Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
Working in or around the games business, it's easy to become focused on issues which seem to be of crowning importance, but which are actually only one facet of a much wider picture. The industry obsesses over the pace of the transition to digital distribution, for example, and its debates often fail to give full credence to the much broader debate over the future of copyright, intellectual ownership and property of which that is merely one aspect.
Equally, every industry conference or gathering in recent years has talked at length about conquering "mainstream" markets - the march of progress into casual or downstream sectors, the opening up of new fronts in social and mobile gaming, and so forth. This, too, can be seen as merely one expression of a larger movement within society - a movement on which the games business can enjoy a unique perspective.
That movement is, in simple terms, the integration of videogame mechanics into non-gaming tasks - the steady "gamification" of the world around us, as more and more actions in our daily lives come to be governed and (perhaps arguably) enhanced by interactions, rules and systems learned from the world of games.
My most recent brush with this shift in our behaviour came courtesy of my vocation as a (decidedly average) learner of Japanese. Casting about for a better way to learn the mounting piles of kanji characters required by my course, I was recommended an online learning tool whose remarkably effective methods would be instinctively familiar to anyone who has played MMORPGs or social games in recent years.
Each day, the system tests you on previously learned characters while gradually adding new characters to the mixture - an educational concept as old as education itself. However, the front page of the site presents your progress in terms of numbers and graphs. Progress over successive days is shown, along with overall progress towards your goals. The human brain is simply incapable of seeing data like this and not viewing it as a challenge - it becomes a game to ensure that the graphs go upwards, that today's progress bar doesn't fall behind yesterday's, and so on.
It's not hard to see the same underlying psychology at work here which drives gamers to level up in online games. As a linguist, the improvements you might demand from such a tool would probably be focused on the definitions it offers, perhaps the range of different ways of examining characters, and so on. As a gamer, however, I know that the most compelling - and probably successful - changes the developers could introduce would be those which bring the system further down the trail blazed by MMOs and social games.
They could create milestones where learners unlock rewards which are visible to their peers, for example, or group challenges which apply the addictive social nature of games like Farmville to the learning process. The raw numbers and graphed statistics presented now are the stuff from which the compelling nature of games are hewn - adding more of the trappings of videogames would tap into that power and drive learners to return every day. If there's one thing social games have taught us, after all, it's that a powerful framework for progress in a game can be more important than moment to moment gameplay - learning kanji characters may not be terribly fun, but neither is ploughing fields in Farmville.
Edutainment, of course, is nothing new - products which aimed to combine interactive entertainment with education have been around for over thirty years. Our growing understanding of the mechanisms of compulsion in games, and of just how strongly our brains react to the kind of statistical and social impulses provided by online gaming, is pushing this kind of idea to the forefront - and this in itself is simply one example of a much wider trend.
Consider, at the other end of the spectrum, the humble banner ad. Over ten years ago, slightly unscrupulous marketers hit upon an insight which seems superficial, but is actually quite profound - that banner ads which promised interaction, a gaming experience, were much more compelling and more likely to be clicked than those which were simply attractive or alluring. The fruits of that insight have ranged from the once-ubiquitous "Click the Monkey" banners, through to more modern efforts which have embedded relatively complex Flash games in roll-out banners.
Or how about an even more unlikely candidate for the application of videogame mechanics - vehicle fuel efficiency? One of the masterstrokes in the design of Toyota's famous Prius hybrid cars was the placing of a large, flexible LCD readout on the dashboard, which allowed the vehicle to display precise statistics and details of how its hybrid systems were functioning. The driver doesn't actually need this data, of course - any more than the driver of a standard car needs to see precise readouts of how many CCs of fuel are flowing into the engine, the exact mix of air to fuel, or graphed statistics of RPM over the past ten miles.
Presented with such data in a compelling format, however, Prius drivers are gripped by instincts which are incredibly familiar to videogame creators. They begin to play the car's systems exactly like a game, using the information readouts to try to maximise fuel efficiency, experimenting with different strategies and evaluating their effect on the figures. This, I suspect, is exactly what Toyota's engineers had in mind from the outset - a cunning leverage of the brain's affinity for games.
None of this, of course, is any suggestion that human behaviour itself is actually changing. That affinity for games predates recorded history - it flows naturally from the competitive, challenge-focused nature of our psychology, which millenia ago we learned to harness in order to make dull tasks tolerable by turning them into games. As a result, we are tuned into interactivity and gaming stimuli just as surely as we are tuned into the sounds of music or the colours and shapes of artwork.
Rather, what is changing is our society's understanding and appreciation of that side of human behaviour - and at the same time, technological progress has delivered to us a greater understanding of what makes games compelling, and the toolset required to build that compulsion into more and more tasks.
The videogames business, more than any other, stands to benefit from this change. Just as great musicians found their sphere of influence widening as the communicative power of music was more broadly understood in society, and film-makers have found their talents in demand in a host of businesses which have little to do with cinema, game creators' understanding of the interplay between interactivity, compulsion and psychology will be more and more in demand as the world continues to take notice of the power of games to alter and improve vast swathes of our lives.
It's not hard to envision a future where almost everything we do can be manipulated to obey some kind of gaming rule-set - from brushing our teeth, to going to the gym (surely already a market ripe for capitalisation by the minds behind Wii Fit or EA Sports Active), to commuting into work, shopping, driving, or any of a host of other activities.
For game creators, this represents an opportunity to sell the combined experience and learning of the past three decades to a much wider market. Some will balk at this idea - mostly those who are already concerned that the growth of the casual and social markets has "diluted" gaming in some negative way - but the eventual prospects of this opportunity are incredibly tantalising. For years, games pundits have talked about the industry being as big as movies; one day, it seems, the gaming medium could rival not only the movie business, but the medium of film itself, in its cultural importance.
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