GDC 09: Meaningful Social Reality Games

First session I did at GDC this year was about Akoha, a meaningful social reality game in the making.


My first session this year was by Austin Hill, founder and CEO of Akoha a game that has captivated my interest since I first heard of it last September because its high concept has a lot in common with a project I have been sporadically working on for the past two years.

Austin started his presentation by recounting his personal history. He was previously the founder of Zero Knowledge a company back in 2000 that provided anonymizing services and employed some of the top names in cryptography including Bruce Schneier and Ian Goldberg (if I remember correctly). The company collapsed and around that same time, his brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer wich came as a complete shock that shattered his life.

A few years later he went to the TED conference and heard many talks about mass collaboration and happiness. One specific talk by Robert Wright (author of the book Non Zero) got him to think about where he wanted to apply his entrepreneurial skills. Then the end of the student clip in David Perry’s Ted talk’s about using games for good got him to think he could use games as a powerful medium.

He then moved on to the core of his speech:

“Facebook is a social status game. Wikipedia is a Knowledge War Game.
Our social playgrounds take on meaning. Democratization of Human Agency. We need to get a lot of people together.

Games > Mass collaboration > effect change.

Gift economies were an inspiration and they are about:
- Witnessing
- Reciprocity
- Social Reputation
- Organic and Authentic

Akoha’s design goals were:

- Positive Social Game (no PK)
- Based on Gift Economies
- Affect players of the game through positive psychology
- Commercially successful so as to be able to fund other social projects

Felt MMOs and virtual worlds were too time consuming and to genre oriented (SciFi, MedFan, etc…) to have a global appeal.

Designing for a global audience presents a unique challenge: if you are not designing for someone who are you designing for?

The game also needed to be globally accessible not just through the web which led to the idea of using a physical medium (Webkinz was an inspiration).

Looked at ARGs and Jane McGonigal’s work and decided to go where onine & offline worlds collide.
Couch surfing, Bookcrossing, SFzero, Where’s George, The GoGame, etc… all those social reality games were also inspirations.

Also the film/idea of “Pay it forward” which became “play it forward” Akoha’s motto.

Akoha is played with mission cards. There are different missions, one per card. Missions are to be done in the real world and they are of the type: “Give someone flowers”, “Thank someone” or “Send drinks to a coupe in Love”. You win “Karma” points by executing the mission, then you can follow the card’s path (whom it goes to next) through the website. (He showed this player made video to explain the concept). The game is still in Beta but over 3000 mission have been played so far.

Challenges we’re encountering:

- Loss of agency (only 65% of cards are played)
- Feedback systems (we need more)
- Scoring community missions
- Moderation of community designed missions

Still to come in Akoha (future versions).

- Kudos: internal currency for card purchases & rewards
- Mobile (geolocation and virtual cards) & Social Network Integration
- Akoha Superpowers: buffs for the real world (Karma detector on the phone)
- Community design Missions.

Retention is an issue: 85% drop out of the game for now.”

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