Friday, September 21, 2012

Video Games can make life better?

Maybe they can't make everything better, but they could makes things more enjoyable. There are some smart people that seem to think that the way video games are made could make us rethink the way we look at governments, schools, and even business.  It may seem ridiculous, but it's not. In all three sectors of our society, the goals are always cooperation, success, innovation, and learning.  Imagine a reality in which not only are these things accomplished, but it can be fun.  It's already happening inside virtual gaming communities.

One of the champions for this radical thinking is Tom Chatfield, a British writer, technology consultant, and video game theorist.  During a four-day, TEDGlobal 2010 event in Oxford, England, Tom spoke for about 15 minutes on the ways that video games reward the brain.  You don't have to have a doctorate to conclude that playing video games affects the brain.  Seriously, have you ever looked into a glassy-eyed teenager following a marathon of Call of Duty or Minecraft? Well according to Tom, life is more interesting and rewarding inside the game. Imagine harnessing the energy and enthusiasm for virtual games and applying it to real-world systems.

Give us more rewards

 In life, we either go to work or school based on a schedule. There are also rewards involved like money and education but they can seem too distant.  A bad day at work is an immediate feeling and it's hard to think about the rewards when you're in the midst of office politics. Or try convincing a teenager that 14th century literature is important for their future.

The fascinating aspect of the current video game industry isn't its growing popularity or its revenue dominance over all other forms of traditional media. No, it's the billions of points of data that are captured while the gamers are online.  This may not seem very important at first, but it allows the developers the ability to continuously calibrate the reward schedule to keep them coming back.

If you are one of the 100 million people worldwide that are playing video games, you're familiar with the reward system involved in nearly every game ranging from World of Warcraft to Farmville.  I've written about this before as it to pertains to fans of the Halo franchise. Players feel good about their gaming experience because they are rewarded.  While you may only have 20 minutes during your lunch break to harvest crops, you can feel satisfied by earning new in-game stuff.

You're in a skinner box. But unlike the rat in B.F. Skinner's experiment with scheduled reinforcement behavior, you can get bored performing the same tasks and receiving the same reward.

Make going to work and school a lot of fun

People want to feel some kind of autonomy whether at work or at school. Workers often perform better and are happier when they feel empowered and retain some decision-making ability.  We are starting to see this kind of autonomy in public schools as well.  For example: students are given several assignment choices for the same topic.

The game developers schedule the type, rate, and intensity of rewards based on probability and actions.  Maybe you earn a little bit of virtual gold or experience points for simply logging on.  You kill some monsters or plant some corn, you get something better.  You're rewarded for every action, and most importantly you decide which actions to take. 

"Each contingency is an arrangement of time, activity, and reward, and there are an infinite number of ways these elements can be combined to produce the pattern of activity you want from your players." - John Hopson, Head of User Research at Bungie, Inc. and the author of "Behavioral Game Design"

But it's not just about keeping someone glued to their computer or console. The games are offering something that is addicting on an evolutionary level. Problem solving.

Human beings evolved to become social communicators and problem solvers. Our greatest achievements are a result of many people collaborating  in order to affect a positive change. And we feel good when we do this. I mean - we get high.

Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that is closely related with reward-seeking behavior. That feeling you get when you get an A on a paper, the boss tells you, "good job!", or you simply open the jar of pickles all by yourself (we can't all be Tom Brady) is a result of a little dopamine in your system.  Whether you are working, learning, or playing a video game the positive feelings you get from your sense of achievement is a result of dopamine.

We want to see progress

Nearly every game today has some kind of progress bar.  It's a reminder of how much points, gold, or virtual currency you have at the moment. It also let's you know how much more you need for you're next big achievement. Wouldn't it be a lot more encouraging for a student or employee to track their work like this? 

This would require a much more dramatic shift in our current system, but it's not impossible. By taking the gaming industry's plan for rewarding all game-related behavior, people are more willing to keep playing.  Difficult tasks can be weighted heavier than easy ones for greater progress.  I think this would foster the kind of environment that allows people to explore new ideas and concepts by removing the stigma of failure.

Virtual Living

In today's society, it's not uncommon for people to work from home, connecting via laptop or tablet.  We don't need to fly thousands of miles for meetings when we can video conference.  We maintain extended personal relationships with friends and family using social media platforms. This doesn't mean that going to college of the future means picking up the latest version of Harvard for the Xbox 360 and when you graduate  you can hunt virtual zombies.  But it could mean that our societal institutions will begin adopting new methods to motivate workers, inspire students, and collectively solve problems.

But it would be frakking awesome to be Master Chief fighting off Covenant and Forerunners but in reality, I'm filling out TPS reports.

 - Eric McLeroy

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