blue media labs

social games in the real world inevitable

In social gaming on March 22, 2011 at 16:50

The Internet is amazing. Sometimes you come across information that so brilliantly crystalizes your own thoughts, experiences, research and predictions in a way that would have taken you months to compile yourself. At least, that’s what just happened to me.

I am presently on the hunt for trends and market data on eSports, competitive gaming that is. Not quite related to this search, I also have Jane McGonigal’ s excellent TED talk on how gaming can make a better world on my mind ever since I discovered it more than a month ago. So, when thinking about what to make of the information in the TED video, I came across Carnegie Mellon Professor and Schell Games CEO Jesse Schell’s Design outside the box talk at Design Innovate Communicate Entertain (DICE) summit 2010 (also featured as a TED talk as When games invade real life). More clearly than McGonigal, Schell outlines the general gaming mechanisms that, translated into the real world, will change product marketing and, in fact, life as we know it at least for the younger generation. And if he didn’t mean to make such a radical claim, I am making it now.

Jesse Schell’s presentation is just outstanding and I couldn’t agree more with his vision of how gaming principles are poised to creep into the real world. The talk apparently spawned quite a discussion mainly between the amazed followers of his arguments like me as well as people substantiating and clarifying his argumentation,  and the disbelievers (see comments on various websites). The difference between the two groups, I believe, mainly lies in people’s degree of personal experience with the motivating, not to say addictive potential of multi-player virtual games such as World of Warcraft (WoW), whose underlying mechanisms Schell projects into the real-world.

The core of these mechanisms, if you, unlike a million people already, don’t care to watch the full talk:

  1. Quantify, that is, measure people’s actions such as consuming certain products, watching advertising or using public transportation for the commute;
  2. Translate aggregated actions taken into an easy to understand score such as reward points;
  3. Let people compare their current score with friends, family, and the rest of the world, providing instant recognition of actions taken and thus positive reinforcement, as well as even a grain of competition (especially for the male population);
  4. Combine this with a monetization scheme such as advertisement.

As a marketing expert, you may notice the difference between the consumer needs that traditional marketing models such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs identify and this new kind of marketing that targets human behavioral mechanisms at a level even lower (or is it just cross-hierarchy?) and thus more effective than mere needs.

In fact, it’s not all new principles that Schell discovers here. Seen more from a business rather than a gaming perspective, it’s a widely known fact that business metrics (or key performance indicators), quantifications of all of a company’s business processes, make (or break) a successful company. Measure it and people will react–measure it right and people will improve is not even a context-specific effect but a universal law. Creating a game based on business metrics or whatever other metrics is just a small step from there.

In the past, I had the pleasure to work on the brink of real world and virtual games for quite some time. Furthermore, just last year, I took a real deep dive into Facebook games such as Mafia Wars and its various competitors and deviations — down to the numbers and algorithms layer. Together with significant experience in WoW, all this only deepens my conviction that Schell (and whoever he is basing his insights on) is up to something really important, really fundamental.

To me, it’s just about who applies these insights first in any particular branch of end consumer business, in education, in physcal training etc. The early movers will reap the greatest benefits and there is no way to stop the trend, I believe. In fact, the ball is already rolling for some time, most notably in the context of Facebook games or mobile apps such as Foursquare and Scvngr.

So what’s the conclusion of all this? It’s mandatory for any end consumer-facing organization to get started at least thinking about the implications of social games in the real world for their products and services. Let me know if you are such an organization and you would like some help getting started.

For more details on Jesse Schell’s talk and social games in the real world in general, see Adam Penenberg’s excellent and rather detailed article on the topic at FastCompany.

There’s also the amazing novel MetaGame by Sam Landstrom that spins the idea of game-motivated work and instant rewards via universal product placement one step further (at least). It’s not the most thrilling of novels out there. And it will be somewhat tough to follow for people that do not have a background in massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft. With the right background, however, it’s an inspiring and thought-provoking read. I’ll follow up with why I think so and what the book is all about in a later post.