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Persuasive Games: Shell Games
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Persuasive Games: Shell Games

March 3, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Just what will the achievementization of the world mean? Author and game designer Ian Bogost ponders Jesse Schell's DICE talk and blends his interpretation with research. Will it work... and, more importantly, is it good?]

In a widely disseminated talk at DICE last month, Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center professor Jesse Schell made a provocation: can game-like external rewards make people lead better lives?

To answer the question, Schell explored hypothetical scenarios that might combine awards of Xbox Achievements-like scrip with emerging sensor networks that would track our everyday behaviors. Teeth brushing might earn sponsored awards from Crest, for example, and taking the bus might earn awards from a government mass transit program.

Sounds farfetched? Schell points out early signals that support his vision, including the dashboard of the new Ford Fusion, which features an image of a plant that flourishes or droops based on how efficiently the driver pilots the vehicle.

Reactions to the talk have been mixed, with some heralding him as a brilliant oracle of a desirable future, others wondering how he could have failed to mention related, high-profile work by Frank Lantz (Area/Code) and Jane McGonigal (Institute for the Future), and others dismissing Schell's prophesy as dystopian nightmare.

Here, I want instead to explore a few philosophical problems that arise from Schell's position -- problems which proponents and detractors should both consider.

S(c)hell Games

In addition to his professorship at CMU, Jesse Schell operates a game studio. They make electronic and location-based entertainment, under the shingle "Schell Games." It's a clever name, because it plays its founder's surname off a well-known gambling game, the shell game.

Everyone knows it: a small ball is hidden under one of three walnut shells. The operator shuffles the shells around quickly, and a player is made to guess which shell houses the ball. Wagers are usually made, and indeed a typical run may appear to draw in a great many bets around a makeshift table on a street corner.

But the shell game is not a game of chance at all. It's a confidence trick. A skilled operator can remove and replace the pea at will, insuring that the player only wins if the operator chooses (which he might do in order to encourage additional bets). Most of the audience is in on the swindle, and their bets serve to encourage a target to place (and then ratchet up) the wagers. The shell game is not a game at all. It's a fraud, a swindle, a con.

With apologies to Mr. Schell's good name and studio, we might give the title schell games to video game incentive tricks that cause people to "do the right thing," such as brush their teeth or drive their cars efficiently. (I'll spell it in the lower case to distinguish the type of game from Jesse Schell's company.)

Just as the shell game dupes players into believing that they are making wagers against chance, so the schell game dupes players into believing that they are completing virtuous actions toward righteous positions.

When seen from the perspective of their outcome alone, a wager in a shell game looks like an earnest gamble. But when seen from the perspective of the operator, who is altering the game to suit his desired outcomes, the wager is merely a foil to be used against the player.

Likewise, when outcomes alone are considered, an action taken in a schell game looks like an earnest honor. But when seen from the vantage point of the agents who dole out incentives, that honor again becomes merely a foil to motivate an action.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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