As far as I’m concerned, 2011 has and will always be considered, that year before 2012. The year before, according to the ancient Mayans and millions of post-hippy, dream catcher sporting, new age, end of the world enthusiasts, we all ascend into the next stage of our conscious evolution. It’s a tall order for the year and a whole lot to live up to. I feel bad for 2012. Is it just being set up for extreme disappointment? Will December 21st, the winter solstice and projected date of the end of the Mayan calendar, come rolling in on a tricycle instead of a horse, sheepishly blowing its chintzy Dollar Store new year’s eve horn instead of an angels trumpet? Was the concrete bunker you blew your nest egg on a total waste? Probably, but don’t sell 2012 down the river just yet. Something magical is happening. Its effects are lost in the din of the technological world, but amid the chaos of iphones, millions of apps, cloud data and 4G commercials, there is magic being wielded and if you look closely you’ll see that it’s coming from the video game industry.
What? You say. Me? The only magic I’m wielding is in a pack of cards between my Wacom pen and my 1986 collector’s edition Ultra Man bandaid dispenser. I don’t actually wield magic. To that I say you are wrong. You wield more magic than you will ever know in this lifetime, but in one area in particular, you are contributing directly to something truly magical. It’s called gamification.
Gamification is the official word of 2012. It is the password that opens the stargate, calls the mothership and renders the imp powerless. It bends the spoon, rubs the lamp and tells you what card you’re holding. In the next twelve months, you will hear this word so often it will make your ears cry. It will pour out of the mouth of every marketing executive, shine like a sun on every power point presentation, grace the pages of Wired, Inc. and Maxim, and will most likely be parodied on The Office. Don’t fret. This is not a bad thing. It is a natural progression of events that were set in motion just before the big bang and are only reaching their culmination now. Are you still with me? No? Okay.
Let’s back up to 2011. There’s an app for that. There are apps for everything, from bookkeeping, to astronomy, to finding the perfect taco. The app store is like the primordial soup in which every possible form of life emerges at some point. While some can be considered great, and most are about as useful as a hand knitted beeper cozy, they are all so much packing material surrounding the real prize, the games.
The games are the caramel center, the candy core. In 2011 games are as abundant as blackberries in the Pacific Northwest and as long as we have internet access we can forage and snack all day long if we please. And snack we will. Thanks to digital download and the cloud we can access that candy core any time, any place. Digital download has officially won the games distribution war and if you look closely you can see its binary flag sticking out of the burning carcass of every video game retail store in the country. Cloud is still in Los Alamos with its shirtless German scientists but will emerge with a Fat Man in no time at all.
Remember the days when gamers were a niche market? Our audience was the early adopters, the market equivalent of punk rock amid a sea of Debbie Gibson and Huey Lewis. Now our audience is everyone. Games are as integral to our lives as music and we, the punks won. What was our Nirvana moment? Halo? Call of Duty? Farmville? The answer is all of the above. Every game released in the last five years is our Nirvana. We won. What now? Where do we go from here?
Food, war, music? I know I’m mixing my metaphors here but it is 2012 and I’m evolving. Try to keep up. The point is, games are no longer the frosting on the cake of technology. They are the cake. Everything else is decoration. If the rest of the technological world wants to keep up, they are going to have to gamify.
I still haven’t explained what gamify means, have I? Sorry, I’ll get to it in a minute.
While the software industry, for the last 50 years has been focused on results - What does it do? How does it do it? The game industry has been focused on how to make it fun and intuitive. What makes an enjoyable experience? How do we increase the quality of the time you are currently spending doing this thing right now, whatever it is? Turns out, that was the right question. Quality of life equals Enjoyment over Productivity. Write the equation. Soak it up. It’s our new Theory of Relativity.
Did I just imply that games are productive? Yes I did. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Yes it is. Evolving has given me a new appreciation for dichotomy. Games traditionally are focused on arbitrary goals, simply for the thrill of achieving them. The goal is arbitrary. It’s whatever you want it to be. Video games have created a template that allows you to insert the goal where you see fit. The important part was never the goal to begin with. It’s the process of achieving the goal that matters. Not the goal itself. The process must be inherently enjoyable, or the goal is just another thing, another number on a screen. The goals are open for the public to insert whatever it is they need achieved. As long as they enjoy achieving it, as long as the doing is fun, we have done our job. Gamification is making the process of doing fun. It marries productivity and enjoyment. The result is a higher quality of life.
People are more productive when they are happy. This is a fact. When people enjoy the process of producing, the quality of the product is inherently better. And the whole point of producing to begin with is to make product that contributes to a person’s quality of life, whether it’s a better tire, a tasty meal or a more comprehensive insurance package. Happy is the goal. Bhutan, a country in South Asia has actually begun to measure their Gross National Happiness, or GNH, alongside their Gross National Product, considering the wellbeing of their citizens to be just as important as their economy. Other countries are experimenting with this model and many corporations are beginning to adopt this principle, because the benefits are tangible and it directly affects the quality of their product and ultimately, profitability. It may seem strange at first, but after a second glance it becomes old fashioned common sense. Game developers have known this for years. Despite our long hours and intense crunch times, we are for the most part, pretty happy producers of product. Look at our offices. We know how to enjoy being productive. We know that the only way we can work through sixteen hour stretches for weeks at a time is if we are enjoying that time. Sure, we get burnt out, like everyone else, but we also know that the more we love our work, the better the game will be. Considering the complexity of our job, and the sheer size of the fan base who love our product, we’re not doing too shabby. Can a manager at a Ford auto plant or a civic engineer say the same thing? No, but they should.
I’m comparing apples and oranges, since what we do is creative, and the creative process is enjoyable. It doesn’t need gamification, but what about other jobs that require constant interface with software? By gamifying our software, we actively engage the user and challenge them every step of the way, creating new goals and obstacles and showering them with tactile, satisfying responses the same way we engage gamers and challenge them to traverse new levels and master gameplay mechanics. What if managing a project or even something loftier like managing a factory was as rewarding and engaging as a well-made RTS? What if brokering insurance evoked the same psychological response as collecting Pokemon, engaging the user in their inherent impulses to collect and augment their subjects? What if vehicle dispatchers and delivery companies put their managers in the seat of a constantly active and challenging game of managing time and their vehicles? How about harnessing the energy of the sun, wind and the ocean and distributing it equally throughout the world, eliminating waste and pollution, and making the whole process entirely enjoyable? We have long since mastered the art and science of developing software to do whatever it is we want it to. We can now build anything to build anything we can think of. This was yesterday’s challenge. Today’s challenge is how to make the whole process fun. This is where we game developers have a leg up on everyone else on the planet. We know how to make fun. It’s our jobs.
For over thirty years we have been kicking boredom and monotony in the ass. We have stolen time from millions of people. We play hacky sack with modern culture. We have trained millions of soldiers. We have taught whole populations of children and adults how to race cars, fly airplanes and snipe Nazis from a hundred yards away. We showed the world the power of the double jump, the three lives and the butt stomp. Hell, we even made farming interesting again. Now it’s time for us to apply our skills to making work fun.
Someday our grandchildren will learn about the olden days, when people hated their jobs and were forced to do monotonous, repetitive work that drove them to depression, misery and suicide. They will have a hard time believing it, because in the future, everything is fun. Everyone is happy. Everyone enjoys their work, shopping and home maintenance. Everyone balances their lives and play and we have overcome pollution and energy dependency. We have learned Quality of Life equals Enjoyment over Productivity. There is peace throughout all the lands, and it was all thanks to those crafty game developers who made life fun again.
Now that’s a cosmic awakening I can get behind.
Paul Culp is the head of the Oregon-based, SuperGenius, a creative shop for art, animation, and design in video games.