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Early this year, Jesse Schell burst onto the consciousness of the gaming public in a keynote speech about the gamification of reality at the DICE Summit. The developer and Carnegie Mellon University professor has long talked about the transformative powers of game technology, but suddenly he became both celebrated and derided for his predictions.
Working as both an educator in CMU's Entertainment Technology Center and as the founder of his own studio, Schell Games, he sees the merging of the theoretical with the real, as he prepares students for tomorrow while working on products today. Schell got his start in games working for Disney; his company, Schell Games, self-publishes titles as well as working with clients such as Bigpoint.
I want to rewind a little bit before we start talking about your keynote today...
...and talk about the reaction that generated from your DICE talk.
JS: Oh, yeah, sure, sure. That was unexpected.
JS: Yeah. I mean, well, so first of all, I didn't know they were going to... I mean, I talk all the time. It was the first time they ended up putting up one of my talks on the internet, and I didn't know they were going to do that. I was just thinking, "Oh, I'm going to talk to these two to three hundred people in the room," right?
You know, DICE is like high-end industry people. You don't want to screw up and do a bad talk there. So, I was incredibly honored I was asked to talk there. So, I'm like, "Oh, I better say something they're going to care about," right? So, I did focus on trying to make something that might inspire people's imagination, but I didn't expect a million views on the internet. That was not expected.
And a lot of discussion.
JS: Yes. I didn't think anyone would care so much. You know, I'm a college professor. I'm not used to people listening to what I say. And it was a topic that people just... it really sparked people's imaginations. Lots of opinions, etcetera, etcetera.
I think it polarized people to an extent, as well.
JS: Yeah. And it was probably designed to do that. I mean, I always find that when I give lectures, the most valuable thing I can do is to get people to think. And I tried to structure it in a way that would cause people to have internal contradictions that they would have to come down one way or another, and it did serve very well that way.
How do you see gamification? Since your talk, there's been a Gamification Summit that's happening soon, and GDC 2011 is covering it in more detail. It's still incipient, but...
JS: There are a lot of people looking at it in a foolish way. Anyone who thinks you can just treat people like little B.F. Skinner characters will be disappointed when they try and make it work, because mostly it doesn't work. What this all points to is how poorly we understand the nature to intrinsic motivation. It's like FarmVille succeeded and no one expected it because we're not good at understanding what intrinsically motivates people, you know what I mean?
JS: And so we're seeing all these people try stuff right now. A lot of people are acting like "Oh, it's easy. I've just got to put points and badges on things!" -- like it's gonna work. That's totally not the case, right? I mean, there are plenty of games out there that people hate.
Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is people are assuming this whole broad area, it's like "Oh, this is all win over here," and really there's a couple narrow paths of win in some areas, and a lot of people are not finding them.
When you say the narrow paths, do you mean there's a narrow potential or that's just been what's uncovered so far?
JS: Okay, so again, there's two ways of looking at it. In terms of actually making every activity as a game, I think what will actually work, what people will put up with in the long run, is very narrow.
However, I think where the real win is when people start to analyze what is it about games that people like, and then to take those elements and weed those into what the experiences they're making in a natural way.
It may be that you've taken some thread that works out of games and woven it into your thing. Your thing has not become a game, maybe, but maybe you've given it an enhanced sense of progress, or an enhanced sense of feedback, or an enhanced sense of camaraderie, things that games do really well, and you're going to, you know, take one thread. I think that's where the real success is going to come from in this space.
And when you say "success," do you mean creative success or potentially even commercial success?
JS: Oh, yeah, creative and commercial success.
They go hand in hand, you think?
JS: They hang out a lot.
I think kind of what happened is that Xbox achievements hit and no one was really anticipating them.
JS: Including Microsoft.
And people didn't think that much further beyond that. This is a new thing and it works amazingly well, and...
JS: Right. They didn't think through the psychology of why they work, right? I mean, people who do Xbox Live are obviously competitive people, and where are they when they're on Xbox Live?
They're in a pool of all the other people who are into Xbox games. And so you have a situation where status, a social standing among competitive males in this pool, is going to matter a hell of a lot, and so suddenly that number becomes very meaningful. Does that mean it's going to work everywhere and for everything? No. No, it really doesn't.
Particularly, these guys are going in with an "I'm here to compete," and here's a competition thing. That doesn't mean it's going to work everywhere, but there are certainly some contexts where that kind of thing works.