The Hidden Dangers Of 'Life Gaming'
I recently spoke to a class at USC, and in the Q&A afterward was asked a very interesting question: "Do you think everything will be a game?" It's a question I've been pondering for a while, but actually being asked by someone forced me into an answer. Before sharing why I don't think everything will be a game, let me point out a video from DICE2010 that makes a strong case for "Life Gaming." The 30-minute clip is well worth watching and makes a number of great points.
Foursquare motivated people to check in at their locations by making it into a game, while the founder's game-less predecessor (Dodgeball) failed. "FarmVille" is the fastest growing media property to 50 million users, reaching that benchmark four and a half months since it's release. Virtual goods ( buying "nothing") was a billion dollar industry in 2009. Despite these points and the ones brought up in the video, there's a serious danger to the prospect of life as a game.
The issue at hand is one of motivation. Gamers don't wake up with a strong desire to tap a button several hundred times -- it's the framework around those button-presses that gets people engaged. The problem with "life as a game" is that we are motivated to do many things in life simply for their own sake. Making a game out of those actions endangers our very willingness to do them.
There's a psychological effect at play here called the "Overjustification effect." A classic example of this effect was two groups of students, both asked to solve puzzles. One group was paid, and the other was not. The first group was then told they would no longer be paid, but was given the option of continuing to solve puzzles for free. Member of that group then showed a marked decrease in puzzle-solving interest, below the level of interest shown by the non-paid group.
When we take a task we actually enjoy doing, or decide to do for certain external reasons, and then are given a new reason to participate in that activity, if the new reason is compelling enough, it can replace the original reasons. So the idea of creating a "game" out of brushing one's teeth, or even buying a particular product, endangers the reasoning behind why we do that in the first place. Now, I'm sure most marketers out there think "well, who cares what the reason is, as long as they are buying the product!" But it's not quite so simple.
As any good game designer knows, there is an increase in expected rewards. I may start out a game killing snakes, but I eventually want to kill dragons. If rewards remain constant, we get used to them. Consider a "point" system for brushing teeth. Each time users brush, they get 10 points, and can do this twice daily. Initially, there is sufficient incentive, but after two months, they have over a thousand points. Suddenly the extra 10 points is less motivating.
Even when rewards scale over time, every gamer gets burnout. Users might have several level-80 characters in "World of Warcraft" (WoW), an investment of literally months of their lives. At a certain point, many of these users quit, or jump ship to a new game that doesn't offer only incremental rewards, but an entirely new reward "ladder." It is not a coincidence that last year, for the first time, WoW had no subscriber growth.
Now, this isn't to say some things don't have a role as a "game." If "FarmVille" had special paid goods that went toward charity, it could be a huge influx of otherwise unrealized revenue for a cause. Product registration, usually a low intrinsically motivated activity for consumers, could be tied into a "game" and greatly increase registration rates.
But I would strongly caution against a brand providing constant rewards for an activity their customers are already doing. This might increase activities for a year to two years, but it would enable the competition to steal market share by creating a better "game" instead of a better product. And even brand loyalists will lose their overall brand affinity when their interest in the "game" wanes.
Eventually, in the end, gamers will burn out. And if that game is the "game of life," there are major implications when the switch moves from "Level Up!" to "Game Over."