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A gaming revolution, minus the hype

John Ferrara on game design's role in solving real-world problems.

In the following interview, “Playful Design” author John Ferrara (@PlayfulDesign) explains what he sees as the real gaming revolution — not “gamification,” or the application of gaming characteristics to existing applications and processes, but how games themselves can and will be a “force of cultural transformation.” Ferrera also reveals five universal principles of good game design.

Our interview follows.

How are mobile and social technologies affecting game design and the evolution of gaming technology?

John FerraraJohn Ferrara: One of the really surprising things about modern smartphones and tablets is that the’ve turned out to be such credible gaming platforms. They open doors to new ways of experiencing games by giving designers access to touchscreens, accelerometers, cameras, microphones, GPS, and Internet connectivity through a single device. They also allow games to be experienced in new contexts, enjoyed on the train to work, in the minutes between meetings, and while you’re out with friends. The traditional gaming model, where players sit passively in one place in the home and stare at a fixed screen, seems stodgy and limiting by comparison.

The funny thing about social technology is that before we had video games, gaming was almost always a social activity. You needed to have multiple people to play most board games, card games, and sports — in fact, the game was often just a pretense for people to get together. But then video games made solitary experiences more of the norm. Now social technology is bringing gaming back to its multiplayer roots, but it’s also going beyond what was ever possible before by enabling hyper-social experiences where you’re playing with dozens of friends and family at once. Even though you may be separated from these people in space and time, you have an intimate sense of shared presence and community when you’re playing. That’s revolutionary.

How do you see the social media aspects of gaming seeping into day-to-day life?

John Ferrara: Games certainly can transform the workplace, though I want to caution that it’s very easy to make the mistake of dressing up everyday work activities as games by just tacking on some points and badges. That’s not game design, and people will recognize that it’s not. In the process of failing, approaches like this generate cynicism toward the effort. Games need to be designed to be games first and foremost. They must be intrinsically rewarding, enjoyed for their own sake.

That said, I absolutely believe that games can work at work. As you suggest, for example, they have great strengths for training. Games create a safe space for people to test out their mastery of a set of skills in ways that aren’t possible or practical in the real world. They can also help people figure out how best to handle different situations. Say, for example, that you created a game to develop management skills. You might allow players to assign values to their in-game avatars like “nurturing,” “autocratic,” or “optimistic,” which lead to different behavior paths. Players could then examine how these traits play out in a situation filled with characters who have different values like “dependability,” “autonomy,” and “efficiency.” A structure like this could not only impart insight about management styles, but also invite introspection about how an individual’s own personality traits may lead to success and failure in the real world.

In your book’s introduction, you say, “I hope to start moving toward a post-hype discussion of how games can most effectively achieve great things in the real world.” Who is leading the way — or at least moving in the right direction — and what are they doing?

Playful Design CoverJohn Ferrara: You know, there’s so much really inventive work being done right now. Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of “Zombies, Run!,” and I think it’s great. This is a game for smartphones that overlays a narrative about survivors in a zombie apocalypse onto your daily run. As you’re out getting your exercise, you’re listening to the game events as they unfold, and you can hear the zombies closing in. It’s a great use of fantasy, and it plays as a true game with meaningful choices and conflict.

There’s also a great group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that’s developed a smartphone app called ARIS, which builds game scenarios into physical locations, and they’ve developed dozens of applications for it. One of them is being developed as a museum tour for the Minnesota Historical Center, giving people quests to complete by scanning objects in the exhibit and then using them to complete objectives in a story line. The museum is actually changing the way the exhibit is laid out to better accommodate the gameplay, moving away from the traditional snaking path to more of an open layout that allows players to move more freely between the interacting displays to solve the game’s challenges.

Some of the thought leaders who I really admire include Eric Klopfer and Scot Osterweil at MIT, Ian Bogost at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Jane McGonigal. A common current among these thinkers is their emphasis on games themselves as a force of cultural transformation, rather than simplistic “gamification” of software applications that lead to little or no meaningful change.

What about engineering games like “Foldit” — with improved UX, could this type of crowdsourced gaming become a viable research tool?

John Ferrara: This is what’s been called “human computation,” where a group of people work together to solve some complex problem as a by-product of some other action, like playing a game. Luis Von Ahn at Carnegie Mellon describes games as algorithms that are executed by people rather than machines, and I think that’s a really fascinating idea. Foldit is a great example. This is a puzzle game where players try to figure out how to fold chains of proteins. This is a problem that’s very well suited to human computation because it requires a type of intuitive reasoning that’s very difficult for actual computers. Foldit made a big news last fall when the people playing it decoded the structure of a protein related to a virus that causes AIDS in monkeys, which had eluded researchers for years.

This is a wonderful demonstration of how this type of game can be really valuable to researchers. At the same time, I’m very critical of Foldit because I think its gameplay experience is kind of awful. It’s very difficult to figure out which actions lead to the results you see on-screen — like why you’re awarded points the way you are — and there’s not a strong sense of objectives or conflict. These design issues place limits on the appeal of Foldit, and that’s a big problem because human computation works better the more people you have playing. If the gameplay were really compelling and fun, then the sky would be the limit.

How do you see the collection and use of gaming data evolving?

John Ferrara: Games can produce enormous volumes of data because it’s really simple to gather every little interaction the player has in the game and report it all back to a central server. This has immediate applications for game design itself. Zynga, for example, uses data to determine which design choices create greater tendencies for players to stay engaged longer, involve more friends, or pay to enhance the game experience. I expect this kind of data collection and analysis to become the norm because companies will be more successful the better they can do it.

I would suggest that financial services could be one of the biggest secondary beneficiaries of such data because there’s so much to learn about how people make financial decisions under different circumstances. Staying with the Zynga theme, suppose players have the option of investing in any of a variety of different farm crops, each of which has different strengths and vulnerabilities to environmental conditions. How do players choose which ones they should purchase? How do they appraise risk and reward? Which presentations of information lead to a better understanding of a crop’s attributes? Which lead people to make more appropriate choices for their goals? All of these questions can be examined quantitatively through games and can lead to greater insights into the innate qualities of human psychology that drive investor behavior and decision making.

What are some emerging best practices for game technology?

John Ferrara: Best practices vary widely depending on the game and the type of player motivations to which it appeals. For example, games meant to promote a sense of immersion like “Red Dead Redemption” remove as much of the user interface elements from immediate view as possible. Data-intensive games like “Tiny Tower” benefit by compressing as much information and as many functional controls as they can into the smallest possible space.

With that in mind, there are some clear universal principles for the design of all games:

  • Skip the manual and embed as much instruction into the gameplay as you can.
  • Fit the game into the player’s lifestyle so that he or she can play when and where it’s convenient.
  • Don’t cheat — people recognize when a game unfairly stacks the odds against them and they resent it.
  • Make sure players always have a clear sense of cause and effect, and that they understand what actions are available to them.
  • Above all, playtest, playtest, playtest. It’s impossible to fully anticipate how people will react to a game short of actually watching them play it.

In the book, you argue that games should be used as instruments of persuasion. Why is this?

John Ferrara: To be clear, it’s not that all games should be persuasive but that people who want to persuade should look at games very seriously; I believe they present an ideal way to convince people to adopt a particular point of view or to move them to action in the real world. Ian Bogost describes games as a form of “procedural rhetoric,” meaning that they communicate messages through participation in the experience. This creates a lot of advantages for persuasion. For example, it allows a kind of self-directed discovery where people adopt the designer’s message as a working hypothesis and then test its truthfulness through the gameplay. That’s a really powerful way to get your point across. Furthermore, it builds a sense of personal ownership of the insight the player has uncovered.

Are there ethical concerns related to persuasion in gaming environments?

John Ferrara: As there are for any medium, certainly. Film, television, books, billboards, oratory, and posters have all been appropriated for less-than-above-board purposes. Whether it’s propaganda, demagoguery, misleading advertising, or dirty politics, you’d expect that games would be subject to the same kinds of unethical practices. It’s especially important to be aware of this in the case of games, considering how compelling a procedural rhetoric can be. Rather than casting a negative light on games, however, I think that speaks to their power to effect meaningful change in the real world. I believe that games can achieve great things, and I expect that over the next decade we’ll see them doing a lot of good.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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