Why Everything Is Becoming a Game

The fact that many people love games isn’t really that new. Retailers and even our own governments have used our love of games to sell us products and hook us on lotteries and whatever else they can think of to boost revenue. But the rise of online games such as World of Warcraft and the social and “casual” games popularized by Zynga and other companies on Facebook, such as Mafia Wars and Happy Aquarium, has arguably made gaming a far bigger part of our culture than it has ever been — not to mention location-based apps such as Foursquare and Gowalla, which have explicit game-like features built in. Online payment giant PayPal says that Zynga was its second-largest merchant last year, and PayPal does business with some of the largest companies in the world. And get ready for even more games: Flurry Analytics says that its research shows almost half of the apps that are being developed for the upcoming Apple iPad are games.

What is the impact of all that gaming on our society? One academic, Lee Sheldon of Indiana University, says the generation that has grown up with ubiquitous online gaming is bringing that culture with it into the educational system — and ultimately, into the workforce. “As the gamer generation moves into the mainstream workforce, they are willing and eager to apply the culture and learning techniques they bring with them from games,” Sheldon, an assistant professor at the university’s department of telecommunications, told ITNews. He said older managers will have to “figure out how to educate themselves to the gamer culture, and how to speak to it most effectively.”

It’s something with which Sheldon himself is already experimenting. Over the last year, he started grading two of his classes (both involved with game design) using a system based on “experience points,” or XP, similar to the way gamers in World of Warcraft and other massively multiplayer games award points for various tasks. Students started the year at level one, with zero XP, and then gained points — and higher grades — by completing “quests” and “crafting,” which corresponded to giving presentations and doing exams and quizzes. Students also formed “guilds” similar to the gaming groups that rule WoW and other multiplayer games. Sheldon says that his students seemed far more engaged than they had been before.

A similar phenomenon was the topic of a panel at the recent SXSW conference in Austin, where Christopher Poole, founder of the controversial discussion forum known as 4chan, and web historian Jason Scott discussed the site and its culture — which in some cases consists of offensive material, but also involves public advocacy through offshoots such as the Anonymous group. According to a description from Austin360, Scott compared the behavior at 4chan to a game, but one in which the objective was to come up with something more shocking and/or hilarious than your competitors.

Scott noted that another site behaves in almost the exact same way: Wikipedia. And he’s got a point — the “crowdsourced” encyclopedia relies in many cases on unknown and unpaid editors and writers to produce and structure and verify its content, people who to some extent compete for the recognition of their peers on the site, and in some cases wind up “levelling up” to become senior editors and members of the internal Wikipedia “cabal” of site managers. Although Wikipedia doesn’t explicitly award experience points, the concept is the same, and it motivates people in similar ways.

The moderation of comments at Slashdot is based on a very similar system. Users are able to gain “karma points” through positive actions such as posting sensible comments, voting on other comments and flagging abusive comments. When they get enough points, they are selected by the site’s algorithm to be official moderators, and can then “spend” the points they have removing comments. In such a system, it doesn’t ultimately matter whether someone is anonymous or not, because there is an incentive for them to follow the rules and behave properly (although there are always users who don’t care about the rewards and try to “troll” or disrupt any site).

The bottom line is that good games take advantage of people’s innate desire to compete with each other, but balance that with their need to receive rewards, including the approval of their peers — rewards that in some cases can be used to modify their behavior in certain ways. Those are principles that don’t just apply to games. Jesse Schell, a former creative director at Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, had a great presentation at the DICE 2010 conference last month in which he talked about the rise of social gaming and what we can learn from it, which is embedded below.


Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Stock Xchange and Flickr user chanchan222