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.