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Jesse Schell holds the keys to video game utopia

Jesse Schell says game developers have the ability to lead people to utopia. But are they leading players to paradise, or trying to bind them with virtual chains?

Kris Graft, Contributor

February 6, 2013

5 Min Read

In 2010, Jesse Schell took the DICE Summit stage in a fascinating -- and kind of frightening -- talk in which he envisioned a future where games were so ingrained with every day life, you couldn't escape them even if you wanted to. But today at DICE 2013, the message wasn't about a gamified dystopia, but about how game developers have the power to take people to utopia. Schell, professor at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center and founder of studio Schell Games (Puzzle Clubhouse), first took a quick look back at his 2010 talk; there were some things that he mentioned that he got both right and wrong. In 2010, he said Zynga should get into gambling -- and Zynga did (so he also kindly requested 5 percent royalties). Three years ago, he also said that people chase after this ambiguous idea of authenticity. Citing outrage over Beyonce's lipsyncing during the presidential nomination, he said, "We're still confusedly grasping at authenticity." Schell added, "I also said the iPad was stupid... because it was like an oversized Swiss Army knife." He didn't think people would want it. He was totally wrong there, as tablets are now "potentially choking the life [out of game consoles]."

Gamification and psychology

The most popular part of his 2010 DICE talk was regarding gamification -- a future where people would be extrinsically rewarded by conserving gasoline or brushing their teeth. Schell said he has people come up to him and say they started up companies because of that gamification commentary. "I said, 'Don't blame me for that shit, I don't want any part of it!'" Schell said, throwing his hands in the air. He compared gamification to "chocofication." Chocolate is great, but adding it to cottage cheese isn't going to make cottage cheese better. Games are great, but adding it to tooth brushing isn't going to yield great results. "[Games don't] make everything better -- you have to add them judiciously." Game developers don't always understand the psychology of video games -- what drives player to do what they do, to want what they want, argues Schell. One important psychological phenomenon that happens in games is the "plan." "When you put a plan in somebody's mind, they seize on it." For example, he said in World of Warcraft, people will see a player with tricked out armor, then they plan to invest lots of time to get that armor. They seize on a plan.

Games vs. Software

There are still people who treat games like software. Schell was adamant when he said they are not the same at all. Just because somebody can write a great tax program doesn't mean that they can make a great game. Software fulfills the sentiment of "hafta"; video games focus on the "wanna." You "hafta" do your taxes; you "wanna" be entertained by a video game. Software tries to avoid a negative consequence, while video games seek out a positive consequence. People play video games to get to utopia, not to do their taxes.


Video game developers have the opportunity to bring people to utopia, Schell said. This is where games like FarmVille fail. One of the social network game's mechanics was to show all of your Facebook friends that your crops failed. It's a humiliation tactic. "These games promise you utopia, and you find yourself in chains," said Schell. He said that Skyrim would suck with a free-to-play model (imagine paying bits of money here and there in this huge, beautiful world, instead of opening it all up for an upfront fee). He used Diablo as an example of an experience spoiled by its auction house -- buying a sword for $1.15 doesn't give players a sense of heroism. That's not utopia. "People want to pay one price upfront... People are willing to sacrifice to get into utopia," he said. "The thing that every human being has in common is that every single one of us, every day, is looking for utopia." Politicians, preachers, teachers, drug dealers, the shoe salesman -- all of these people are trying to sell utopia, and they have plenty of customers. So, game developers have a special opportunity here, in providing utopia. "We make virtual worlds. We say, 'Come to our world, it's better than the real world.'" How are some ways that games have tried to deliver utopia? One method was stereoscopic 3D, but that old tech (from 1849, Schell notes) just isn't that great of an experience. "I think it's going to be like 5.1 stereo. Rich nerds will have it and the rest of us will visit them every once in a while," Schell said. Then there are augmented reality glasses. People imagine a game that could be Foursquare plus World of Warcraft, but he has an answer to that: "I've seen Foursquare plus World of Warcraft -- it's called LARPing." He's not terribly convinced by augmented reality. So what are the keys to utopia? According to Schell: - Magical interfaces, like the iPad: Traditional game console controllers seem old-fashioned these days. - Fair payment: "In utopia, you don't screw people out of nickels and dimes." - Less A, more I: More intelligence; less artificiality. - Family and friends: In utopia, you're hanging out with people you like. - Transformation: "When I come out of the game on the other side, I'm more of the person who I want to be now." "We're shifting into an enjoyment-based economy. And no one else is better at enjoyment than game developers," Schell said. "Fake marketing bullshit is not going to work anymore. ... In fact, making a good game isn't enough anymore." So for Schell, what is enough? "If you can show people the way to utopia, if you can convince them that you haven't forgotten how to get there, that you know the way, then they will follow you anywhere that you want to lead them."

About the Author(s)

Kris Graft


Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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