The Games of Life

First we were encouraged to buy. Then we were encouraged to contribute. Next: will we be encouraged to play?

A decade ago, e-commerce was the hot area for new startups. Once it became possible to buy almost anything online, the new new thing became contributing and sharing content. Now that field is pretty packed, what's next?

One interesting trend I've been following is the increasing use of game mechanics to drive user activity online. In some communities, points, leaderboards and achievements are being used to reward high quality contributions. Others are more competitive, with players motivated purely by earning new achievements.

At this point, you might be asking: why would anyone want to create a game around a service? For some, games are pastimes, fun distractions for idle hours. Why would a business waste time and money providing games that cost the players nothing to play? Personally, I can think of at least 4 motivations for game providers - educating players, capturing intentions, encouraging new experiences, and influencing behaviour.

Educational games sugar the pill of learning with an entertaining activity, a staple of schools for decades, you're bound to have played one. But recently a new breed has been created by activists seeking to virally spread a message through social media. One of the best examples is Darfur is Dying, a 2006 newsgame that puts the player in the role of a persecuted refugee. Such games aim to provide a thought-provoking experience that will propagate the message and perhaps even galvanise players into action.

Intentional games, by contrast, are more business-like. They involve a trade, with the player revealing their current intentions in exchange for some micro-reward. For instance, John Battelle talks about checking into a state of mind - a more explicit version of what we currently all do when we use search engines.

Experience games try to get players out of their homes and doing things they've never done before. Foursquare and Scvngr are good examples, where players are encouraged to explore their local environment, undertake new activities and discover things they've probably never noticed before.

Finally, behavioural games seek to encourage positive behaviour. The motivation here will be familiar to anyone who has read Nudge - the recent manifesto of libertarian paternalism. By way of illustration, see game designer Jesse Schell's excellent presentation on what might happen when games invade real life. And if you think that's far-fetched, just watch the hilarious EpicWin app trailer.

It's coming, after all, life is the ultimate game.

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