For many people, Real Life™ is, at best, a bit dull. The jobs that most of us do seem to serve no real purpose, our efforts bear little or no fruit and we get little satisfaction from our work. Not to mention that, outside work, we’re trying to lose some weight, quit smoking or expand your social circle, but motivation is sparse. We seem to have very little agency over what we’re doing and where we’re heading. Fortunately, there is one place where we can do things that matter on an epic scale, and reward us frequently and visibly for what we do: games.
Many gamers will tell you that it feels much more satisfying to level up their image in World of Warcraft or to fight off an alien invasion in Halo with friends over the Xbox Live service than even the most productive day at the office. Why? Because games are designed to make us feel good when we play them. Game designers and positive psychology specialists have worked together to perfect techniques that make games rewarding for the players. Games also employ features that are seemingly lacking in real life, like constant feedback, visible consequences of actions and visible improvement of skills.
This apparent rift between the engagement of games and the lack thereof in real life is making more and more people flock to games as a pastime. Gamers spend 13 hours a week on average playing games, and rightfully so. It gives them a sense of control over their destiny, that what they’re doing matters in a grand scale. Despite the arguments that the work we’re doing has no physical repercussions, it’s the emotional rewards we’re after. This is part of what brings us back to them time and time again. So how do we make real life more engaging and rewarding, instead of having it push people away into the digital world of games? We create the game layer.
The game layer is a concept that has a lot of people very excited. The basic idea is that by using game dynamics and elements, you can influence people to do things more willingly, effectively and enthusiastically. The game layer is said to have the potential to improve education, social interactions, marketing and even chronic health problems. While this might sound very pie-in-the-sky at first, it’s not too far-fetched. It’s already happening. Frequent Flyer miles are comparable to experience points at the airport. Many other companies give out loyalty cards to ensure your continued patronage in exchange for free products. Weight Watchers is an RPG. While most of the applications of this “gamification” is mostly found in the world of business, the really interesting ideas are on how to apply the game layer to solve real-world problems.
Jane McGonigal, a 10-year veteran of game design, is one of the leading advocates of the use of alternate reality games or ARGs to make real life more gameful. Ever since her rant at the annual Game Developers’ Conference in 2008, she has stirred up a lot of support for the movement to integrate games into real life. In her TED talk and her book “Reality is Broken”, she makes some pretty bold claims of being able to use the game layer to cure chronic illnesses, ease the impact of world energy shortages, improve the education system (which I personally believe is so long overdue and ridiculously straight-forward that I don’t see how it can’t be implemented immediately), create more and better social connections and have people lead happier, more productive lives. It sounds too good to be true, but if you consider how many millions of people spend hours a day playing and coming back to their games, you have to realise the power that games have to engage people and keep them engaged. If you are interested in this movement, I would highly recommend obtaining a copy of “Reality is Broken”.
Whether the game layer, gamification and ARGs are out to help spruce op boring activities like doing household chores, change the way we work and interact with one another, or help us overcome problems on a global scale, I am looking forward to what’s to come. This might be the next step in realising our true potential and our ability to change the world, and I can’t wait to start playing.