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The Gamification of Life

On last week’s edition of Spark, my new favorite podcast, the topic was games and the first segment was a very interesting discussion with Jesse Schell, a game designer who also teaches at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

His thesis is that, while games of one kind or another have always been with us, the ability to store and access huge quantities of data in the 21st century is bringing about the “gamification” of life.

The whole discussion is worth listening to (an extended version is also on the show site) but there were two pieces that stood out for me.

First, is Schell’s view of school as gaming.

People are already talking about how to reorganize [using gaming techniques] school because school is already a kind of a game. You go they have tasks, you do the tasks, you get a score. In games we have a leader board. In school you call it an honor roll. So school is already a kind of a game.


People are talking about how can we design that better. How can we track what you’re doing a little better, give you more instant feedback?

He uses a student doing math problems for homework as an example of where gaming systems might be used to give kids feedback on their work, although I would hope we could come up with better ways to apply these concepts.

That view of education is somewhat disconcerting, but Schell’s thoughts on how advertisers will use gaming techniques are rather scary.

His thesis seems to be that, when marketers begin to understand all this, it will be almost impossible to get away from someone trying to sell you something.

Everything is going to be trying to distract you constantly and it’s going to have much more ability to distract you because these things are going to know where you are, what you’re doing, and where you’re going.

The advertisers are just now starting to wake up to the power of games. I think for the 20th century the dominant means of building one’s brands and capturing a person’s imagination had to do with graphic arts. It had to do with logo design and designing brilliant commercials and beautiful ads in magazines.

I think in the 21st century it’s going to be much more about game design. It’s going to be much more about how can I incentivize you to focus on my product, pay attention to my product, tell your friends about my product, think about my product all the time. Game design is going to make that very easy to do.

The host noted, quite correctly, that it sounded like advertisers were going to have us all in digital versions of a Skinner box, bombarding us with stimuli to reward us for the correct behavior.

Of course, there’s a right way and wrong way to apply the gaming concepts Schell is working on, in education, marketing, or any other area of life.

I suspect we’ll have to suffer through a whole lot of the wrong approach before we get to the right ones.

We should also be including a big dose of media awareness in every student’s curriculum from the first day they enter school.

Image: Giant Chess Board in Lindenhof, Zurich by szeke, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. The Science Goddess

    I really hope that this is not the way game theory is implemented in the classroom, because kids “completing a task to get a score” is already the wrong motivational concept. We need to be about learning, not about “incentivizing” students. Ugh.

  2. Dave

    My experience with getting hooked on various video games is that the “hook” almost always takes the same form: instant, quantifiable feedback that reflects skill improvement AND time investment. Currently, education assessment is based mostly on skill improvement. Maybe we should also assess time spent; spending more time can’t help but lead to subtle refinement of technique.

    (I’m not really concerned about marketer access to data, because I think we regulate it well by avoiding tools that go to far…like the current hesitance surrounding foursquare use.)

  3. Mark

    This is a very timely post in light of the recent TED talk about gaming being used to solve world problems: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html. I think we can learn a lot from video games in terms of how they provide the player with tasks that are right in their zone of proximal development and how they offer immediate feedback as to how the player is doing.

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