The Most Important Video You’ll Watch This Year

by Wolfshead on April 2, 2010

Once upon a time as a teenager, I recall being exposed to a book called Future Shock by futurist Alvin Toffler. Along with many wild and outlandish predictions about the future, Toffler described the shock component of his book’s title as being “too much change, in too short a period of time”.

That quote may well characterize the plight of many of us in today’s society and in particular those of us interested in the ever changing landscape of MMO and video game production.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the future of video games. Many of us are contemplating the meteoric financial success of social networking games like Farmville and are scratching our collective heads and wondering what it all means for both game designers and players.

While doing research for an upcoming article for my website I stumbled across an video of Carnegie Mellon University Professor Jesse Schell’s amazing Feb 2010 Design Outside the Box talk at D.I.C.E. (Design Innovate Communicate Entertain). I originally planned on using this video in that article but I have since decided it’s just far too good and deserves special mention on its own.

If you are even remotely interested in the possible future of our culture and video games — are wondering why things are the way they are — then this is probably the best 28 minutes you’ll spend. Sit back and enjoy!

-Wolfshead

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Logan April 2, 2010 at 7:00 am

2 things…

1) this will never happen to the extent that Jesse seems to think it will.

there are many reasons it won’t happen, but the main reason, and the most often overlooked, is that we simply don’t have the natural resources to support this kind of throwaway technology. as we use up our current resources, the price of those resources gets higher and higher, which increases the price of the throwaway technology that this system depends on… not to mention all the pollution and waste created by something like this.

2) if this does somehow happen, it will lead to the collapse of humanity.

i’m sure you’re familiar with Hecker’s Nightmare (if not, google it right now). he clearly explains the relationship between tasks and external rewards… for example, the more you reward a task like brushing your teeth, the less important the task becomes (the less you value that task)… people will no longer brush their teeth because it’s healthy… they’ll just brush them for the points.

now it seems a little extreme that you and i would just quit caring about making healthy choices because some point system was added to help encourage us to make good choices… but we have years of operating without a point system that has allowed us to create our own value system… however, consider a child that is born 20 years after implementing a system like this, born directly into a society that operates on a point based system… they would lack the background knowledge that we have and would never form the proper values or understand why things are important… points would be the only thing they know, they would go where the points are the highest and would basically lack the ability to think for themselves or form their own values.

children born into a society like this would be fully dependent on whoever is setting the point values… and don’t even get me started on all the possible corruption that would occur in a system like this…

Jesse Schell is a pretty charismatic speaker, in his own kinda nerdy way… he makes you want to gloss over all the flaws in logic and buy into his idea… so i don’t blame people for being taken in by this… but anyone with half a brain should be able to see how much more harm this would do than good.

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Brian 'Psychochild' Green April 2, 2010 at 11:07 am

Jesse Schell’s talk at DICE was covered in a lot of places. It was either praised as the brave new world or the Brave New World. My tendency was to be in the latter camp, thinking that Schell was encouraging subtle (maybe…) forms of behavioral control given that he basically told Zynga that they were “stupid” to not have a slot machine, one of the most psychologically manipulative and potentially financially harmful game systems around. I’m always wary whenever a game developer brings up gambling with “real” money; gambling is regulated in a lot of places for a very good reason.

Although I wouldn’t consider it a full recant of his previous talk, Jesse did give a different tone to his talk at the GDC. The attitude was more of a cautionary tale about us heading toward the Brave New World (referenced directly as the worse alternative to 1984). He basically says that the people who care about game’s effects on society need to make sure that the people solely focused on money don’t dominate how games develop.

What happened? I suspect that Schell was giving the same talk to different audiences: games are cool and you should totally be paying attention to game development! The audience at DICE tends to be more executive, so he put the pitch in terms of how well game design can push product and advance business. The audience at GDC is crusty old veterans looking for some morsel of hope and swarms of idealistic wannabes, so he pitched that they can be masters of the future to fire them up.

End result? People who want someone to help them move games into the future are going to call him for consulting. In the short term, it’s going to be toothbrush and toothpaste and other companies looking to find out ways to give points to people for consuming their products. In the long term it’ll be those wannabes who stick with games and form their own companies and become dismayed about how game design is being used to manipulate people and remember, “there was this one guy at the GDC those years ago who talked about this….”

Always be wary of people who know a lot about psychology and how to use it to influence people. And, yes, that includes most game designers like me.

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Tesh April 5, 2010 at 2:22 pm

We have to know about psychology to design games. We are the creators of our little worlds, the deities, as it were.

Fear the power. Mwahahaha!

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gentimouton April 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Sure there is a contrast between what Jesse Schell said at DICE and at GDC. I think the main point is he brought the “let’s put points everywhere” fact into everyone’s mind. It was useful.

In the end, I dont know if achievement- or point-based reward systems will be accepted as the standard way to win a game by game designers. At the moment they are bonus or hardcore player challenges. But if they become the mainstream standard to win a game (like “to finish the game you have to get all achievements”), I do not know how long they will last. I think people might get bored of this system (in games) because the story will become anecdotal, or they will feel like they are just incrementing a counter. And they are going to stop playing.

So yes, in September 2015 during a new-school-year shopping-session, a good mother may buy a point-/achievement-rewarding toothbrush to her son, because she is a good mother and cares for her son’s dental health. $20 for toothbrush company, yay!
But in January 2016, the son will get bored of the toothbrush saying “what’s the point in getting always more points?”. In April 2016, he gets a hole in one tooth and the mother concludes this stupid rewarding stuff dont work.

I’d be glad to know what you think about that :-)

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Wolfshead April 2, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Thanks for all the insightful comments!

Just to clarify, at this point I’m reserving judgment on his DICE speech. I’ve been a big critic of achievements masquerading as game design for the last couple of years; I think it’s a dangerous and banal system. That said, Jesse’s presentation is eye-opening and relevant given the Farmville pandemonium that is sweeping the video game industry of late.

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Longasc April 3, 2010 at 10:24 am

I finally took the time to watch the video after reading all the great comments.

He points out a lot of things Logan and Psychochild already mentioned: Extrinsic vs intrinsic rewards, achievement systems, psychological manipulation tricks and all that.

I am a bit concerned that a lot of game designers *think* hollow games like Mafia Wars, Farmvill etc. will be the future. Investors might like it, cool, we can get people pay money for virtual points and make them spend even more money to get more virtual points and all that.

But there are also lots of people who resent this very base psychological stuff as game design or entertainment. There is no game there, only manipulative tricks. Millions might fall for it for a while, but I predict sooner or later almost everyone gets to this point: This is dumb, why am I doing that? poof, the bubble bursts.

I think many game designers have no new ideas or ideas how to improve their old ideas. The evolution of the MMO genre I am hoping for, apparently nobody has an idea how to do it. But everyone is looking at the success of Farmville and Co. instead.

I don’t think the achievement/virtual points idea and social gaming will go as far as he predicts. Right now it is all the rave because innovation in the MMO genre is restricted to testing different kinds of payment schemes. Maybe psychological manipulation and tricks are useful for setting up item shops, but well… this has nothing to do with an entertaining game that blows players away, unfortunately.

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Ben Voivedich April 3, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Excellent food for thought :)

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Stabs April 3, 2010 at 6:09 pm

In the 50s and 60s the world discovered door-to-door salesmen. Pushy, charming individuals, well trained in compliance techniques left bewildered householders wondering why on earth they just agreed to buy an encyclopedia.

Now almost everyone is simply immune.

My Dad took a call not long ago and the dialogue was:

Salesman: “Hello Mr J____, you’ve just won a trip to the Caribbean worth £1000!”
Dad: “No thanks” [i]hangs up[/i]

On the face of it his reaction seems insane but we all now know as our grandparents didn’t that these people just are full of it.

The same thing will happen with future generations. A lot of people will be scammed or will be tricked into Pavlovian responses by various e-compliance professionals. But over time it will stop working.

One of the things that will hasten that process is educating people as to how we’re being manipulated. Maybe Jesse has a vested interest, maybe he is playing his audience, but he still has performed a wonderful service for the world by giving this talk.

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Tesh April 5, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Too bad we didn’t wake up to the investment scams of “make your money work for you” and other assorted “financial advisor” pitches, including HELOCs and flipping houses. It might have saved this generation from blowing up the economy.

We’re not immune to stupidity in general; it’s a virus that keeps mutating.

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Lomax April 4, 2010 at 4:35 am

I’d go with Stabs post on the current fad, once an idea gets as popular as this then a popular humour program/current affairs features it.

The result will be that either the idea is good enough to survive the experience (such as Warcraft being featured in south park, while I’m not a fan of it, there is a game there), or it’ll look like a daft bunch of people just pushing buttons on their electronic skinner box.

As for the video, its good and some of the game ideas he presents definitely have good uses in the real world.

Just not to that extent, I’m pessemistic, the future he describes is one that has limitless energy, something that for decades scientists and geologists have warned won’t happen (even authors like Harry Harrison have painted a future that we seem to be following closely, I’d say the club of Rome were on the right track, Peak oil is the current problem though).

Unless there is a breakthrough in technology then I think we’ll see less packaging and less throwaway electronics in the years ahead as we cope with diminishing supplies of everything since energy today = the ability to obtain anything. E.g. the Greeks mined iron ore with 50% iron content, today we have 2-5% iron content but by using large quantities of energy we can increase production at ease. Increase the cost of energy and its a problem.

I do expect though that for the short term (a couple of decades) our use of communications will increase instead of travelling, so electronics sound good.

So I think the future he talks about won’t happen to such an extent as the fad will die off and hard energy problems will move our focus to other things.

One last comment, he saw something different in Avatar, for me I saw the central message was what cost do we pay for obtaining the materials we need? In the film they destroyed things that had existed for 1000′s of years, perhaps just to build more throwaway DVD players… But everyone seems to see something different in the film, it was a good one.

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Professor Beej April 24, 2010 at 6:54 pm

You’ve intrigued me. I’ll queue up the video and hopefully get through it piece by piece as I have time this weekend.

What I think it interesting, though, is that I had a teacher in high school give me his paperback copy of “Future Shock” and I dismissed it and never read it, unfortunately; it’s the only book I’ve been that I’ve never read.

I wonder if I should dig that out and read it after all these years. I think I even know where it is.

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Professor Beej April 24, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Okay, so you’re right. I got hooked immediately and sat and watched instead of pacing it out. In fact, I’ll probably disseminate the video across Facebook (gasp) to a few people who would get a lot out of it.

As for what he said, I don’t know. I’m a little sad that I can see a world similar to the one he describes coming, and I don’t particularly feel bad about it. I think his hyperbole helps in some cases to point out just how pervasive the achievement-mongering can get if we’re not careful.

Personally, I like breadcrumbing my way through things. I wish I had something “ding!” and tell me that I had read my 500th novel; I keep a book journal for just that reason, but it’s only 4 years old. I have a lot of years before that where my books were never logged. And I have been sad about that.

As a teacher, I am very much intrigued by the example he gave of giving XP for completing assignments rather than grading them on a traditional 4.0 scale. I’d almost be willing to give that a shot if I had any way to assess a person’s comprehension/completion of literature. If I could guarantee that every “A” student who walked out of my classroom had read every word of every assignment, I think they would get just as much out of it as they would if they wrote their 18-22 pages across 4 months and scoring well on the essays. The effort for completion of a task of that magnitude and breadth seems as though it could be directly correlative to the effort for episodic in-depth analysis.

What I would find an interesting point of research would be to determine the amount actually learned from a course like that and assess it in comparison to a traditional course to determine if one style were more suited to providing students with the acquisition of skills and the ability to practically apply them rather than “working for the grade” and taking little to nothing else with them.

My, my, my, Wolf. Thank you for the food for thought. Thank you indeed.

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Wolfshead September 9, 2010 at 12:41 am

I just wanted to add a link to an article entitled FarmVillains from SFWeekly.com.

It’s a bold article and provides a shocking insight into the seedy underbelly of the social gaming development culture.

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