“This Hunger For Reality”

I seem to be reading a lot about these topics at the moment, so I’ll post this for the RPS community mindmeld. Carnegie Mellon assistant professor of entertainment and technology, Jesse Schell, speaking at DICE 2010, says that game design is all very well, but fantasy and neat game design takes a back seat to “busting through to reality”. The thing that is most valuable to games now, he argues, is where the connect with reality, or what we perceive to be reality. The bottom line is that everything is becoming a game. He takes a while to spool up, but take a look. (If you get a vague feeling of horror and dread towards the end, I think that’s okay.)


  1. Phydaux says:

    There are a few comments mentioning that not everyone likes achievements, and that people will completely ignore this, but none of that matters. The implementers of these real-life achievement systems, don’t care about getting everyone hooked. Just enough people to make money. And it will get very hard not to get hooked, or at least involved, if (for example) every toothbrush you can buy has these features built-in and you rack up points without evening wanting to you may just think, 30 more seconds and I’ll get another 10 points…

    I don’t know if things will ever get this bad, but it’s not going to be a massive switch for how we live now to this points based life, it’s going to be a very gradual change that you may not even notice is happening.

    • Taillefer says:

      I have horrible visions of thirteen year olds brushing their gums away because they’re addicted to point-gaining habits and don’t want to feel left out by their inadequate toothbrush score that gets uploaded to facebook. Peer pressure is a large part of the reason why Facebook games are successful.

      Imagine the toothbrush elitism and bullying that could occur.

  2. David says:

    The breach of integrity that he proposes is offensive. Being tracked at all times? Yeah, gaming will probably not be the top priority when that’s possible.

  3. MarkN says:

    Watched half of it before I had to stop. Will try to watch the rest tomorrow just to know my enemy better. In the meantime I’m off to play some Space Giraffe. Reality isn’t getting a look-in.

  4. espy says:

    What a clever man. The last couple of minutes are oddly amazing, especially his hopeful turnaround at the very end.

    Very worth watching.

    • tapanister says:

      Is your definition of a “hopeful turnaround” a world where videogames and constant supervision and scorekeeping are forcing yuo to be a better person, or am I just missing the irony? Hopefully the latter.

    • Josh says:

      So that’s what the panopticon singularity looks like from the user perspective!

      The main alternative to this convergence between nudge psychology, governments who want to engineer virtue (like the possible conservative government), achievements that link up across platforms, and closed platforms would probably be this:

      For those who make web apps, things like rockband and indie games to make an alternative advancement systems that are based on skill increases rather than conformity, and have their own form of realism; a professional gaming culture that leads all the way to actual qualifications and making products of your own; designing your own games and making your own music, even up to building your own electronics.

      This way you get realism based on empowering people, on learning how to work together and learning skills from people rather than sitting in your own advancement track/cubicle and advertising it to your friends because you just want to be a part of the pyramid scheme.

      Basically it’s a full alliance between games based around choice, those based around skill, the hacker ethos, “maker faire” stuff and serious democracy.

      Now it’s probably not going to link up that hardcore on either side because in the middle you’ll have techo-luddite right wing survivalist guys (some of whom will be in competing businesses) who will hate it all and probably start trying to fight both sides via “it’s invading my privacy, and juvenile-ising the population” and “it’s training terrorists/intellectual property destroyers”. And plus, people pushing their own stuff never look up enough to keep track of what other people are doing.

      • Josh W says:

        After Jesse Schell spent some time comparing his old talk about achievements to reality, I thought I’d come back here and check what I said.

        Haha! Jesse has almost exactly flipped his perspective, rather than focusing on metrics, observation and social proof style feedbacks, he hopped into championing “good problems”.

        It’s still substantially different from my attitude, because he’s basically advocating the return of games based around box prices and curiosity primarily:

        Get superficial interaction with nice welcoming interface.
        See promise of utopian stuff
        Get implied plan to get to it
        Hit paywall, buy proper game.
        Within game, become a better person, even if promise of utopia doesn’t live up to expectation.
        Find a new way to interact with your settled community.

        Which is fundamentally not about reality at all, it’s actually some kind of journey into a fantastic world. In fact I’m sure someone could map the structure of fairy tales onto it. (or that blasted heroes journey, but I’m not going there!)

        But anyway, the core simple idea, that games are about personal transformation, and the questing exploring, learning impulse, and about making a better way to live, is exactly what I was trying to get at. If you have social networks and tracks of skills that move through from games to the real world, then you have a serious expansion of peoples’ personal agency, and bring some of that utopianism into normal life. Exploration and stuff is fun too, I’d never knock that, and there should always be games that really aren’t about reality, but if you do want to interface games with reality, it is in their interactive quality that they have most to say, most to tie into things.

        Here’s how I think we need to extend it; at the moment we have a few skateparks here and there; they started as a way of transforming efficiency into play, turning bog standard functional landscapes into something cool and skillful, and then people reacted at how those forms of behaviour were interfering with normal life, causing problems for people trapped in efficiency mode and generally confusing things, so they started creating public spaces to contain that.

        Perhaps instead of waiting for reality games, larps etc to find a way to hitch into the urban fabric, start causing problems, and then be contained, perhaps people could make public spaces so that they are already game-able.

        If you really want to make games still about layering game worlds on top of reality, and tying into people’s real lives, but you also want to create freedom, then you need to create these spaces to play, not exactly adult playgrounds, because they’d probably be more abstract and less purely about physical activity, but they would also be full of spatial detail and possibilities for interesting game geometry, as well as various QR codes and things for people to orient their games to each other.

        You can make the same point about time too, that allowing people to fit play into their working time, blur that utopian problem solving into people’s normal life activities, but that’s harder.

  5. Web Cole says:

    Tis a very engaging talk.

  6. Tom Camfield says:

    Amazing, really highlights some of societies underlying trends and how they interact with games, and as a teacher, I’m sending a mail to Lee Sheldon to get his game.

    Really though, Jesse Sheldon (while I thought it was a very convincing and great speech to watch) says a lot of disparate and unconnected things.

    He’s doing what all futurists do well, looked at what’s already happening and drawn a line to the future. (Anyone read Armageddon: The Musical? Robert Rankin had a future where people earned money when they watched TV and this guy gets rich having learned to sleep with his eyes open. That’s coming up to 20 years old, 1984’s even older.)

    We already have cash, so the points system is there and installed already, and we have tons of “miles” or “points” programmes with supermarkets or credit cards (and people who actively hate them and rebel against them). We already have gas points, you gain them for filling up your car and air miles, and there are loads of fizzy drink promotions were you buy three cans and get one free, or more specifically the Starbucks cards where you get a free Starbucks after ten purchases or something. It’s not a stretch to draw that out into the future, but it has little baring on Farmville or whatever. As someone else mentioned, that’s about playing with and against friends; it’s social gaming. Combining the two however… well, that’s something he hasn’t really touched upon; it’s not just reading 500 novels, it’s reading more novels than your neighbours, or reading the right novels. When companies start facilitating that, then it’ll be huge.

    Anyway, one thing he definitely gets wrong: there’ll be far more competition between providers than he outlines; you’ll earn points for drinking Dr Pepper while simultaneously losing insurance points; you’ll have gas points vs enviromental points, and that unless the money backing environmental companies increase a whole lot, it’ll be the gas companies with the better games.

    The authenticity side of his argument is obviously flawed. Angus Beef is guaranteed to be of a certain quality. Organic food is also, supposedly, and from experience tends to be, of a certain quality, and more expensive. Really, in the end, it’s not authenticity these people crave, but expensive things and/or higher quality things than what they have, or their neighbour has. At some points, when the world seems most inauthentic, the fashion will be for authenticity, but that’s just fashion, the underlying thing is quality and cost, the former for those who want a better life, the latter for those who want to appear to have a better life. (I’m using broad strokes here, please be generous.)

    This is where we tie back to the right novels, or more novels than your neighbours. I know I’m not driven to be better than my neighbours, but I am driven by self-improvement, I want to eat the right foods and read the “right” books. There’s no quest for authenticity there (although for a lot of environmentalist there is, but it’s a fashion for many others). Tapping into the fashion trends is cool, but it’s really about tapping into the deeper desire of self-improvement (see WiiFit) and competition; that’s what sells.

    More interestingly, the co-operative game he touched upon, with advertising and high fives. There’s a lot of people who are motivated more by the idea of community and being part of something, and it’s when games foster this sense of community, not necessarily a competitive one, that you see people joining in droves; MMOs and Facebook games, and it’s still worth holding on to that thread and recognising it’s a major factor in a lot of these successes.

  7. Tom Camfield says:

    D’oh, my huge response was marked as spam.

    Briefly then; he says a lot we already know about, and his authenticity argument is hugely flawed (authenticity is the latest fashion, Angus Beef and Organic are both marks of quality and expense, like Ralph Lauren used to be, and there’s nothing revelatory about people wanting quality, or wanting to appear like they can afford quality compared to their neighbours).

    That said, bringing games into the state sector is an incredible idea, especially in health and education, where we do lack a proper reward structure. (Although again, none of this is revelatory since we’re told to make education “fun”, Jesse just shows us that we can still have “boring” classes, we just need a reward system that makes kids want to participate, ditto health.)

    Also, the idea that the points structure is new and fearful is silly, since we already have cash, miles, points, the whole lot, everywhere. Jesse should have pointed out that a lot of these systems will compete.

    Great explanation of divergence, but the iPad is a portable devise, and it’s the portable part that encourages convergence.

    Anyway, I thought it was an excellent diversion +50 points.

  8. Bob Haville says:

    LOL! Excellent comment. And you know what? As I was laughing, my first reflex was to look for the “thumb-up” or “+1” button so I could give you kudos for it.

    And then I realized how true this whole talk is. We already live in a world where we can get points for every little thing!

  9. DMcCool says:


    That aside this guy is disarmingly good at rhetoric. His coperate 1984 is a bit far fetched, but theres no questioning something resembling that is coming. What I don’t understand is why anyone would be less than mortifed about this.

    Guys, here is the important bit: the real world is not quantifiable. You can’t attach numbers to mental states, to actual human interactions. Something is lost -almost everything is lost. What is left if meaningless – hey it might functionally make some people money but its as human beings we are being totally, utterly forgotten. Pyschology discovered this about 60 years ago, and yet here we are.

    Even Orwell couldn’t stomach what this man is proposing. This is something akin to the end of civilisation.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      The thing is though, regardless how distopian it may seem, that some folk are likely to try and do their best to get us their (if only on their turf).

      I mean.. McDonalds exists.

  10. Mistmanov says:

    The core of the problem illustrated in the video is that companies will get even more control over our thoughts, in order to make us buy their crap. Creating fake desires or misusing our instincts for collecting, belonging to the group etc. They’re already doing it, and it will only get worse as technology allows the companies to intrude more and more.

    The way to fight that doomsday scenario?

    Stop buying crap you don’t need

    Sure, the majority of people will happily buy whatever “NEW1!!!1!!” product is advertised on TV, and will also go along with whatever fancy points/discounts/etc system is introduced (my mom: “I saved $10 by collecting 500 points after spending $1000 at the horrendously overpriced grocery store!” No, you didn’t), but you yourself can escape that future by only buying things that you actually need.

  11. bill says:

    That was rather awesome. Reminded me of Jennifer Government in some ways. Loyalty card scheme wars here we come!
    It’s always nice to see someone who gives great presentations – wish i could do that.

    I’ve thought for years that schools should do a RPG based system for schools. Wow and Brain Training have both cracked motivating people to do repetitive tasks… I always thought they could put the same system to work in schools, with level ups, achievements, etc..

    Never really considered it flowing out into everything else though…

  12. Urthman says:

    This dude really needs to read the Joel on Software blog. There’s a lot of research demonstrating that, in the long run, extrinsic rewards don’t work for motivating people.

    link to joelonsoftware.com
    link to joelonsoftware.com

    Also, trying to evaluate people’s behavior with some objective “scoring” metric always ends up having people find ways to game the system, optimize for maximizing the score rather than for doing the behavior well:

    link to inc.com

  13. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I’m shelving this for a later time, when I actually have time to really take my time for it.

  14. corbie says:

    For those at work (like me) a trascript of the above can be found here

    “your finger, you fool.”

  15. Ralph Midnight says:

    Although the points will be ‘technically’ awarded for brushing – people will actually be thinking of ways to ‘trick’ the system and creat devices that rack up points but generating the ‘brushing code’ on your toothbrush. Code hacks will be huge. Point theft will be popular.