read Article Our Turn to Decide
Read Article Better Than Film
Related Content
Read Article Jane McGonigal Lives the Game
Read Article Our Turn to Decide
Read Article Better Than Film