The Rise of Non-Games

Remember the original "BioShock?" The pivotal scene was a really interesting phenomenon. It turned the tables on the gamer in a profound way. Typically a game sits there and waits for the player to tell it how to proceed:  Run over there. Hide. Wait for the guard to pass by. Grab the key. Save the princess. Yay! But for a few minutes, "BioShock" switched the nature of the game. Instead, the game said "this is what we want you to do, and you can't keep playing unless you do it. We can control you too."

I've sometimes wondered what that experience would be like as a whole game. Thanks to "Heavy Rain," I need wonder no longer. "Heavy Rain" is really interesting. I'm actually not sure it's a game. The software tells the stories of a few characters, and the way the player interacts changes the way the stories progress. But there really isn't failure or success in the interactions. If players mess up, they just get a different story than if they succeeded. This is where I find it difficult to label it a game.

"Heavy Rain" is one of the increasingly popular "non-games" like "Flower" and "fl0w" that set up hoops for the player to jump through as they see fit, but offer no significant win or lose conditions. There is just "progression." These are really interesting mechanisms at work, and especially worthy of note for marketers because of how effective they can be at establishing emotional states.

With a true "game," the mind is occupied with the mechanics of success and failure. The story is a nice setting to a highly interactive "test." But what happens if you take a written test, and remove the concept of a right or wrong answer? You get a book -- or rather, a short story. This frees the mind to explore emotional contexts.

When it comes to driving behavior, win conditions are really useful, as Foursquare has demonstrated beautifully. But I'm waiting for brands or companies to start playing with non-games for brand marketing purposes, creating interactive emotional states.

I'm also quite interested to see how this trend will extend to casual gaming.  The casual gaming space is replicating a second gaming renaissance, with much faster growth than the first (i.e., "Pong" to "Modern Warfare 2"). The notion of a game without win or lose conditions that explores emotional states is right up the alley of the casual gaming demographic, too.
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