The Game of Life
Bringing joysticks and scoreboards into our daily routine may be the key to making us better people
by John Pavlus
This article was originally published in Scientific American, December 2010.
One day soon, as you stand in front of the bathroom mirror brushing your teeth, you may see, alongside the morning headlines, a scoreboard that ranks your household’s current carbon footprint versus your neighbors’. Your electric toothbrush will beep to notify you that dutiful brushing twice a day every day for the past six months has earned you enough points for a 10 percent discount on your next checkup. You take a shower (a brief one, so as not to jeopardize your family’s enviable energy-consumption score and the tax benefits it confers), get dressed and log in at your home-office computer for the morning meeting. Now that you and your co-workers appear on-screen as personalized avatars, you can answer your e-mail during meetings without appearing rude. And ever since arbitrary sales quotas were replaced with personalized “life meters” (which swell on-screen to reflect real-time, positive feedback from your clients), you’ve felt more purpose and ownership over your daily tasks. It’s going to be a great day.
A future in which almost every aspect of your life includes a gamelike experience is all but inevitable, says video-game designer and Carnegie Mellon University researcher Jesse Schell. He and a bevy of game designers and psychologists are convinced that the key to a society of healthier, more productive and more engaged citizens lies in bringing gaming into daily life. “We think of games as trivial, but they’re really just a way of rapidly engaging our problem-solving abilities,” Schell says. “If the game is designed well enough, any problem can go in there,” from changing your diet or learning a new language to understanding Middle East conflicts or reducing your carbon footprint. “These are problems that many of us can’t or don’t want to engage with, but games can change that because, by definition, any successful interactive system will make people want to engage.”
An essential ingredient of this new game of life is the proliferation of real-time data from GPS-enabled mobile devices, cheap networked sensors and other technologies. “All of this personalized data lets us start measuring behaviors that we could only measure in games or virtual worlds before,” says Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We can see what motivates and engages people in great detail and apply that knowledge to things that people don’t often find engaging, like remembering to take medication or keeping track of energy use.”
“Game-ifying” a real-world system still requires more than just adding avatars and points. It requires fast, personalized feedback. Effective games “harness basic human motivational tendencies in elegant ways,” points out clinical psychologist Richard Ryan. Points, for example, aren’t rewards as much as a method of supplying real-time feedback for building competence. “Human beings are curious animals with a natural drive to play and master their environments,” Ryan observes. “Games do a good job of tapping into the intrinsic motivation that’s built into us by evolution.” According to psychologists, tapping those intrinsic incentives makes us feel as though we’re in control and that our actions have understandable consequences.
Yet games that work well in theory can quickly turn frustrating and counterproductive, Schnell admits. He even has a name for a future in which this kind of motivational backfiring becomes common: “the gamepocalypse.” The best insurance against it, he says, is to build bridges between talented game designers and technology leaders outside the entertainment field. Psychologist and games expert Byron Reeves agrees: “There are no psychological mechanisms that work for games that don’t work in real life. We have only one brain. The reward centers that are lit up by well-designed games will light up when we engage with any well-designed interactive system. They don’t have to be labeled ‘games’ with a capital ‘G.’”
That’s why researchers are optimistic about game-ification as a means of radically improving our world. Microsoft has used a gamelike program to increase employee retention in one division by 50 percent. First Things First, an experimental math curriculum used in five schools in Kansas and Texas, presents high school algebra and geometry as a series of 101 levels, encouraging students to master basic concepts at their own pace before moving up, as in a video game. In the four years since the program was implemented, all five schools have seen students register double-digit increases in state math tests; students at one school improved their scores by nearly 40 percent. Ryan is collaborating with Immersyve, a health care game consultancy, on creating a “virtual clinician” that uses an avatar-driven interface to make patients feel less intimidated when seeking medical consultations.
“The game-ification of everything is not going to happen because of one system – it’s going to be a million different innovations in hundreds of directions, every time some new sensor gets invented,” Schell says. Each one making us a little bit better.
For much more on this subject, see Reality is Broken.