Game of Life

Social and casual gaming are one facet of wider change as people embrace games in new ways.

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.

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