Game design circles have been abuzz lately over remarks at DICE 2010 by Carnegie Mellon University's Jesse Schell.
The part that seems to have gotten the most attention was Schell's description of a world in which mundane activities (but activities in which some group has an interest) are uploaded to social networks like FaceBook and rewarded with game-like trophies/achievements. Brushing one's teeth well, or regularly, would generate some kind of tangible rewards within some game system.
Apart from the Big Brother implications, much of the commentary has been about the recognition that some gamers would willingly alter their real-world behaviors in order to collect these kinds of rewards. The concern seems to be that the "gamification of everyday life" caters exclusively (through the concrete rewards offered) to the kinds of people who care about externalities, and offers nothing to the kinds of people who care about the inner nature of things and their meaning.
In other words, some gaming observers have been muttering that today's computer game developers, in their eagerness to satiate a "hunger for reality," are increasingly making only games centered on destruction and loot-collection instead of on building interesting worlds or telling good stories.
For example, Jim Rossignol of Rock, Paper, Shotgun recounts how the best players of the tabletop RPG campaigns he ran "were the ones for whom the game represented a kind of collaborative imaginative project." But then he contrasts these players with those whom he thinks will be attracted by the achievements and unlocks proposed for gamifying everyday life:
"The less interesting players of my games, however, were the ones who were excited by something else: loot. They rapidly became fixated on the material rewards earned by their characters, and would start to ignore the events that were delivering them. They now remind me of narrow-minded gamblers, where what mattered were the chips on the table, and the odds, rather than the mental challenge."
Rossignol later delivers the knockout blow: "Boil things down to numbers, and we start seeing games regarded with the kind of cynicism reserved for gambling, or -- hell -- banking and the whole points-grinding game of capitalism itself." Exclusively focusing the gamification of everyday life on this kind of consumerist gratification, Rossignol and others seem to be saying, would be wrong because it means missing the real potential of games to say something deeper about the human condition -- a capability that games share with other art forms and that game developers can and should exploit.
My view is that Rossignol and the others who are concerned about this apparent victory of realism over escapism are mostly right, that they're seeing and commenting on something that's real and something that matters (in that how we play reveals something of who we are as human beings). I suspect it's not quite as zero-sum as some people are making it out to be. Games can have unlocks and achievements and still be immersive if their developers understand the value of both styles of play.
But what I have not yet seen given much attention in the many responses to Schell's presentation is the "innate playstyle" perspective. This is the argument that the materialistic impulse is completely natural, that it's innate to most people but not to some others, that those who feel it strongly expect that it will be part of the games they play just as it's in everything else they enjoy doing, and that by offering materialistic rewards game developers are simply responding to computer games becoming a mass entertainment form and thereby reflecting the preference of the masses for phenomenon over noumenon.
In fact, Rossignol in his RPS post wonders whether the folks who like Schell's portrait of the future -- because they're already enjoying materialism-oriented games -- were always like that, and game developers are simply catering more to them these days. I think that's exactly right.
So I'm not surprised at all by the reactions to Schell's vision. And that is because I think they're explained very well by a gloss on the Big Model of gameplay styles that I've been working on for several years now. Here's the short version of that theory.
1. The four original Bartle types are game-context versions of the four general "temperaments" observed and described by David Keirsey, which in turn are based on recognizing patterns among the Myers-Briggs personality styles. Other game observers have also formulated four-player-style models, and most of these can also be mapped onto the four core temperaments.
2. The most important distinction among the four temperaments -- and thus the four fundamental playstyles -- is a focus on internals versus externals. Some people naturally care primarily about physical, tangible, concrete, visible aspects of reality. These are the sensation-seekers and the security-seekers, the gambler Killers [Manipulators] and the competitor Achievers; they crave excitement and object-ownership... and in moderation there is nothing whatsoever wrong with either of these impulses. Other people care equally strongly about the abstract, intangible, systemic and personal aspects of reality. These are the thinkers and feelers, the puzzle-solving Explorers and the roleplaying Socializers; they strive for knowledge and meaning in themselves and others... and in moderation there's nothing wrong with these innate preferences for approaching the world, either.
The rest of my argument for why the world described by Schell is probably inevitable follows from these observations about internals-driven and externals-driven playstyles, augmented by two additional points.
3. The general population (according to Myers-Briggs results) has always had more externals-oriented Manipulators (Artisans) and Achievers (Guardians) than internals-oriented Explorers (Rationals) and Socializers (Idealists). But most games -- especially roleplaying games -- started out favored mostly by Explorers and Socializers because the gameplay was mostly about telling stories about interesting characters inside a deeply-realized world, which is an expression of a preference for the internals of things.
4. As computer gaming becomes more of a mass phenomenon, the "gamer" profile increasingly resembles the "average citizen" profile... and since most people are sensation/security-seeking, it is not surprising that our games are changing to reflect that distribution. By making more games about "excitement" and "loot" that flow from interacting with the physical world (satisfying the "hunger for reality"), computer game developers are simply acknowledging this change in the marketplace: most computer gamers are no longer Explorers and Socializers; they are Manipulators and Achievers. Thus games have changed to serve today's typical gamer with the conjoined twin features of risky combat action and competitive loot-accumulation.
This analysis, I think, explains pretty well the various puzzled, disturbed, and unhappy reactions to Schell's presentation. The New World of computer gaming that was colonized by Explorers and Socializers is in the process of being settled by a mass migration of Manipulator and Achiever immigrants.
And as these immigrants outnumber the original colonists, bringing with them their very different definitions of "fun," service providers (i.e., game developers) naturally switch from catering to the old money with immersive, meaning-driven games to the larger supply of new money with games for the collectors and completionists that revolve around collecting stuff.
That's tough for Explorers and Socializers. As an Explorer, I feel increasingly that there are fewer and fewer games being made that I can enjoy. Lately I have found myself wondering whether in a few years there'll be any games made at all that satisfy my idea of what "fun" is. Something similar is probably true for the Explorer/Socializer gamers and game developers, who seem to be most of the voices raised in protest to the future of "play" portrayed in Schell's presentation as a process of repetitively performing insignificant actions for some meaningless reward.
So: if this is a reasonably accurate explanation of the nature of the concerns, what guidance does it offer on what can be done about those concerns?
One source of hope is indie games. As the price of game development drops, it gets easier for Explorers and Socializers with a vision to make some of the games they like. Another possibility is for those who enjoy immersive games to carve out a niche for themselves -- perhaps some new technology will make it radically easier to build such games. Or some PC game developers may decide they've had it with the perceived dumbing-down of games for consoles and start focusing on serving the remaining Explorers and Socializers with nothing but Big Immersive Games (and there's a great [and recursive] name for a development studio!) like Darklands and System Shock and Deus Ex and Oblivion/Fallout 3.
What's not worth hoping is that mainstream developers will suddenly decide they were wrong and resume making complex, immersive, "the journey is its own reward" games in any number. That world is going away.
If Explorers and Socializers want their old world of immersive games back, they will have to build a new one themselves.