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Reality Is Brokering, Part 1

Gamification: where does escapism fit in?

I know there's more than a handful of you out there that were tired of talking about Gamification before the word was even invented, so fair warning: I'm not one of those people. Sure, it's already been more than a year since Jesse Schell's DICE 2010 presentation, and now we've had several months with Jane McGonigal's book Reality is Broken, but I can't shake the feeling that we still have a few things missing from the discussion. In fact, it's been relatively recently that Heather Chaplin released her convincing counterpoint on, and she does indeed have a firm handle on the possible problems and pitfalls of Gamification. First, a little b-roll.

Full disclosure: I've only just started Reality Is Broken, but I promise I don't mean that in the way I've "just started" all those other books on my shelf. I mean iPad. Not my fault: reading a book is eminently more obvious at "work" than listening/watching a video (sue me). So I did catch McGonigal's presentation at TED last month, and I'd be lying if I didn't say I was more than just impressed with her ideas, I identified with them. I do a lot of good work at my job (when I'm not watching videos, apparently). I enjoy the profession itself. I'm thankful every day for the life it provides me and my family, but she's right: I haven't exactly saved the world or rescued any princesses lately.

Okay, so I haven't recently done any of those things in games either (yay realism?), but inasmuch as McGonigal argues that we as gamers are often more "urgently optimistic", socially constructive, "blissfully productive", and "epically meaningful" in game worlds than we are in the real world... it's hard to disagree. More over, I can only applaud any attempt at harnessing that energy to solve real-world problems, but is Gamification the perfect answer? Of course not, the perfect answer doesn't exist. Is it an intriguing idea with some equally intriguing ramifications and flaws? Absolutely.

Enter Heather Chaplin (among others), who concedes that "people in the real world aren't given enough opportunities to feel the same kind of achievement and satisfaction they do in World of Warcraft," but counters that there are "legitimate reasons why people feel they're achieving less," and that masking such "boring literal truths" with an artificial "game-like layer" is not only childish but can be dangerously dissociative and fundamentally fascist. That may sound extreme, but after reading the entire article I'll say it again: it's hard to disagree. Still, while her concerns are certainly valid, they're also far too familiar. I can hear my parents now: "This is kids' stuff, why don't you go out in the real world and do something productive with your time?" Such statements are fast falling behind gaming's current evolutionary curve.

Prettied-up petulance? Possibly, and I'll admit that my parents were right back then, but let's be clear: nobody [sane] is championing 100% gamification here. I'm sure we've all enjoyed a marathon gaming session or two in our lifetimes, but I doubt anybody remembers thinking, "If only I could play for one more hour... FOREVER." What is being championed is something that strikes at one of gaming's oldest elements, an element that's essentially at the center of this evolution: Escapism.

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