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Persuasive Games: Shell Games

March 3, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Schell games are games of resultant moral luck. When one responds to game-based incentives like points and rewards, good things might happen: better hygiene, or a cleaner environment, or a greater connection to one's family. But these results cannot be judged to have the same moral responsibility as choices made given factors under greater player control.

Consider a Facebook game like Farmville by Zynga. In the game, players can recruit friends to found neighboring farms. Indeed, playing well almost requires it. Visiting and helping on these farms yields money and experience points, but with enough neighbors, players earn the ability to expand their own farms.

You can run the moral luck test above on Farmville, replacing drivers with players, and vehicular manslaughter with friendship. Is a player of Farmville developing and invigorating friendships through play, or is the player exploiting those friendships for positive gain?

There's no simple answer, of course, but moral luck makes it difficult to judge this so-called social play with a moral compass, as an expression of the virtue of fidelity or affection when that affection may or may not have arisen from play. What is internal to the game and what is external? The answer is murky.

Process at Risk

There's one final problem with schell games, and that's this: games are not primarily comprised of incentives and rewards in the first place, not even the more unusual ones Schell presents in his talk. The heart of games is not points, but process. Games have the capacity to persuade us because they can depict perspectives on how things work, and they can give us insights into the complex and often ambiguous connections between them.

At their purest, schell games want to strip process from games, putting simplistic incentives its place.

In this respect, the most ironic example Schell presented in his talk at DICE is that of the Ford Fusion dashboard. The growing plant in the dash holds promise not because it offers an incentive to drive in a fuel-efficient manner, but because it reveals the combinations of mechanical, electrical, and combustive processes that lead to fuel-efficient driving.

The Fusion driver does not jump with Pavlovian delight upon seeing a lively fern, but noodles with intrigue over the combinations of traffic patterns, driving, techniques, topology that lead to different results. She might ask questions like "Why does driving a certain way have an impact on fuel consumption," and "How are neighborhoods and cities designed to encourage and discourage such driving?"

She might wonder how the automobile and urban planning codeveloped over time, and as a less fuel-efficient vehicle honks angrily from behind, she might consider the legislative, social, and cultural processes would need to change in order to bring about a different cultural attitude toward fuel consumption.

Instead of revealing the processes that define values, schell games tend to hide them away, compacted into the ideologies of corporations and governments. In that regard, if Jesse Schell is right and such games are on the horizon, we ought to bear in mind a warning. When we ask the question what is worth doing through games, we'd better hope the operator is not a shill.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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