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Will You Create a World of Consumers or Contributors?
by Reid Kimball on 02/21/10 09:00:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


honda insight eco assistJesse Schell, author of the highly regarded The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses gave a presentation at D.I.C.E on February 18th, 2010, which was at times funny and at other times a scary picture of the future of games.

His main premise is that games of the future will continue the trend of all media becoming more relevant to or at least connected with reality. Current examples of this trend he cited are the virtual plant that grows in the Honda Insight (though he incorrectly said it was the Toyota Prius) when drivers are more fuel efficient. It’s a game to encourage better driving behavior. Facebook games frequently encourage players to connect with their friends, to share virtual items or challenge them. XBox has its public achievement system that can pressure someone to play more to get more points so they can brag to their friends in the real world, about something that doesn’t exist if there’s no electricity.

Schell says this trend started because people care about reconnecting with what is real. That in the past twenty to thirty years, technology has enabled us to gorge on fantasy and escapism and now we are finally awakening from our post-gorge-fest to realize it was a sham. A farce. Empty calories that aren’t delivering what is real and true to the experience of being human.

flower in handsWe now want real experiences, we want real change and to reconnect with nature. Partly why Avatar was so successful was because it reawakened a deeply muted and numbed core of the human experience, which is to be in tune with nature, life and your own body. Many are sick today because they aren’t awake; they don’t know what “real” feels like.

So that’s the now, which I’ve sort of emphasized a bit more than Jesse Schell did and put my own interpretation on what I’m seeing. What about the future? What did Jesse Schell have to say about where games will go?

I think this was the best part of his presentation because it aroused strong feelings of disgust within and will leave me thinking for days, if not weeks, until I can figure out how to deal with it, because I see what he predicts as a very real possibility. In summary, what he predicts is massively multiplayer advertising games through sharing of dynamic electronic tattoos that display brand advertisements, cereal boxes with leaderboards among friends ranking who has eaten the most and Amazon reviews that give bonus points if the Kindle detected your eyes read every single word. Massive, pervasive awareness of what you see, what you eat, what you drive, how you do it, why you do it, where and when.

It’s not a future I want to see. I don’t like advertising, I think it pollutes the mind. “You are ugly. You are fat. You are hungry. You are friendless, hairless and depressed. What you need, we have. What you want, we sell. To be better, buy now.” Now couple that with achievement systems for being a “better” consumer and we have an already ill western society built up on consumerism now on a fast track to even greater self-destruction.

I went to a town hall recently and several members of the city government gave presentations, including the mayor and commissioner, as well as citizens. The topic was on peak oil, climate change and what it can do to our local food supply, the citizens and the planet as a whole. One point that really struck me was that for generations we’ve been brought up to be consumers. We consume food, clothing, information, services, products, art and raw materials of the earth. If we are to not only survive, but thrive in the coming generations, we need to adapt our way of living away from consumers to instead being contributors. We’ll need to become contributors of local community services (carpool organizer), food (grow your own), clothing (sew your own), healthcare (be your own doctor) and information (teach others what you know).

globe of earth flated with tire tracks on itThe question for us game designers as we move ahead to creating more reality infused game experiences is, are we going to create games that are leaderboards for how many calories players have consumed for McDonalds? Or are we going to create games that help people positively, to be more connected with nature, genuine and compassionate towards all life? Are we going to be creating generations of consumers, or generations of contributors? Which way will you contribute to the future of society?

Also posted on my personal blog, Reiding...

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David Hughes
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Increasing advertising in the game space is something that disturbs me as well. In fact, the whole 'social gaming' arena just turns me off. I have absolutely no interest in FarmVille or any of its various clones. One thing I applaud about Facebook's recent update is that it allows you to block all updates from games like that without blocking your friends.

Why don't we just keep games as the interactive entertainment experiences that they are. Great, thought-provoking storylines are what I play most games for (with the exception of a handful of excellent adversarial multi-player FPS's). Look to games like the original Bioshock for the future of gaming.

Damian Kastbauer
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Thanks for the point of view Reid, always great to get your perspective!

This evokes some interesting insights, and at the end nails (I think) some of the fundamentals which must be facing (nearly) all game creators: What does your game design communicate? What are we teaching? What feelings are we trying to impart?

As our industry moves forward from the primitive action->re-action roots of yesteryear, and continues to develop a more intricate language, it would be great to see -at least a portion of- game developers adopt one of the precepts of medical ethics: "First do no harm".

Of course it takes all kinds, and there will always be those who will play for the sake of bragging rights, herd mentality, and general compulsion; I have to hope that in some intelligent and (possibly) subversive way, game designers can bring a positive aspect to these behaviors by focusing on delivering models, stories, experiences, activities that support the healthy growth of a person.

Great to have you doing some deep thinking on it, keep rockin' it!

James Hofmann
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I think there's an even higher level view of our increasingly-complicated century than the one taken by Mr. Schnell.

Automation is set to take away not just traditional craftwork, but all human-directed manufacturing, including the "last mile" of consumer goods and services. It's not here, yet, or even on the immediate horizon, but there's a strong reason to do so; it means that companies like McDonalds may cease to exist as useful entities in our lifetimes. The food service robots of the future will only be limited by ingredient costs; recipes can be as elaborate as desired. The carefully constructed McDonalds supply chain is likely to be both undercut and overpowered by a host of independent operators that serve cheap, tasty local food with customized daily menus(the recipes of which they downloaded online, of course).

Scoring systems for vice consumption will battle against rival systems for ideological causes: By tapping into the same soda can API used for advertising, some indie developer could build a game about _lowering_ your sugar consumption to a healthy level, which ties into health+diet points systems. As people start using these systems more frequently they start avoiding the carbonated beverages, soda consumption plummets, and Coca-Cola suddenly folds.

The overarching change is towards an equalization and amplification of the individual. It can only benefit the people who give a lot and engage their community - precisely the leadership we need. I have a highly optimistic viewpoint, so I see gaming as just one way in which we can start taking the world back.

Bo Banducci
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James Hofmann,

I do a lot of thinking about the ways games can improve people's lives. Those were some terrific, innovative ideas. There may be hope after all.

Bart Stewart
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The nature of game development itself suggests that there are practical limits to individualism -- one person simply canít do it all. That said, itís still better as a principle to understand as much as one can of the systems in which we function. We may not be able to become perfect producers, complete unto ourselves, but we can all become better producers when we act to understand our respective parts in the whole.

That will make us smarter when it comes to all advertising and marketing, whether from corporations or governments.

Which brings me to Davidís suggestion that BioShock is the future of games: remember that Rapture is filled to overflowing with advertisements -- they just happened to be for fictional, in-world entities.

How long before someone pays Take Two for a little real-world product placement? And on what grounds would Take Two refuse that relatively easy to obtain new revenue source?

Reid Kimball
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I don't think you have to worry about the kinds of games you and I like to play disappearing. That's where the major advances in graphics, physics, AI, and general execution of experience happens. Developers want to push those areas and players still want to experience them, so we'll keep having games like Uncharted 2 and Batman: AA (two of my favs of 2009) for many years to come.

Facebook games are more popular only because of how cheap they are to develop and how much they make.


Those are great questions for game developers. I think there's still a majority of devs that don't ask themselves those questions, but year by year it's increasing. Notable developers like Jason Rohrer and everyone at thatgamecompany are already on that path.

I'm totally behind a concept of ethical game design. Something like, "Entertain your players. If your game touches on the human experience, make it truthful. Present solutions, do no harm to your player and thus, to society."


BTW: G4 misspelled Jesse's last name, it's supposed to be Schell, no 'n'. I can see that battle with games that encourage drinking soda vs. not drinking it and I think it will be the healthcare industry that helps determine who wins.


There's already plenty of real world product advertising inside games, but what Jesse Schell talks about is advertising in the real world that is more like a game. The inverse if you will.

Aaron Matthew
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I made a couple points about his lecture over on my blog, and in interest of saving bytes, I won't repost it all but instead link it:

I mostly agree with you here, everyone who doesn't want this to be the future (not that I think it would be) should work to make sure there's more depth and community to gaming than only what is required by the advertising overlords.

Bryan Ma
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Great thoughts from Mr. Kimball and insightful comments, thank you.

I'd like to add that I didn't see the talk as dystopic (@Aaron quite appreciated your points on saturation and reward systems) or stirring the pot at all (I didn't find Schell to be overly provocative, just plotting out a hypothetical path from current trends) - but rather examining how the current state of convergence between media and reality with gameplay constructs has potential to totally reinvent how we approach those areas - corporate interests included.

What I'm curious about is how the understanding and implementation of game-like principles in traditionally non-game areas can lead to alter how we engage and understand them? Changing our engagement with advertising is just one angle. How will that change entertainment? Education? Media? HCI? Social behavior? We already have Foursquare,, Chore Wars, potentially politics (
ocratic-participation/)? What else?

Overall I think Schell asked some big questions in the form of a thought-provoking prediction - definitely stirring my imagination more than making me ill at ease.