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GDC Online: Raph Koster Urges Developers To Take Back Control
GDC Online: Raph Koster Urges Developers To Take Back Control
October 13, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

October 13, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, GDC Online, Design, Business/Marketing

In a rabble-rousing speech at GDC Online, veteran MMO developer and current Playdom VP of creative design Raph Koster commanded the developers in the audience to take control of social media -- not let it take control of them.

Koster framed his speech, in large part, as a fairytale. He compared the world of games to a magic circle where powerful wizards set the rules.

"We like living here because we're wizards! It's pretty hard for stuff to get in and out of this magic circle," said Koster.

In the circle, everything is made of math, follows rules, is creative, and highly manipulable -- and, as it turns out, highly profitable as well. Since the magic circle is comfortable for those of us who don't know how to work well in the real world, this is a problem: money attracts "geographers," he said.

"Nowadays the wild world is coming right up to the edge of the circle and the circle is looking a little faded here. Stuff is flowing in, stuff is flowing out," said Koster. "And honestly we get really freaked out in here by the stuff that's leaking in."

"But a in a lot of ways we should be worried about the math that's leaking out," he said.

Early MMOs like Ultima Online, which Koster worked on, lacked robust social functionality. In some cases (ICQ messaging used as direct chat) users worked around it; in other cases (guilds, which Koster himself coded due to demand) the users forced the teams to accommodate their needs in-game.

"If we don't provide these facilities, players will pressure us to provide them," said Koster -- even if they "erode the gameness of the game."

"All of this ended up helping us build these big social structures," he said. "Social structures in games, once they click, they leave the bubble. In fact, that's part of the point." Forums, chat, communities -- all outside the games. But they have gone even further.

What form has this type of social interaction ultimately taken? Facebook, primarily, he suggested.

Game developers tried to keep absolute control of game worlds; only "some crazy people from Iceland even tried" to let the world into the game -- referring here, of course, to EVE Online and its player government, the Council for Stellar Management.

"Today, you can take stock of how many of the core premises of virtual community design have been taken from games and moved onto the websites that you're probably obsessively checking four times a day. It's all of it," said Koster.

Games simplified and quantified the real world, made it follow simple rules. "I love Will," said Koster. "But when he attempted to reduce all of human experience" by building The Sims, "he reduced it to eight bars, one of which was needing to pee."

And now these game concepts -- achievements and rules -- have taken the form of gamification. A simplified view of the world has been imposed on the real world, thanks to games.

"The keys to our kingdom had been handed over to the wild world. The wild world has become more like a game in virtually every way," said Koster.

But these implementations are far too simplistic. Games, as we all know, are not just about points and badges.

And while "Design is about constraining people," said Koster, games are not just systems of control. "Games are interesting, because they're only partly in control -- because they're about teaching you how to think."

"Good art does that. Bad art lies to you," Koster said. "When you start going pretty far down the route of accessibility, it's pretty easy to slip in this mode."

He pointed out that by using a points-based weight tracking app, he's lost 40 pounds. But a badly designed app could be "a straight road to anorexia, if your incentives are wrong."

Koster pointed out that he got into designing games because he wanted to set foot into "a world with two moons... I wanted to have magical experiences and form real bonds with people."

But by his estimation, today Facebook does groups better, points better, profiles better, roles better, has more user-generated content, and puts people in touch with their friends more effectively than games or virtual worlds have.

And, oh yeah -- "the world with two moons has bad funnel conversion, so we cut it."

So where does hope live?

"You're still a wizard," Koster told the audience. "Games are social media. From their inceptions, they have been tools for the transmission of wisdom. They're how we talk to each other, in forms of play. We shouldn't forget that regardless of how much all of this changes, we still have the power to shape this. We are the ones who set the rules that the world is copying."

If the world is becoming more game-like, there is "no better group people on the planet to navigate and shape that than you in this room," said Koster.

"It's more than just points. We did it because it was fun. We did it because we hung out with other people, and got to know them; they challenged us, and we challenged them. That's why we did the games. Let's watch out not to let the pointsification and rulesification, quantification, and reductionism that we have always loved about what we do -- let's not let that change who we are."

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Michael Joseph
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Is there a video of his presentation? The imagery I'm getting is that of a preacher in front of the flock.

What I find most disturbing is when people make certain claims like

"And now these game concepts -- achievements and rules -- have taken the form of gamification. A simplified view of the world has been imposed on the real world, thanks to games."

Thanks to games? There is no questioning of this claim's validity or desireability. Just acceptance and the urging that you should just blindly accept it as well. Good / bad, right / wrong, who cares... it's where the world is headed and if you're smart you'll become a guard rather than a prisoner that way you can at least shape the jailhouse.

We all engage in deception as the above TEDTalk video explains. It's who we are but maybe we can do better in not letting ourselves be deceived.

Raph Koster
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I am sure the video will be on the GDCVault eventually.

As far as gamification being inspired by games -- is there really any doubt about this point? Just go ask any practitioner of gamification. Or is that not what you meant?

Karl E
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Is he saying that some of the "core premises" of Facebook was taken from MMO:s?

That may be a bit of a stretch.

Jeremy Reaban
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The core premises of Facebook seem to have been directly lifted from the old AOL. That's almost all it really is...

Raph Koster
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No -- rather, that many of the core premises of social media -- not Facebook per se -- have been adopted from game practices, or at least heavily inspired by them. Games and network-based communications technologies have evolved hand in hand since the 70s.

Ramon Carroll
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This was a bit all over the place for me. I'm not really clear on what exactly Koster's chief concern is. Can someone please elaborate for me? I'd appreciate it.

Joe McGinn
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Yeah I think something was definitely lost in the translation here. Need to see the original talk - the article makes no sense, but Raph is a smart guy I'm willing to give him benefit of the doubt that his talk did. ;-)

Raph Koster
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I posted my personal summary and a copy of the slides here:

Ashkan Saeedi Mazdeh
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He is making clear points. directly or indirectly games were the cause for all these things that are new to ordinary people but game developers made them first. so now let's we shape them and control them and the world with new concepts and good implementation of old concepts instead of being controlled by them. really a great read! thanks

Luke Jones
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We definitely seem to be moving into an age where the player community is going to demand more input in the process of shaping the worlds developers are crafting for them. I think his main point is that while developers need to continue to listen to their communities they also need to keep a firm grasp of their product and not feel the need to implement every little feature the community pushes for.

hanno hinkelbein
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i can definitely relate to "see gamers as kids and don't spoil them" approach he has. games are all about wanting something and not being able to be just given it without effort. there's been too much selling out of the excitement lately

Michael Joseph
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gamification of the real world?

let's be real.... it's gamification of selling stuff.

You're not going to find your workplace gamified. You're not going to get a 100,000 dollar "power up" because you did something really right that resulted in your company making record profits that year.

Sorry, but if you're promoting gamification you're on the wrong side of the fence. Gamification is baloney and it's DOA.

Victor Dosev
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What do you think of the "external rewards" as a way of teaching - that is often used in gamification. Do you think someone's reward of putting up good work (like losing weight, using green energy or recycling plastic bottles) should be a virtual score, a pretty picture of growing plant and other such "moral thumbs-ups" ? Shouldn't people learn to appreciate the direct consequence of that good work they did, instead?

I haven't really made my mind on the topic, I don't have a particular thesis or something -I just want to ponder the topic more and see what you think --

Michael Joseph
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That's a difficult question.

You could argue that our system of grading students has been a form of gamification. You get an A if you do well. You get an F if you do extremely poorly. Get a good GPA, get accepted to a good university. Graducate from a good university, get a good job, make a lot of money, live happily ever after.

Where has this lead us? Well you can't blame it entirely on our system of grading, (it's only part of a larger system) but certainly what we see in the U.S at least is a significant student population that doesn't value knowledge per se, but values scores and what those scores means for their future prosperity. It's lead to (in my view) a society that is individualistic to a fault and selfish and flooded with cheaters and hackers (so to speak).

It's a horrible predicament. Somewhere along the line we rejected the notion that how you played the game was more important than whether you won or lost.

Should people learn to appreciate the direct consequence of their good work? Personally I think so, but whether people learn such things is largely a product of culture and in a deeply materialistic culture, it's hard to find the value in certain values where the immediate profitability of maintaining those values is unclear or worse a hindrance.

Gaming the system is what it's all about these days. Gamification in this light is a monstrosity.

Victor Dosev
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Thank you for sharing your opinion. I mostly agree with you. I'm not ready yet to provide well thought-out arguments by myself but It seems I share a similar train of thought.

Personally, I think that the education system in early stages of life should be solely about making the kids familiar with the different aspects of life and the different types of art and science that exist to enrich those "aspects of life". It's too early to make choices, too early to "compete" with scores and stuff. I have nothing of real value to support my theory yet but my gut feelings tells me that kids should first learn that they need to take responsibility and make choices about their own life - basically before they need to learn anything else. Or at least, before someone starts evaluating their skill/knowledge in terms of grade.

This is all wild theory on my part for now but I do think that gaming, specifically game-making is indeed tied to and interwoven in education. And I don't think the current education system, or many of today's games are teaching the right kinda stuff.

Excuse me but I think that the creation of robot "social" games full of meaningless, repetitive tasks provide the same long-term results as robbing banks only it's not illegal, yet. Yet.

Raph Koster
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"You're not going to get a 100,000 dollar "power up" because you did something really right that resulted in your company making record profits that year. "

Um, that's called a bonus plan or a royalty program, and lots of companies do it.

I am not promoting gamification, by the way; I had some harsh things to say about it in the talk.