Friday, February 26, 2010

Regarding Jesse Schell's DICE Presentation

By Annie Wright and Kirk Hamilton

Last week at the annual DICE Summit in Las Vegas, Carnegie-Mellon professor, game designer, and Disney imagineer Jesse Schell gave a speech. In that speech he talked about the future of interactive entertainment, starting with Facebook games but quickly veering off into the kind of wide-eyed, enthusiastic prognosticating that the internet just loves.

About halfway in, Schell was talking about "Points for Brushing Your Teeth," going into some detail about how in a matter of years, disposable technology and digital connectivity will allow everything, from personal hygiene to public transportation, to be made into a game.

It was provocative. It was controversial.  It was... well, honestly, it was worth watching, especially the last ten or so minutes.

Annie and Kirk also watched it, and decided to put their heads together and jot down some of their thoughts. And by "jot down," I mean "go on at great length regarding." Enjoy:

Kirk: Well, then. Can't say that Jesse Schell doesn't know how to play the provocateur. To begin with something I liked: his clear-eyed articulation of the gaming industry's slow, sloooow response to an unprecedented explosion of the size of their potential customer base. "A show of hands for everyone who thought the Wii was a good idea when it was announced..." The industry as a whole needs more of that kind of accountability, and in order to take advantage of the coming age of interactivity, game designers are going to have to get on the ball, and quickly.

Annie: Case in point: Facebook as a valid gaming platform. When I first signed up for Facebook, I was immediately found by like, a million classmates/friends/relatives that I hadn't seen in probably 7 or 8 years, which was overwhelming enough as it is, but THEN came the game invites. Yoville, Pet Society, Sorority Life, Mafia Wars, all kinds of stuff. I tried to play all of them at first, to the point that I DID almost do the direct payment thing: real money for in-game money.  Both Zynga and Playfish (two of the biggest Facebook gaming contenders) offer this option, and anyone who plays their games knows how tempting this is.

Kirk: My primary FB gaming experience consists only of my recent few weeks in FarmVille (for our upcoming GM feature), but I get the appeal.  I think it's interesting that no one saw Facebook games coming, since really, we should have.

The Facebook experience is enough like a game already (Get more friends! Design your avatar! Level up!) that layering an actual game over it seems like a no-brainer.  I'm certainly not suggesting that Facebook itself is some sort of massively-multiplayer game - I've seen that line of reasoning before and don't agree. But I'm surprised it took as long as it did for FarmVille and its ilk to gain their current popularity.

Annie: These games, as they are being developed, are turning out to be fairly in-depth experiences- more than what you'd expect from a platform that didn't actually start out as a platform. But the idea of games-within-social-media is appealing, because it plays into our expectations of convergent technology, that is to say, "getting it all in one place".

Kirk: It seems like the flexibility to change and grow so fluidly is due to the simplicity of the games themselves - constant updates are a piece of cake. The content is regularly being tweaked and refined, and the process is pretty much entirely server-side, so users don't even notice. Like, FarmVille is still in beta, right? It's an 80-million-user beta.

But as engagingly as Schell speaks about the FB phenomenon, I'm far less convinced by the way he bridges the gap between those social games and the "gaming" of real-life products. To start with, it's not as revolutionary an idea as he makes it out to be - the fact of the matter is that consumer products have been using games to encourage consumption for ages. We've been collecting and mailing in UPC codes for collectible prizes, accumulating and saving bottle-tops to spell winning words, and scratching off and saving McDonalds Monopoly pieces for like fifty years. If technology actually does get disposable enough to make it possible, why wouldn't those same companies take their games digital?

Annie: Disposable, digital, and totally integrated. Now the Monopoly pieces will keep track of themselves, and link to each other. In case you drop one behind the sofa or the gap in the train platform, there will be a record of you having obtained it. A lot of people might be on board with this concept so far...

Kirk: But, and of course there's a big but, there are just so many things that Schell doesn't mention - damned if I didn't think that from the 20 minute mark onwards (when he started talking about "points for brushing your teeth") he headed in a really troubling direction.  I'd even go so far as say that his presentation reveled in the kind of progress-at-any-cost attitude of which we should be wary.

To start with, a clarification - for all his talk of convergence being "bullshit," I think that what Schell described was itself a sort of convergence.  If there are sensors everywhere, if everything we do, every motion we make is recorded into a database and scored, isn't that kind of the ultimate convergence?

Annie: I think that's true, because look at the way everything is being crowdsourced, from market research to scientific research. Basically, what Schell's presentation and all the current gaming trends are teaching us is that if you want people to do something compulsively, make a game out of it and reward the players as they hit certain benchmarks.  This can be used for both good and evil, I think. The examples used here are just a few: geocaching, DARPA's red balloons, even that instance of a professor changing a class format from traditional letter grades to a system where students earn "experience points" and subsequently "level up". I can only imagine what kind of resultant dialogue occurs after class:

Brad Undergrad: Oh hey, Susie, you want to catch a movie tonight?

Susie Student: No, dude. It's Final Boss week, remember? I flunked a Miniboss a few weeks ago, so I gotta ace this, or... (hums Mario Game Over music) Also, I'm an Amazon, if you catch my drift. I don't really date outside my character class...

Kirk: Poor Brad. Dude needs to grind a bit on low-level freshmen to level up! (Woah, that joke came out dirtier than I'd intended.) But to your point about good and evil - I concur. We're teaching Brad and Susie to respond to game mechanisms, but to what end? Schell's presentation contained zero acknowledgment of the global, economic, or ecological challenges raised by this sort of mass-technological-convergence. With such a focus on consumerism and advertising culture, the final eight minutes of Schell's presentation felt exhaustingly... western. For all his pretense at outside-the-box-thinking, I wound up finding his conclusions to be quite narrow.

Sure, this change will come to those of us in the first world, and it'll change the way we brush our teeth and drink soda, but he utterly ignored the sort of global change that the same technology could bring elsewhere. I mean, not even a mention.

Annie: Perhaps it hasn't been considered as much because you don't necessarily see a lot of third world cultures with no electricity joining WoW guilds and playing Mafia Wars. It's not unheard of for people in third world nations to have social media accounts, but it's certainly not the norm. If an individual does maintain an account, he or she is often logging in once a week or less at an internet cafe that is quite far from home. Access is at a premium, both in terms of cost and time. Potentially, more integrated, cheaper technology could go a long way towards more network infrastructure, connectivity and even provide more channels for education, even though this would involve a lot of international cooperation, which is not necessarily something we're good at all the time.

Kirk: True about WoW and FarmVille, but as you say, the same cheap, disposable tech that will allow us to network our Monopoly cards can also make possible some pretty amazing infrastructure-building in parts of the world that desperately need it. And the ability to keep track of everyone, everywhere would let world health organizations track crises all over the world, to know where and when people are sick. Even to know how they are sick, if that makes sense.

And within the borders of the first world, assigning points to people for doing their jobs wouldn't just help us get office drones to work on time, it would help to more accurately gauge the effectiveness of crucial government organizations. Tracking the data on people's daily food intake and exercise could help us better understand the health and habits of our citizens.

Though of course, even glossing over the diplomatic hurtles would need to be overcome in order to implement this kind of change globally, even local implementation raises a ton of really thorny moral questions.

'Cause make no mistake - what Schell was talking about is the waking nightmare of every libertarian in America and the realization of a left-wing super-collective the likes of which Karl Marx could only dream. I bet you'd love it. (Kidding!  Kidding! Please don't turn me over to the firing squad!)

Annie: Well, we would probably make the pretense of convening a tribunal or something first...

Kirk: I shall not bow before your false tribunal! I shall die as a free man!  (Also: I bet that after getting rid of the dissidents, the tribunals' first order of business would be to change the name of the game to "Green Remover.")

But seriously - maybe we'll sign up to have our dreams infiltrated with ads via REM-utainment, maybe we'll allow corporate sponsors to digitally tattoo us with their logos, but it's just as likely that the next fifty years will show us just where people will draw the line, which parts of themselves they'll claim as off-limits.

Annie: Personally, I think even tracking toothpaste is a little too personal- imagine having the same "point system" for like, toilet paper, or something...

Kirk: Yeah, I somehow don't see people getting behind a system that grants bonus XP for sparing a square.

Annie: Or imagine getting your "TP Rewards Summary" email notification on your 6th gen iPad while riding the Metro, and it very obviously congratulates you for going through more rolls this week than last. Suddenly it's not just that your usage is tracked by the company, it's potentially on display to any enterprising shoulder surfer in your vicinity. And the more data we generate, the more "social engineers" we inspire.

Kirk: Yikes.

Annie: So, at the end of the presentation, Schell contemplates the way that these ads/marketing devices-as-games might infiltrate our lives, but they also might influence our decisions, point out our shortcomings, and generally want to make us live our lives better. This seems like it could go either way- it might help people define that line you just mentioned, but I wonder if our hunter-gatherer mentality is still too deeply ingrained to not have this sort of thing corrupt us. I mean, humans ARE the only creatures who take more than what we need. Plus, what about assigning scores to things that can't really be scored, like music? I mean scored like a game, not like a piano reduction, pardon the pun.

Kirk: Precisely. That whole bit was spoken like a dude who has never taught music.

Annie: Or never played music, even.

Kirk: Like, maybe we'll use a points system to encourage our daughters to learn Ravel, but it's just as likely that we'll keep struggling to find the words to express to her why music is a reward unto itself. Seems far more probable that art and music will forever be something that can't be quantified and assigned to a scoring bracket.

And to address what was easily the presentation's most eyebrow-raising assertion (and I bet that even Schell would agree) - this idea that a constant points system might encourage us to become better people. 

Woah, horsey. Perhaps the fact that there is a record of our existence will make us strive to be better... perhaps.  But I for one am less sold on that than any other single part of Schell's presentation. There is already a record of our existence, and most people suck anyway. Would keeping more detailed records really change that?

Annie: Yeah, and I think a lot of Anthropologists would argue that we HAVE been keeping track. In some cases in excruciating detail (thank you, "Intro to Ethnographic Techniques" A501). There is an entire branch of social science dedicated to that, but a lot of it is not in the mainstream consciousness, and thus it is not being read by the average person, or even by academics in other fields. I am not sure whether putting a slick new interface on top of the proposed Big Brother methodology would yield any more useful information, or whether it would simply make people less inclined to participate in more traditional social research, which would hinder the efforts of Anthropologists already working to document human existence.

Kirk: When all is said and done, it seems far more likely that we'll continue to focus on the study of others without really being able to gain perspective on our own habits. Like, I can already track how many hours a day I spend screwing around online, but I don't, because I don't want to know. The data are there, but I remain passively, but willfully, ignorant. It seems like quite a leap to assume that'll change just because the data gathering will become more all-encompassing.

Annie: I know that I, for one, would much rather read about the online habits of some other culture/age group/social unit than to examine my own, and I'm not sure that's ever gonna change.

Schell ends by asking the question "Who in this room is going to take us there?", meaning to his projected, seemingly inevitable future scenario. In response, I would say that if we want to continue in the spirit of expanding the newer facets of this concept for good and not evil, we ALL need to participate.

We need to ensure that this trend is NOT just going to be about having our nightly REM cycles invaded by Pepsi commercials, but to use this cooperatively to understand what we're doing well, what we need to fix, and how to fix it. For better or for worse, these ideas, combined with the onset of "The Cloud" all add up to a pretty divergent, nebulous model for evolving technologies. While it's true that divergence can sometimes point towards entropy, this is not always bad. It allows for a much more robust pool of gray matter with which to collectively brainstorm, provided we can tune out a lot of the commercial crap, establish boundaries, and you know, retain our humanity.

Kirk: And therein lies the incredible potential, entwined, as incredible potential so frequently is, with some equally incredible challenges.  To me, something about the gee-whiz blitheness with which Schell blasted this stuff out was disconcerting. Sure, the dreamers and the big-picture guys are the ones who can sell us the vision, and we've got the tech and the engineers to make that vision a reality. But it'll up to ALL of us to figure how to master it.

If you made it this far, congratulations!  You win 1000 Gamer Melodico points. 

And if you really read all that, surely you're thinking "But... they forgot about... what about the...the..."  Well, we had to stop after a certain point, or this post would have become a book. But that doesn't mean you can't contribute to the next chapter - let us know what you're thinking!


Tim Mackie said...

A couple of thoughts I had that are more or less expansions on things you two have already said:

-I'm a music student myself, but somehow I still wasn't particularly disturbed by the "Did you practice piano, what score did you get" bit until you brought it up. At the time, I thought it was a sort of neat concept, but the problem, as you both alluded to, is that it would be nigh-impossible to quantify. You might be able to assign points for technical performance, but how would you judge interpretation? Even without this creepy Orwellian situation Schell described, I'm already worried enough about the death of interpretation and artistic freedom. And plus, if everyone can see how they stack up to other players, I know I would get extremely discouraged about my performance relative to everyone else and probably stop doing something that I love to do. Which leads me into another point...

-For all his talk about how consumers are seeking authenticity, Schell's scenario feels soulless to me. I would think in that sort of situation, most people would just go through the motions to get their points and nothing would be done without ulterior motives. People might just do things they have absolutely no interest in to get their points, and that's double-plus-ungood. And that leads me into yet another point...

-Schell suggested near the end that this would make us better people. Both of you vehemently denied that, and for the most part, so do I. But I think in the sense that Schell seemed to mean that -- that is, that we would be more self-conscious, courteous, healthy, etc. -- it could accomplish that. But in all the wrong ways. I know if Big Brother was watching me, I would try to be a more self-conscious, courteous, healthy person -- but for all the wrong reasons. I wouldn't be motivated by the intrinsic value of all those things, I'd be motivated by fear of society, fear of rejection for not having a socially acceptable number of points. And that concept scares me.

Urk. I'm getting creeped out just thinking about this. A robot/zombie apocalypse almost seems preferable at this point to that scenario.

Kirk Hamilton said...

"For all his talk about how consumers are seeking authenticity, Schell's scenario feels soulless to me."

I think that's because (at least as I heard it), the authenticity he was talking about was more of the in-quotation-marks kind, the kind that is packaged and sold, rather than the actual kind.

Like, Organic Potato Chips versus A Potato.

Tim Mackie said...

Naturally. I guess what I meant was something similar to what you said about where consumers draw the line, only worded stupidly. It just felt to me like Schell completely ignored any premise in which consumers see through this ploy and refuse to participate. What he was talking about was on a much more monumental scale than Organic Potato Chips vs. Potato; if, for some reason, society at large were to buy into it, I think it would suck the life out of us, whereas claiming that your processed food is organic and the like is just a little disingenuous.

Annie Wright said...

I just encountered the statistic that less than 25% of social media gamers do the direct pay option (it was somewhere in my feed, I'll have to find the actual source later). Based on what Schell was saying and the angle he was taking throughout his presentation, I found this surprising. He seemed to think that people were all about it.

However, based on my own experience, I didn't find it hard to believe at all. Sure, I can drop 20 bucks for a fancy goat-shaped topiary for my farm, OR I can use that 20 bucks to buy a mini-bonzai in real life. Um, DUH. I'd rather have the real thing. OR better yet, save that money to put towards more useful real-world things, like student loans, rent, and... more games.

To get to my point, I think as long as we continue to approach this facet of technology with a grain of salt and KNOW that it is very possible to take advantage of the gaming mentality. we'll be ok. I mean, knowing is half the batt- UGH, this is the fever talking.

What I think I am trying to say is that the onus is on us to weed out the soulless marketing crap from the true innovation, and to speak out about what we think is soulless and what we think is innovative, and perhaps anyone that has gotten caught up in the BS will come around. If enough people talk about things, they become movements and gain momentum, like conservation, proper nutrition, and getting rid of those effing Ugg boots. If enough people speak up, awareness will be raised.

Monkey see, monkey do...

Kirk Hamilton said...

I would pay real money to buy some Uggs for my FarmVille avatar. His feet must get cold on those long FarmVille nights.

Chris said...

Fascinating speech. I have a few point...

-Other than the REMutainment, the technology he's talking about is already in the works. Everything will talk to everything else. Your fridge will not only tell you that you're running low on milk, but will automatically put it on your shopping list.

-The reason the Facebook games took everyone by surprise is because the costs to produce them is extremely low and the technology is accessable to almost everyone. As a result, people who aren't your regular game designers (ie, those who think differently) can try out new ideas without the buraucracy of working for the likes of EA. Another reason for their popularity is the fact that they are accessable to EVERYONE. My aunt (a senior citizen) is neck deep in Farmville. She would never consider any console game, particularly one that includes violence. However, Farmville gives her an activity that she enjoys that is cute and fun and totally different that what the gaming community would ever offer. She isn't on EA's radar as a potential customer, but someone decided to make a game for her (and the MILLIONS like her). Now that Farmville is successful, what innovations has the mainstream gaming community come up with? Farmville knockoffs. So much for innovation!

-I drive a Hybrid. It has a little bar that shows how efficient I'm driving. At first I thought it was a really stupid thing to put in the dashboard. When I first got it I got about 38 MPG. Now I get 43 and it's a direct result of that damn bar and my competitive nature. I find myself drafting behind big rigs just so I can beat by previous score (MPG over the life of a tank of fuel). Those phychological tricks are the reason WoW is so popular. The graphics are nothing special, there's really nothing compelling from an immersion or skill perspective. You just want to complete one more quest before you go to bed, and of course, you have many many quests open at once.

-All of the points that Schnell mentions come from governmental agencies. I see this as a critical hole in his arguement. Individuals would be giving points to each other: parents to children, and audiences to performers (that's how you score a musical performance--perform well to 10,000 people and you can rake in a ton of points).

-Star Trek's Borg was a collective that assimilated other civilizations, but no one explored how the Borg initially became a collective. They invented the internet, joined Facebook, then cerebral implants, etc. At each step people eagerly embrace the technology. People won't give out personal information to a stranger over the phone, but they'll volunteer outrageous amounts of personal information over the internet if the venue is right. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I guess it depends on whether people are volunteering or not.

JOH (D :-) said...

I think you all are right to be skeptical of a future in which technology makes it possible to collect real-time data on about anything. As long as there is a consensus that something is good and you can measure it accurately, the points system can work. But look at No Child Left Behind (NCLB) if you want to see how the point system can go awry. People do respond to that point system, but that’s not good given that the selected high-stakes tests are not an adequate measure of the desired outcome, and that the tests themselves suffer from major confounding because of who designs them and even doubts about whether they are valid measures of even literacy and numeracy. I think the experience with NCLB is a microcosm of the limitations of the point system. We’ve already encountered that limit and we’ve proven not to be up to the challenge.

I think that measures of almost anything worth measuring will turn out to be as elusive as education outcomes and, as you point out yourself, music. I fear that, nonetheless, we will cling to inadequate measures simply because data are available, just as we have with NCLB.

Kirk Hamilton said...

JOH (why, hello there!) - Thank you for bringing up No Child Left Behind. Man, that's a great example of what a large-scale failure of the points system looks like. When I think about it in terms of that initiative, it's hard not to share your pessimism about people's ability to implement Schell's kind of system effectively.

And Chris, that actually kinda dovetails with one of your points - you mentioned that most of what Schell was talking about was large-scale stuff (though it seemed to me like as much it was corporate/private sector stuff as was governmental). I wasn't sure if you were meaning to suggest that small-scale points systems are a viable alternative to large-scale ones? If so, that's an interesting thought.

Of course, a small-scale points system is something that many households and classrooms already have in place (i.e. stars for good behavior, etc), and making it digital doesn't seem to be that huge of a change. Actually, that's sort of what Yelp and similar sites are doing already. But get enough of those systems going at the same time, and you've got a different scenario altogether. The micro multiplying and becoming macro seems to fit in with the sort of convergence-by-divergence that we're seeing in tech, so it makes sense that it could work that way.

Anyhow, NCLB certainly stands out as a cautionary example of a poorly-implemented large-scale points system. Maybe we'll get it right in the future, but the mere fact of NCLB (not to mention the exceedingly cynical ways it was used for short-term political gain) makes it hard to feel very optimistic.