"Facebook kind of knocked us all on our collective ass," said Carnegie Mellon University professor Jesse Schell, during a DICE Summit session in Las Vegas this week.
Aside from a select few, he pointed out, nobody in the game industry expected the social network to become as relevant as it has become during the course of the last couple of years.
The interactive entertainment industry has been a source many unexpected game changers in recent years, said Schell, an author and former Disney Imagineer, as well as founder of Schell Games. Facebook games like Mafia Wars and FarmVille, Disney's kid-friendly money-maker Club Penguin, the Wii, Wii Fit, Guitar Hero, WebKinz, and achievements are a few products and services that blindsided the industry and changed market trends.
But the hits may not be as random as they appear on the surface. There are a few common factors among them if you look closer, Schell said -- and it's not all about making something that simply is "fun."
"These things involve psychological tricks," Schell said. Not too often are game designers brainstorming about how to affect and exploit consumers on a psychological level. Club Penguin, for instance, is a free-to-play game. Players earn virtual money by taking part in the online world. But in order to spend that virtual money, parents have to sign their kids up for a monthly subscription.
The initial accessibility plants the seed for the psychological "trick:" a kid asks his parent to sign up for a subscription; the parent initially says "no;" six months later, when the child has amassed a pile of virtual money that can only be spent by spending real money, he asks his parent for a subscription once again.
The parent, seeing some kind of perceived entertainment value for the virtual money-rich child, considers that a subscription is only $6 (a recurring fee), and signs up so the kid can spend this virtual money. "Are there new psychological angles that you can find?" Schell asked. "There is a lot of psychological cleverness going into these things."
WebKinz plays up that angle by selling typical stuffed animals, but attaching an "imaginary friend" inside that physical stuffed animal. It's actually a digital friend kids can pull up on a computer monitor, adding a psychological attachment. Adults don't easily pick up on it, but kids get it.
And Facebook games like Mafia Wars have users investing so much time that they feel spending money on virtual items is justified. A few years ago, Schell said, "if someone told you, 'I'll make a text-based mafia game and make $100 million,' you'd say, 'No, you won't do that.'" But it happened.
These trend-changers aren't only about psychological trickery. What these products have, from Wii Fit to Mafia Wars to Achievements, is the ability to break through to reality. Wii Fit happens on screen, but it can change your real-world physique. Facebook games let you interact with real-world friends. Achievements give you bragging rights in the real world.
Schell said that in the past, and even today, game makers obsess over creating fantasy, an escape from the real world, a disconnect. But these days, value of "realness" is rising. "We live in a bubble of fake bullshit, and we'll do anything to get to what is real."
"There's this hunger for reality," he added, citing Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore's book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want. Organic food, reality TV, McDonald's Angus Burger -- they're all billed by their purveyors as more "real" than the average product, and recent game successes feed the consumer's hunger for the real, Schell said.
Games and real life are colliding in unique ways. One professor at Indiana University, Lee Sheldon, doesn't give grades. Rather, students start as a level one avatar and level up through the class based on attendance and performance, like in a role-playing game. And the students' performance in class seems to indicate that the system works.
Schell took this game-life integration to the extreme, describing a world chock-full of sensors, where you could earn experience points from a toothpaste company for brushing your teeth, or points from health insurance companies for walking to work instead of driving. Companies and even the government would have a vested financial interest in engaging consumers and citizens through game-like elements.
It would be a world fraught with "crass commercialism," Schell said, but it would also be a world of opportunity for game designers. Today, game designers make games. But at some point, the people who truly understand games and how they can engage people will branch out into broader-reaching areas. For Schell, that notion is inspiring.