Happiness Engines

argame300If games are so good at motivating people, then why not make real life more like a game? Games are, after all, happiness engines. They have rules you can understand, opportunities for collaboration and feedback, and best of all, it’s actually possible to win. For most humans, this is not an experience that matches lived life . . . despite the fact that there is a steadily increasing expectation within privileged societies like our own that life should be fun. Whether we’re at the grocery store, in school or at church, we feel like we shouldn’t be bored. We deserve to be engaged and interested in what we’re doing. If it’s dull or difficult, maybe it’s not worth doing.

Like most people who watched Second Skin, a documentary about gamers that debuted at SXSW, I took it as a cautionary tale about the dangers of immersive games: for people who are not quite comfortable in their own skin, it’s awfully tempting to live your life in a virtual reality — where you’ve got a hot body and dragons to slay. But keynoter Jane McGonigal provided the flip side to this sad story: her solution is to integrate games more completely into lived life. Creative parents have long turned chores into games — McGonigal suggests adults follow suit . . . and that they do it in very large groups.

There have been lots of interesting experiments with this idea — most of which are classified as Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). Not ‘alternative’ reality games, where the object is escape — something we see all too clearly in Second Skin. An alternate reality game offers players another way to experience existence. Sometimes ARGs just take the edge off of otherwise boring activities: Chore Wars has been a hit in offices, where co-workers want to find a fun way to make people accountable for cleaning up. Zyked, an exercising game that’s still in alpha, seems like a sure winner for people who need that extra nudge to go to the gym.

Attent is another variation on the idea, one that adopts some concepts from multiplayer games in order to better handle email overload. The game involves ‘paying’ people in a fake currency to read emails: the more currency you attach to an email, the more likely it is that your co-workers will actually read it. Not only does it add a fresh new dimension to slogging through your email box, it allows organizations to see currency exchange patterns and to assess the value of specific internal communications.

Fascinating stuff, no doubt, but will these types of applications really catch on? In March, McGonigal will help launch Find the Lost Ring, an Olympics themed ARG — sponsored by McDonald’s — that intends to bring together an international cadre of players who will delve into Greek philosophy and mythology, among other things, as they collaborate across linguistic boundaries to, well, Find the Lost Ring. McGonigal has already had critical success with World Without Oil, a game that asked people to imagine what it would be like for 32 days following a global oil crisis, and GameLayers, a San Francisco outfit, has just launched their ‘passively multiplayer game’ which turns Web browsing into a shared experience, replete with missions, points and secret communications.

Of course ARGs are perfect for viral marketing campaigns. The most famous ARG may be ‘I Love Bees,’ where Halo 2 fans ended up running around answering public telephones in order to listen to secret messages from cyborg characters in the game. There’s really nothing new about incorporating entertainment into ‘real life’ — nor is there anything new about monetizing that experience — but injecting sophisticated interactive technology into the process raises the stakes, and the possibility of some profound pay-offs. Who will benefit? Whether it’s geeks, game companies, or social activists, the result could be world changing.

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