New Job Title: Researcher/Designer, Northwest Media

I’m happy to report that I’m at Northwest Media designing interventions for social good based on learning games, We’ve got a number of projects on the go:

  • VSG, a Sims-RPG hybrid game designed to help at-risk kids, especially foster teens, realize the need to develop life skills before jumping into the real world.  It’s a NIH-funded SBIR Phase II, and we’ve got most of a year left to finish.
  • InTouch, a serious game that aims to help foster and birth parents develop a form of mentalization called “Parental Reflective Functioning”.

It’s exciting stuff that combines innovation, simple execution of what is known, and all for social good.  Nice!


LegitMe Pitch

Do YOU want to disrupt the world of e-retail? Are you unafraid of Amazon, Apple, Hollywood, and every other powerful IP holder in the world?  OK!  here’s the plan:

NEED 1: CONVENIENCE. I, the LegitMe customer, used to be a pirate but as I get older and richer, I use torrents not to save money but time, and to get a better product. Software is quicker and easier to install via torrent, and DRM-free media is handy and quick, compared to regionlocks and other silliness of legit media. What I want is a way to legalize everything I’ve illegally downloaded on my pc, quick and simple.

SOLUTION:  LegitMe is a client and ASP, endorsed by an organization I totally trust, and that I install voluntarily.  When I run the client, it crawls all storage on all my personal devices, identifies illegally downloaded media (torrents, mainly). Once a year or so, it would invite me to buy all my downloads: “This computer, and WifePc, and Kidspc, together have 258 songs, 32 movies, and 6 apps that aren’t legal. To buy these all for $379, click here. To buy and/or delete certain ones, click here.”  I pay $379 to LegitMe’s paypal account, and I’m done (actually, not quite done – more on this later).

Once I’ve OKed it, the client send parts of that list to thousands of other clients using P2P.  After the data is sufficiently anonymized, the clients upload the list (no personally identifying information) to LegitMe’s servers.   The servers tally how many copies of each media are there, and contacts the rightful owner.   e.g. “Dear MGM: 6271 torrent owners have illegally downloaded “Full Metal Jacket” and have asked us to buy it for them under these terms [link]. Based sales history of similar titles (viewable here), and with an amnesty discount, we believe a fair price is $32,800 ($5.23 per copy).  To agree, click here to receive imeediate, cash payment.  If you do not accept this price or terms, feel free to counteroffer by contacting”


LegitMe doesn’t know and doesn’t promise the user is obeying the terms of the IP deal.  There is no “ownership receipt”.  Angry IP owners can subpoena LegitMe’s servers, but there’s nothing on them that would help identify users. It would be more useful to get torrent download sites, which at least have IP addresses associated with the torrent download.

LegitMe allows the users to set the terms, and forces IP Owners to negotiate on stupid ideas like Region Lock. It’s based on trust.  LegitMe allows honest users to “come clean,” out of the goodness of their hearts.  In their hearts, most people do want to be good.  They want to see indie artists rewarded.  Most even want James Cameron to get $10M to make Avatar 2.  LegitMe allows them to be good without being punished.  Two examples:
1) I’ll pay something for Windows XP, but not $100, and I’m not driving to Best Buy to get it!
2) Collectively negotiating terms could open exciting new business opportunities to indies (“Dear AngryTanks developer: 253 users are collectively offering you $32,393 to open source your entire game”) but would be more often used to counteroffer untenable terms in major IP Owners’ licensing agreements (“Dear MGM: Owners have authorized LegitMe to pay $0.37 more for each of your DVDs if they are not region-locked.”).

RISKS:  I can think of only three teensy little risks….

RISK 1. IP owners like Sony Music are known to be vicious,greedy sharks. Would they really negotiate with known pirates?

A.  They will have no choice.  A key hire for LegitMe would be a really excellent IP licensing negotiator.  At first LegitMe would only be able reach agreement with progressive, openminded IP owners (e.g. O’  It would not even try to negotiate with larger entities; it would simply hold the money (with users’ permission) in escrow for a future date, while it continued to bring on more and more IP owners.  The money would be stacking up, over the years. If/when the escrow reached millions, LegitMe would fund a campaign to pressure the big boys, working on them via stockholders (they are legally obliged to make a profit), competitive pressure (progressive publishers would have a “pure profit” revenue stream), and political (good old campaign finance, seeking a “obligation to offer fair alternative” law).

If LegitMe works, eventually I (the user) might trust LegitMe enough to not go anonymous.  At that point, I can track my IP ownership across multiple devices, download higher quality versions of the content from IP owners, build a genuine relationship of trust with the IP owner directly.

In the eyes of the IP owners, LegitMe would work like a bricks-and-mortar retailer: buying IP in bulk, competing with Apple and Amazon.

2. Would enough users really trust this product not to rat them out?
This is the biggest risk, at this point. Certainly a few people will do it, but also certainly some people would never do it.  A realistic estimation of the market size would require some research.  Partnership or endorsement by a completely trustworthy entity would help.  The EFF springs to mind. Suggestions?

3 Is it possible for code to determine which media you had purchased, as opposed to legally downloaded or ripped content?
LegitMe would allow users to tag IP they bought legally (e.g. DVDs they ripped themselves), versus downloading.  LegitMe would see a very large (90% say) discount for media I bought and ripped, provided I share them only among devices I own.


Obviously it won’t be easy.   And also obviously, there’s a LOT of money in it, if it works. To me that’s a risk, not a goal.  Anything worth $100m gets greedy sharks circling.  We are not sharks.  We are wizards, changing the world with the power of pure ideas.  We must protect this from sharks – hence “social enterprise.”  This idea can rebalance the scales of IP ownership by letting normal people get rewarded for being honest.

To the investor, LegitMe is a disruptive new business model for e-retail that will beat Apple and Amazon three ways:

1) cost of doing business is massively lower – no ads, retail website, etc.
2) licensing terms are set by purchasers, not owners.
3) negotion leverage: IP owners can cut off Apple and Amazon if they wish.  They can’t do that with LegitMe.

Critiques? Suggestions?  I honestly don’t see how this can’t work.  Fire away!

The three ways technology reaches end users

In this discussion, I suggest that all modern technological breakthroughs that affect normal people might be understood as belonging to one of three models:

First, I acknowledge the ‘normal’ model: publicly funded research yields technological breakthroughs, which are developed into mass-market tools. The selling of the tool generates profit.  The user applies the tools to generate value for himself, not the entity.

Typewriters –> IBM, Selectric
Mobile phones –> Motorola, Sprint
Smartphones –> Apple, Google, Samsung
eBooks –> Amazon
Video games –> EA, Sony, Valve

Second, the ‘fishhook’ model does not generate most of its value from selling the tool.  These entities develop a technology into a ‘fishhook:’ the tool is free, because the entity extracts value from users’ activity: the use of the tool, not the tool, generates the value.  Any free or advertising-supported tool is using the ‘fishhook’ model.

TV –> NBC, Foxtel, Comcast
Ad-supported Kindle –> Amazon
Video –> Youtube
Collaborative Planning –> Google Calendar, etc
Social science –> Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

The third way are what I call ‘happy accidents’. For example, the personal computer, email, WWW, and torrents were all unharnessed breakthroughs. I argue these were accidents, not the plan, of the large entities that funded their research.  Apple largely failed to exploit the PC revolution with the Apple II. It did not make that mistake the second time with the iPhone.  Many entities today aim to intentionally induce these “accidents”. Free IP, indie media, maker movement, and open-source culture are examples.

I developed this idea during a discussion of consumer media literacy.  If I publish that, I’ll edit this line with a link to it.

I’m looking forward to your reasoned response.

One Over Gamification, Times Minus 1.

Gamification is fun to attack, as we’ve seen, but I’m trying for another approach: solutions as a form of criticism.  I’ll start with a grand idea, then explain how it could happen.

Grand idea: Serious games could be a revolution in persuasive media: one where people are convinced by intrinsic properties of the idea being promoted, not the aesthetic or base qualities.

How it could happen: 

I’ll explain using competing business plans for a learning game design and development company. As you read, ask yourself: Which one is the fatal “hammer in search of a nail” flaw?

Plan 2 is the standard model today: If you want to build a learning game business, you must find funding sources who wish to get a message out.  This is a random assortment of entities in society – from the Red Cross to Coke to the Pat Buchanan for Pope movement – who wish their message to be heard by today’s youth.   A small subset of these entities are ready to build a game.  (see related post, or Clark Aldrich’s many, detailed posts on this).  Many such companies exist and are doing reasonably well (e.g.

Plan 2 has a few obvious drawbacks, such as having to do work for companies whose message you don’t agree with, but the bigger problem is the game design.  More on that later: what’s the alternative?

Plan 1 is a quest for simulations.  We start with ongoing research effort to uncover mathematically based models of our world that are suitable to underly game engines.  Newtonian Physics, for example, has been well fairly thoroughly explored as the core mechanic behind many, if not most, video games. Other fields such as Chemistry and Economics have not, and I believe there is huge potential for genuinely fun games based on their models.  My idea is to explore the fields through partnerships with subject matter experts; identify opportunites, and brainstorm game concepts around these.  These 1-page summaries are collected and agitate for development, as irritating as angry cats in a burlap sack, in our brains.  We then seek funding (this is the tricky bit).  Our ideal partner has funds and desire to get people to really grok the fundamentals of their field.

OK, there’s the two approaches. Let’s consider them.

Plan 2 might appear to be a hammer in search of nails, since it’s a serious game business seeking customers, but it’s too strongly customer-driven.  Like a dressmaker, the Plan 2 designers measure their customers’ needs, choose various design patterns from a increasingly standardized shelf of core mechanics, scoring systems, etc, and apply these to the customers’ roll of cloth (the customer’s brand, in this teetering metaphor).

So, Plan 2 does not invent hammers – all good – but will it lead us to revolutionary  learning games?  Seems unlikely.   I read Paul Graham’s 10th point (“avoid distractions”) as applicable here.  Service businesses have little incentive to innovate.   One can milk novelty from mix-n-match game design, but it’s of a certain, incremental, mainstream kind.  Experimental gameplay is not usually in the budget.  Experimental ANYTHING is rarely in the budget.

Plan 1 looks more like “hammer in search of nails”, in that we start with a great game design (the hammer), then search for customers who want it…but I don’t think so.  Hammers are tools. Games are not.  Good games are inherently valuable, as they provide experiences people value.  Plan 1 builds products, not services.

So, Funders vs Customers is a fundamental difference between Plan 1 and 2.  Is this just semantics?  No.  Funders share the vision of the product. Funders don’t have needs.  Customers, in Plan 1, are the end users.   In Plan 2, the end users are mediated by their customer, the company with the message.

I believe it is common knowledge that product businesses generate more true innovation, and create much more value, than a service businesses.  (if you don’t agree, let me know and I’ll defend this).  While many smart people in service businesses imagine funding true innovation with paying work, it’s hard to actually do.

I end where I began: Serious games could be a revolution in persuasive media: one where people are convinced by intrinsic properties of the idea being promoted, not the aesthetic or base qualities.

So, is Plan 1 realistic?  I think so.  Take Chemistry.  Imagine a large nonprofit entity that wants to see kids consider chemistry as a career path. Existing methods (“Consider an Profitable Career in Chemistry) aren’t working.   They need something better.  They hire smart promotion campaign designers, who start by asking “why do chemical engineers enjoy their work?”  and let’s say interviews reveal that there is a genuine joy of discovery that makes the job satisfying.

The campaign designer realizes a game might deliver this experience.  She shops around various serious game developers.

Plan 2 proposes a high-production value engaging RPG game, CSI style, that challenges the player to solve mysteries uses bits of chemistry that are already popular and well understood.  It’s lovely and has mechanics and chemistry knowledge proven in existing games and they can nearly prove kids will love it.

Plan 1 proposes developing a a 21st-century chemistry kit that let kids build new chemical compounds safely and easily.   Players must feel the joy of creation that chemical engineers experience when they work.  This is difficult and risky, and has never been done before. The designers promise to sweat bullets to find a way to remove all the tedium from the chemical engineers job, but keep the satisfaction of problem solving. They freely admit they don’t know what the mechanic is, though they point to Foldit and SpaceChem as evidence that it is possible and fun, respectively.

Which one would you fund?  Plan 2 sounds a lot better, doesn’t it?   There’s only one problem: it won’t work. First, it pits itself against pure entertainment games. It must deliver fun with the millstone of CHOOSE A CAREER IN CHEMISTRY around its neck.  To reach millions of kids, it must fall back to desparate methods like “win a free car” or alternate distribution “get played at school” when kids are desparate for anything entertaining, but getting persuasive games in curricula is very tough, and getting tougher.

Second, even when it gets played, its message misses the mark. Chemical engineers aren’t detectives. The game mechanics don’t relate to the joy of chemistry.  People who like that game, will hate chemistry.  Chemical engineers work in labs, building entities so distant they are nearly abstract… but when successful create wonderful new things that affect the real world.  That’s WHY people become chemical engineers.

So, if even well-built, really fun serious games aren’t enough, what is?    Plan 1’s approach seeks another kind of game – something that delivers a profound experience – that is possible. It is very risky.  Is this a pipe dream?  No.  It happens every day, wherever kids get their dirty hands on  tools that bridge time and scale. Playing with this tool closees the loop between cause and effect and understand everything between.  That’s where the real fun comes from.

Many computer experts were seduced by the power of writing video games, which led to the profound experience of writing equations in BASIC and seeing them DO something. It’s the power of controlling a little universe, which leads engineer types to choose a career in chemistry.

A clever campaign manager, who is measuring the right things (overall uptake in a career in chemistry, as opposed to exposure), will see this type of game as the better investment.