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Jesse Schell holds the keys to video game utopia
Jesse Schell holds the keys to video game utopia
February 6, 2013 | By Kris Graft

February 6, 2013 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design

In 2010, Jesse Schell took the DICE Summit stage in a fascinating -- and kind of frightening -- talk in which he envisioned a future where games were so ingrained with every day life, you couldn't escape them even if you wanted to.

But today at DICE 2013, the message wasn't about a gamified dystopia, but about how game developers have the power to take people to utopia.

Schell, professor at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center and founder of studio Schell Games (Puzzle Clubhouse), first took a quick look back at his 2010 talk; there were some things that he mentioned that he got both right and wrong.

In 2010, he said Zynga should get into gambling -- and Zynga did (so he also kindly requested 5 percent royalties). Three years ago, he also said that people chase after this ambiguous idea of authenticity. Citing outrage over Beyonce's lipsyncing during the presidential nomination, he said, "We're still confusedly grasping at authenticity."

Schell added, "I also said the iPad was stupid... because it was like an oversized Swiss Army knife." He didn't think people would want it. He was totally wrong there, as tablets are now "potentially choking the life [out of game consoles]."

Gamification and psychology

The most popular part of his 2010 DICE talk was regarding gamification -- a future where people would be extrinsically rewarded by conserving gasoline or brushing their teeth.

Schell said he has people come up to him and say they started up companies because of that gamification commentary. "I said, 'Don't blame me for that shit, I don't want any part of it!'" Schell said, throwing his hands in the air.

He compared gamification to "chocofication." Chocolate is great, but adding it to cottage cheese isn't going to make cottage cheese better. Games are great, but adding it to tooth brushing isn't going to yield great results.

"[Games don't] make everything better -- you have to add them judiciously."

Game developers don't always understand the psychology of video games -- what drives player to do what they do, to want what they want, argues Schell.

One important psychological phenomenon that happens in games is the "plan." "When you put a plan in somebody's mind, they seize on it." For example, he said in World of Warcraft, people will see a player with tricked out armor, then they plan to invest lots of time to get that armor. They seize on a plan.

Games vs. Software

There are still people who treat games like software. Schell was adamant when he said they are not the same at all. Just because somebody can write a great tax program doesn't mean that they can make a great game.

Software fulfills the sentiment of "hafta"; video games focus on the "wanna." You "hafta" do your taxes; you "wanna" be entertained by a video game. Software tries to avoid a negative consequence, while video games seek out a positive consequence. People play video games to get to utopia, not to do their taxes.


Video game developers have the opportunity to bring people to utopia, Schell said. This is where games like FarmVille fail. One of the social network game's mechanics was to show all of your Facebook friends that your crops failed. It's a humiliation tactic.

"These games promise you utopia, and you find yourself in chains," said Schell.

He said that Skyrim would suck with a free-to-play model (imagine paying bits of money here and there in this huge, beautiful world, instead of opening it all up for an upfront fee). He used Diablo as an example of an experience spoiled by its auction house -- buying a sword for $1.15 doesn't give players a sense of heroism. That's not utopia.

"People want to pay one price upfront... People are willing to sacrifice to get into utopia," he said. "The thing that every human being has in common is that every single one of us, every day, is looking for utopia."

Politicians, preachers, teachers, drug dealers, the shoe salesman -- all of these people are trying to sell utopia, and they have plenty of customers.

So, game developers have a special opportunity here, in providing utopia. "We make virtual worlds. We say, 'Come to our world, it's better than the real world.'"

How are some ways that games have tried to deliver utopia? One method was stereoscopic 3D, but that old tech (from 1849, Schell notes) just isn't that great of an experience.

"I think it's going to be like 5.1 stereo. Rich nerds will have it and the rest of us will visit them every once in a while," Schell said.

Then there are augmented reality glasses. People imagine a game that could be Foursquare plus World of Warcraft, but he has an answer to that: "I've seen Foursquare plus World of Warcraft -- it's called LARPing." He's not terribly convinced by augmented reality.

So what are the keys to utopia? According to Schell:

- Magical interfaces, like the iPad: Traditional game console controllers seem old-fashioned these days.

- Fair payment: "In utopia, you don't screw people out of nickels and dimes."

- Less A, more I: More intelligence; less artificiality.

- Family and friends: In utopia, you're hanging out with people you like.

- Transformation: "When I come out of the game on the other side, I'm more of the person who I want to be now."

"We're shifting into an enjoyment-based economy. And no one else is better at enjoyment than game developers," Schell said. "Fake marketing bullshit is not going to work anymore. ... In fact, making a good game isn't enough anymore."

So for Schell, what is enough? "If you can show people the way to utopia, if you can convince them that you haven't forgotten how to get there, that you know the way, then they will follow you anywhere that you want to lead them."

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Andrew Wallace
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Cottage cheese with chocolate chips actually sounds kind of good. Might have to try that.

Michael Joseph
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Transformation: "When I come out of the game on the other side, I'm more of the person who I want to be now."

That sounds like a mighty tall order.

Serious question: Does that mean i exit feeling closer to being a Jedi Master (i.e the game is pulling my reality deeper into a world of fiction) or that the game has taught me skills and lessons that I can apply in the real world?

The first sounds scary. The second sounds like a conflict of interest because maybe the genuinely transformed person loses the desire or need to escape into virtual "utopias."

I can appreciate using a term like "utopia" to draw a distinction between purely entertaining games and games that also provide the player with meaningful learning, but "utopia" I think ends up coming across as a gross exaggeration and ultimately detracts from the goal (assuming its the goal) of creating meaningful games.

Carlo Delallana
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[The second sounds like a conflict of interest because maybe the genuinely transformed person loses the desire or need to escape into virtual "utopias."]

Not so, look at the personal experiences players have with Minecraft. The thing that's still a mystery is how to actually design a game that delivers these kinds of experiences. Maybe it's about making the game a personal expression of the dreams of its creator(s). This doesn't mean abandoning the idea of designing for the player, but ultimately the most meaningful experiences we have in the real world are intra-personal. We share with others our deepest desires, our biggest hopes and our most daring dreams. We make meaningful connections through these devices and revel in the experiences that result in said connections.

I don't know if this can be expressed in a spreadsheet, a flowchart, a design document. You have to be able to put a little bit of your self in the games you make to create these kinds of experiences.

How does one justify making a game more personal in the age where metrics (essentially a player's action and experience translated into numbers) drives the design? Thank the gods of game design for the indie movement.

Eryn Read
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We are coming to an age where reality and gaming could actually meet up. Realistically, and before you look at me like I'm growing a few extra heads, hear me out.

We live in a world where they are turning men's urinals into a video game. I promise you that isn't a joke. I would call that gamification in a realistic way. We also have new tech coming out like the EEG devices from companies like Emotiv, which would allow our actually gaming experiences to be taken to new heights. Come on, you have no idea how much I want to be able to actually use the force. If we could create a realistic virtual reality system, we'd be on top of the world. And Occulus Rift is trying.

I know that the idea of turning every day life into a game sucks, but really, isn't it already? This would just be a reworking of structures that are already in place. I brush my teeth, they don't fall out of my head. Action, reaction. Just the same as if I got xp, I'm just not gaining anything new with it right now.

I could continue, but I'll leave it at this for now. There is just a lot more coming.

Nic Halverson (2012, Nov 16). Urinal Video Games Played with Pee. Retrieved from:

Paul Marzagalli
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My confirmation saint was Thomas More, and yet his idea of Utopia so repelled me that I can say with full confidence that I have no interest in any person's vision of Utopia.

Unless that vision is designed by Don Daglow, then I'll hear them out.

Bart Stewart
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Paul, I have what's probably a similar reaction to utopianism. No one who believes that there is an ideal state for (other) humans should be trusted with power.

That said, as long as playing games remains a free-market activity, where individuals are free to choose what and how they play, then the kind of gaming Utopia that Jesse Schell describes sounds relatively benign, and may even be a Good Thing.

Luis de-Leon
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Is there a place to where on could see this years DICE talks?

Ben Serviss
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There sure is!

(The site is putting a random space in the link for some reason. Delete the space near the end and it'll work.)

Daniel McMillan
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Do you mean Final Fantasy was not the Utopia I was looking for? >.>;;