Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jesse Schell's "Visions of the Gamepocalypse"

This past Tuesday evening I headed to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco to catch Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell's talk entitled "Visions of the Gamepocalypse."

Like most of the gaming-prone internet, I had watched his DICE presentation in February, rubbed my eyes, then watched it again. (Then took a break for lunch and watched it a third time.) Annie and I had a great time documenting our copious thoughts about it back in February, so I won't revisit any of that. But if you want more analysis and digression about the future of games than any human can hope to process (or indeed, care about), head into the wayback machine and give it a read. Also, it's worth 1000 Gamer Melodico points, which you will be able to cash in at an as-yet-unannounced date for what I'm sure will be a fabulous prize.

I was interested to see what new information Schell would include in his follow-up, since his DICE talk proposed a ton of possibilities but also left the door open for a good deal of of speculation. And so it was with great expectations that I sprinted from MUNI towards the YBCA, hoping that Schell's vision of the future still allowed academic talks to begin a few minutes behind schedule.

Full House

After navigating the multitude of locked doors and false entrances strewn about the maddeningly impenetrable Yerba Buena Center building ("Maybe this is a game," remarked a similarly stymied fellow nerd. "Maybe there's a camera recording us"), I made my way inside, tracked down a seat in the balcony, and whipped out my notebook.

The aisles of the nearly-full theater below were lined with a few hundred well-put-together men and women, most of them dressed in some variation of Silicon Valley evening-wear. Fashionable glasses, nice blazers, clean lines of slate, black, some light grey. Brushed hair, neat shoes; scarves.

After a brief introduction involving some cute gaming jokes from the YBCA chairman, they cued up the short-film Pixels to the huge delight of the crowd, most of whom had apparently never seen it.  After the world dissolved once again into a cube (Lord, but isn't that film chilling), the lights came up a bit and Schell, dressed in khakis and a bright blue shirt, bounded to the stage.

Everyone Loves Harmonica

Immediately upon arriving at the microphone, Schell asked the audience to begin clapping in rhythm. Once he had everyone going, he whipped out a harmonica and blew through a rendition of "When the Saints go Marching In," the crowd adjusting its groove to match his interpretation. It was a pretty good performance, and a killer bit of stagecraft. After the last chord, he said, "Thanks. That has nothing to do with my presentation, but I'm a nervous speaker, so it helps."

I'll have to take his word for it - from what I saw, the man seemed anything but nervous. Energetic, even frenetic, funny and quick with a digression, but never nervous. He began by bringing up his DICE talk, asking how many people in the audience had watched it online. When almost everyone raised their hands, he noted how unexpected that had been to him, that due to the power of the internet, this talk he gave had been viewed by millions of people.

So he went on to do a ten-minute recap of the talk, about which I really do think enough words have been spilled on this particular blog that we don't need to detail it any further. The talk was as engaging, provocative and ultimately problematic the second time around, though it was much more enjoyable to actually be in the room as he gave it. Dude can really put together a slide show - the "dings" that play when the point awards pop up over the "rewarded" tasks are really funny, and the audience was loving the whole thing.

Reflections on the DICE Talk

After he finished his DICE recap, Schell then talked a bit about the response to the talk. He said that many folks had come up to him afterward to tell him about products they'd heard about or were working on, products that were already doing many of the things that he had predicted. He also discussed some of the negative responses, pointing out that a lot of people described his proposed future as "Orwellian" (Big Brother rules through fear) when in fact it would be "Huxlian" (Big Brother rules through pleasure). It was a cheeky bit of nerd one-upsmanship that really cracked the crowd (and me) up.

After that, Schell talked a bit about the technological singularity, which was also something that people mentioned when discussing the DICE talk. He said that to his eye, the Singularity will occur when we can no longer predict even the very immediate future. He pointed out that a thousand years ago, it was pretty easy to predict what would be happening a year in the future, or even two, five years. But these days, predicting five years in the future seems utterly impossible - and the amount of time past which we can no longer accurately prognosticate is getting smaller and smaller every day. Eventually, he said, we wouldn't even be able to predict what will happen five minutes or even seconds in the future, and that will mark the singularity.

But, he said, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to predict the future at all. After all, since the amount of time between "the future" and "now" is growing smaller every day, we can learn faster and faster whether our predictions were right or wrong and use that feedback to create new, better predictions. With the increased amount of feedback, it actually becomes easier to accurately predict the future than it was a thousand years ago. For some reason that sets off my "there are more variables at play here than that" alarm, but its an interesting argument.

Candyland = Gamepocalypse

So then we got to Schell's own prediction of the game-integrated future, what he has dubbed the "Gamepocalypse" (He marked this with a huge image of a hilariously terrifying, thankfully Mario-reference-free mushroom cloud).

How are we going to get there? Well, it's going to be a long and winding path (cue a big, empty Candyland board on the screen, with the Candyland at the end replaced by the mushroom cloud image. Heh).

Throughout the rest of the speech, Schell illustrated the steps that we will hit along the board on the way towards that Gamepocalypse, towards total game integration. I won't paraphrase every one, I'll just list them as I saw them, with notes and quotes as they caught my ear.

"Games are Awesome"

At outset, Schell talked a bit about why it is that games will permeate so many facets of our culture and daily lives. Why? Because "Games are awesome!" He then listed a few reasons why games are awesome. For starters, they provide clear feedback - when you're at your job, Schell said, you don't really have a clear idea of how you're doing day to day... you sit there thinking "Am I doing okay? Better than yesterday? Kinda average?" In a videogame, you know when you did well. "I beat that boss, man! I am on the next level, and that boss is dead! I have the medal to prove it!"

He listed quite a few other things too, though I didn't write them all down, sorry (though safe to say that if you're reading this, you probably already know why games are awesome). It was mostly what you'd expect, each reason described quite clearly and coherently. When talking about how we like the sense of progress games give us, he mentioned how we looove to watch those progress bars climb. I found myself both nodding my head and thinking about Progress Wars.

Nooks and Crannies

The first entry on the Candyland board was a small circle called "Nooks and Crannies." In the near future, Schell said, games will go almost everywhere. When you look at the markets that games have saturated, they're actually pretty limited. They started with young men, then expanded the age range, then expanded to women. These days, it seems as though everyone plays games... but there are still nooks and crannies. The key to financially successful game development is going to be building games in those nooks and crannies.

The first nook he identified was "Geography." There are lots of games for Americans, but few for most of central Asia or the Middle East. And as he pointed out, the Middle East has lots of money, and they would love to play games.

The second nook was "Time", or more specifically, how we divide up our time. After showing a piechart of an average person's daily schedule, he noted that games currently fit into the "Leisure Time" segment, but the explosion of Facebook games is due to the fact that... we can play them at work! That opens up a whole new segment of the pie chart to exploitation by game makers. So what if we could make games that can be played during a commute, or while watching TV? If there's a nook, Schell argued that some industrious game-maker would eventually find a way to fill it.

Microtransactions

These are the key to making the nooks and crannies financially viable. Schell pointed out that microtransactions are the bread and butter of simpler, social networking games, and that the big game makers like Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony are absolutely terrified of them. None of those companies wants to be the first to give away games with built-in mircrotransactions, he said, going on to suggest that it just might be some fourth console maker who signs a deal with publishers to force the change.

Money Quote:
"Social networking + Microtransactions = Peanut Butter + Chocolate"
New Sensors

A bit farther along the Candyland board, Schell pointed out that if you ask people who don't play games why that is, most of them will tell you it's because games require "too many buttons." They used to play NES, but nowadays there are just too many buttons. To illustrate this, he showed a picture of a PS3 controller with the caption "too many buttons."

But wait a minute, these people all have... a remote control! (Cue picture of ridiculous modern remote control.) That has waaay more buttons!  And in fact, most folks nowadays have like three remote controls! (Add two more similarly ridiculous remotes to picture.) So what's the real issue? "Simultaneous ambidextrous control." Modern games require players' hands to do different things simultaneously, which is too much for many people to comfortably process.

He pointed to the Wii controller, saying that Nintendo didn't design it to do motion control per se, they designed it to eliminate buttons, to get those folks who couldn't or didn't want to keep up with console controllers back playing games. And it worked. (At this point, he showed a picture of a giant photoshopped PS3 controller that was absolutely bristling with buttons and knobs, captioned "What these people see." It was, for some reason, the stuff of my darkest nightmares).

So the Wii paved the way for new controls, new sensors. He talked a bit about Kinect, about the potential for that type of hardware to allow us to control and interface with games in new ways. He also talked about implants, and how lots of people are trying to figure out how and where implants will go. His guess? Teeth. "Because teeth are cool - they're like bones outside your skin!"  (Crickets from the audience.) "Okay, moving on..."

The iPad

He revisited the joke he made in his DICE talk when he discussed the iPhone and the fact that it represents the "pocket exception" to the rule that all technology is divergent. At the time he told the joke ("People only want convergent technology in their pocket. No one wants a giant Swiss army knife for their kitchen, that doesn't make sense. Which is why people hate the iPad"), he said he got a big laugh. But when he tells it now, people are like, "Well actually, I kinda like the iPad..."

The reason for this, he said, is explained by the Gartner Group's "Hype Curve," shown here:
Schell pointed out that when he told the joke, we were in the "Trough of Disillusionment", so he got a big laugh. But by now, we've gotten up the "Slope of Enlightenment" all the way to the "Plateau of Productivity" - people are no longer disappointed with the iPad and have found that it's very good for some things (notably, he said, surfing the web while on the couch).

The moral of this story? Tell jokes while you're still in the Trough of Disillusionment. (Big laugh.)

The 3D Hype

Schell went ahead said that he's not so sure about the 3D trend. After all, stereoscopy was invented many, many decades ago, and it still hasn't been adopted by the mainstream. When it comes to having  your TV in 3D all the time, Schell said he just wasn't so sure.

Money quote:
"3D TV is more like 5.1 surround sound than it is like HDTV. Rich nerds will have it, and everyone else will just go over to their house to experience it."
Back to the Candyland Board

Schell continued to move us along the board, stopping at Beauty ("Things are so freakin beautiful now!" Cue screenshot of Uncharted), Advergaming (more discussion of ads in games, and the idea of corporate-sponsored REMtertainent, which still gives me the creeps but made everyone in the entire theater simultaneously mutter the word "Inception" under their breath, which of course made me feel oddly weary). Also, Customization (showed a picture of a Mii, talked about how we're building customization into everything) and Face Tracking (talked about how new MMOGs have tech that uses your computer's camera to make your avatar mimic your facial expressions and movements. Rightly pointed out what a revolution it will be when games force us to engage physically and emotionally with their characters).

The Curiosity Gap

Under a picture of a curious-seeming young girl captioned "The curious will win", Schell pointed out that in the coming age, curious people will have an insane advantage over the incurious. This, he said, is because it used to be hard work to be curious - you had to go to the library to look up what you were curious about, and the information might not even be there. These days, curiosity is so instantly satisfied that the curious have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal, giving them a huge advantage over those who don't actively seek out information. Schell pointed out that we don't really know what makes some people more curious than others, and that it would be great if we could figure out how to teach curiosity to the next generation of students.

He soon moved on to Authenticity, which he said was incredibly important to all of this, particularly in social networking. I didn't really take any notes here, so... yeah. Authenticity is important.

Money quote:
"Social networking is a fancy term that means 'Facebook.'"
Transmedia Worlds

Here, Schell discussed the nature of transmedia worlds, beginning by saying that even though it sounds contradictory, "People want their fantasy worlds to feel real." What are the rules for a world? What makes it work? In his words, this was why the world of Middle Earth remains so much more compelling to people than the world of Narnia.

In the future, he predicted, building worlds that exist across the spectrum of media types will be vital for making people want to inhabit them. His example was Pokémon, with cards, toys, games, books, movies, TV shows all informing the same universe, making it broader, more fully-realized, and more appealing.

Speech Recognition

Here, Schell largely paraphrased USC professor Chris Swain, who made the observation that games now are like silent films of the early 20th century - no one takes them seriously except for a select few, because they haven't made the technological breakthrough that will allow them to appeal to everyone. For films, that breakthrough was the addition of a soundtrack - the minute movies became able to talk to their viewers, they became the dominant art form of the 20th century.

Games are poised to make the same leap, though the difference, Schell said (still paraphrasing Swain), is that while games can talk to their audience, they can't yet listen. For that reason, Schell predicted that speech recognition will be absolutely vital to the coming gaming revolution. Once your game can hear you, everything will change.

The question, then, is "when?" He joked that twenty years ago, people were talking about how we'd have speech recognition "in probably around ten years." Ten years later, they said "Oh, yeah, we'll have speech recognition working within about ten years." And now, when he asks a friend who works in the field, the guy says "Well, we'll probably have widely available speech recognition in the next ten years." But all joking aside, Schell said, it is coming - it's inevitable.

The Imagineer/Mundane Gap

Next, Schell played a brief clip from the British comedy FAQ About Time Travel, which he said he loves, and which I now totally plan on renting. In the scene, three characters are at a pub and one takes umbrage at another's use of the term "Nerd," saying that he prefers to be identified as an "Imagineer." His friend, a square who doesn't even know the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek, just can't get on the same page.

Schell looked back at the scene and said that it points out a very important dichotomy. He said he liked the term "Imagineer", which I'm sure is due in no small part to the fact that Schell himself is a former Disney Imagineer. (For my part, I kinda find the word to be a bit smurfy.) Schell likes the term because it accurately suggests that Imagineers are people who enjoy building and spending time in imaginary places.

He pointed out that we all know people who love to do just that (and many of us are those same people), but that we also all know people who just cannot get it, who have absolutely no use for fantasy whatsoever. And yup, I think that's absolutely true. Schell said that if we are going to call the fantasy prone among us "Imagineers," that we need a term for those who have no ability or inclination towards fantasy. He suggested the term "Mundanes." The audience laughed, perhaps a bit smugly. But also: yeah, pretty much.

Mundanes like things in the real world; theirs is the realm of activity, of physical sports. Schell pointed out that it seems noteworthy that no sport, not a single one, has any element of fantasy to it. (I'll point out that even fantasy baseball has no real fantasy, just... made up baseball teams. So, good point, Jesse). He also pointed out that as we integrate tech with real-world activities, we'll find a way to build real-world sports and activities that also exist within a fantasy gamespace.

Foursquare

He said that when he talks about this, a lot of people point out Foursquare, but that he's not sold. It's too simple, he argued; you're either the mayor or you're not, and past that there's not much to it. He said that lots of folks respond to that by telling him that it's not so much FourSquare now as it is the potential for it to be combined with other games, other online worlds. Still no sale.

Money quote:
"Foursquare + World of Warcraft = LARPing."
Schell posited that the coming conflict between the Imagineers and the Mundanes is going to be huge and explosive - the two groups are on a collision course, and we are going to have to come up with a way to build fantasy worlds that appeal to Mundanes, appeal to people who currently have no use for them. He doesn't know how to address the problem, but does seem to have a point about its inevitability.

Sharing

Schell went on to talk about how important sharing will be to the coming age. As an example, he pulled up a picture of the Wikipedia homepage, saying that he initially thought Wikipdedia was a terrible idea. "An encyclopedia that everyone can edit? It's going to be terrible!" But he was proved wrong, and Wikipedia is actually amazing! "In fact," he said, half-disbelievingly, "Wikipedia is possibly the crowning achievement of humanity!" Thunderous applause.

Cloud Gaming

Schell then talked a bit about OnLive, saying that it's a really great idea, but not just because it allows folks to play games without having to worry about their PC or console. He suggested that the real promise of OnLive is all the sharing it allows. Many of the options on the OnLive main menu ("Showcase" "Brag Clips" "Friends" "Profile") involve sharing, and that the ability to truly share your play with others will finally be made possible by a cloud-based gaming system. After all, he pointed out, it's easy to broadcast your game, or to watch your friend's, since all OnLive has to do is send another video signal, not process everything again.

Extrinsic Rewards

Nearing the end of the Candyland board, Schell pointed out that "Extrinsic Rewards" are placed where the "Molasses Swamp" is usually located in Candyland (My research indicates that it is now called the "Chocolate Swamp", but same difference). That's because he sees them as tricky, and thinks that many extrinsic rewards are shortsighted and fleeting. His theory is that many, many companies will experiment with extrinsic rewards (e.g. "Beat the final boss, win a free pack of potato chips"), but that only a few will get it right.

Schell suggested that we read Alfie Kohn's book "Punished By Rewards," which lists study after study illustrating that the more people come to associate an action or task with a reward, the more they grow to resent it. As an aside, Schell noted that he wishes psychologists had shared this stuff with game designers earlier. He then made a pretty good joke about how terrible psychologists' parties are, even though "it stands to reason that psychologists know so damn much about the human mind that their parties would be awesome!" This over a shot of a truly wretched-looking cocktail party in some psychologist's living room. Zing!

In Schell's estimation, in order for games built on extrinsic rewards to work, they need to be engaging, effortless, uncheatable and unembarassing. That last one is harder than it sounds, and he pointed out that many people don't even like to take out coupons at the store, since it can feel a little bit silly or embarrassing. And public gaming, as we all know, can be quite embarrassing.

Whole-Life Tracking

And here Schell came to the final stop on the board, with the sensors, screens, systems, and games coming together to track our whole lives. In a nice change from the DICE talk, his goal this time around seemed to be to ask to what ends, exactly, we will use the coming age of whole-life tracking.

As he mentioned earlier, we've all signed up for this - we have already put so much of our selves out into the world that it's only a matter of time before those bits are organized into a database indexing and cross-referencing every single thing about us - our faces, our bodies, our locations, our likes and dislikes, our habits, our friends, our families (and let's face it - he's right). And while one result of this tracking and documenting might be to push people to live better lives, make better choices, read better books, be better people... it also opens the door wide for exploitation.

Money Quote:
"Can we wake the hell up?"
Positively Gladwellian

Channeling Blink and The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, Schell put four images side-by-side on the screen. From top left, they were Persuaders (denoted by a dollar sign), Fulfillers (a heart with wings), Artists (a colorful painter's palette shaped like a brain) and Humanitarians (a pink rocket ship). He described each group, with the Persuaders being the ad men, the people who want to sell and make money, the Fulfillers interested only in making people happy, Artists caring only for expression and the advancement of their medium, and Humanitarians trying to make the world a better place.

Be careful, he said. Despite what group you think you're in, you might be being controlled by another group. (Cue picture of the Fulfiller Heart being worked on puppet strings by the mean-looking Persuader Dollar-sign). But hey, if we can really figure it out, if we can "wake the hell up," maybe we can take control? Maybe we can out-persuade the Persuaders? (Cue longer shot of the same picture, with the Humanitarian Rocket standing above the Persuader, holding a set of puppet strings of its own.)

The audience, perhaps predictably, loved this image. Schell himself seemed unconvinced that any but the Persuaders will seize power, but it's nice that he gave the people a bit of what they want. Interestingly, the Artists didn't get involved in the puppet show. Presumably too busy off making aaaht.

Maybe, Schell asked, returning to the giant image of the mushroom cloud, the coming Gamepocalypse doesn't have to be so scary? Maybe, it can be (cue similarly horrific mushroom cloud with... a smiley face drawn on it) a happy Gamepocalypse?

And then, with a small slide that simply said, "Thanks!", the talk was over.  Thunderous applause.

Audience Member Q&A

After the talk, Schell moved to center stage to take some audience-penned questions. Many of them seemed to revolve around MMOs, questions about endless games and what makes them so appealing. When asked about his favorite game, me mentioned that most of the games he plays now are for via his young daughter, but that back in the day, he really loved Blast Corps. He followed that with a pretty funny description of the gameplay, which made me want to check it out (I never had a Nintendo 64, alas).

There was also some discussion of professional videogaming, and how the idea of playing games professionally (common in Korea) only seems odd to Americans because we're not used to it. After all, most physical sports are pretty silly too, when broken down to their fundamental mechanics, and yet people regularly make millions of dollars playing them.

He also talked a bit about the amazing prescience of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game ("If you've read his other work, you know - Orson Scott Card sold his soul for that book") and gave a shout-out to Impact Games and their first game PeaceMaker, which explored the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and greatly helped young people in both countries to better understand the nuances of the conflict.

In Schell's words, that was because games are uniquely suited to teaching people about complex systems, and I think he's absolutely right on. That game is interesting enough to merit like, four posts, but I have a feeling that enough has been written about it that I wouldn't really have anything new to add.

And so after a couple hours of extremely high-energy game talk, we all left the auditorium. I skipped the reception, mainly because I was starving and needed a taco, pronto (I'm not getting paid for this, people). I bet it would've been fun to hang around, if only to hit up some of the no-doubt brilliant folks who were in attendance for career advice and fashion tips.



And that was that! I don't have as much commentary this time around... maybe if Annie and I coulda both been present we could have done it up. As it stands, I'm a little bit overwhelmed by everything Schell threw out there. If you have a chance, I highly recommend catching his talk - in addition to what I've covered here, it contained a ton of additional postulations, and more than that, Schell is a truly engaging public speaker and a funny dude.

More than anything, I'm curious to know what you think. Is Schell right about this stuff? Is he tripping balls? Are we doomed? Can we wake the hell up? Should I buy a harmonica? Jump into the comments and let's talk Gamepocalypse.
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