There are over 500,000 apps in the iTunes app store. There are games, of course. But there are apps to help keep track of your mileage, find a recipe, log your calories, search for song lyrics, edit your photos, teach you the periodic table of elements, watch Netflix, find your lost wallet, identify constellations, read books, update your Facebook status, send tweets…
I could keep on going. We all know by now that some apps are just plain distractions, for the most part. There is some limited amount of interaction and socializing we get from, say, Words With Friends. But, for the most part, it's just a game.
Some apps are very useful. We wonder how we ever got along without them, and certainly don't want to be without them now. I use my Wikipedia app more than my Contacts. I can't watch TV without my phone because I will want to look something up on IMDB. The combination of my car stereo and SoundHound is one of the greatest things ever. And then there's Spotify: the app I would marry.
All of these apps do something to add productivity or usefulness to our daily lives. But what about apps that connect much more with our lives in an integrated way? Something that blurs the line between what's on the device and what we do "IRL" (in real life)?
Real Life Meets App Life
A couple of years ago, I got an idea for an app. Basically, it is a game. You work your way through the adventure, completing "quests" and collecting items and treasure. Not very original, but that's ok. Hundreds of games out there are the same thing, only the setting is different from game to game.
But for this game, my game, there was a twist. The game paired with a personal organizer or To Do list. The "quests" were personal tasks or To Do items. The things to collect were things you made up according to your own goals and priorities. For example, I might get to a part of the game where I have to not only fight some enemy or solve some puzzle, but I have to complete an item from my list of tasks. It could be a daily exercise goal, a phone call I need to make, or something as mundane as washing the car. The performance in the game is tied to performance IRL.
I looked for such a game for a long time. I finally found one called Epic Win. The tag line was "Level-up Your Life." This sounded promising.
I got pretty excited about this app. At $2.99, I could see this sort of thing being, not just a single app, but a whole subcategory of Productivity apps - those combining Productivity and Gaming. Lots of different games. Maybe even a single app that interacts with other existing games?
Alas, it was not to be. Epic Win has not been updated in over a year. And the existing version has lots of very legit complaints against it, despite its overall four-star rating. (We all know how those things get built, eh?)
iOS app building is not my thing. Nor is game design. So it was relegated to that world of "Somebody ought to make that…".
A couple of weeks ago, a co-worker hipped me to "Zombies, Run!". This app really connects the fun of a game with an IRL goal. The app was developed as a Kickstarter project. Here is the video they put together to get funding for the project.
Once the project was fully funded and released, this review was done.
Now, this is the kind of thing I am talking about! There are so many other possible uses for this Gaming/IRL crossover kind of app. Trouble is, I can't find other things like this in the App Store. There should be tons of these.
The Games We Already Are In
But, wait. What if games that directly influence our IRL behavior are really already out there? What if we are playing them already but just don't realize it?
Meet Jesse Schell. (Video at end of article.)
Jesse is a professor of entertainment technology and game design at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center. Jesse sees gaming going on around us.
Weight Watcher's point system is a game that changes how you eat.
Shopping loyalty points are a game that changes how you shop.
Credit card purchase points is a game that changes how you buy things.
Fantasy Football is a game on top of a game that changes how you watch TV.
Geocaching is a game that gets you out hiking to find treasure.
Of course, these are not "designed" games, in the same sense that the apps above are. But what if they were? What if there was more of a gaming aspect that was laid over all that?
Schell tells the story of Lee Sheldon, a game designer who teaches at Indiana University. He redesigned the grading system in his class to be more of a gaming experience. You get experience points for performance in class, leveling up as you go. Here is how Sheldon explains his class:
This class is designed as a multiplayer game.
Class time will be divided between fighting monsters (Quizzes, Exams etc.), completing quests (Presentations of Games, Research etc.) and crafting (Personal Game Premises, Game Analysis Papers, Video Game Concept Document etc.).
At the beginning of the semester everyone in the class will choose and name their avatars. The first task is to craft the premise of a multiplayer game you would like to design. Guilds to craft these games will be chosen, balanced as closely as possible by l33t skillz and interests. Guilds will choose their names. There will be six guilds of six-seven members each depending upon final class size.
You will begin on the first day of class as a Level One avatar. Level Twelve is the highest level you can achieve:
Due to Sheldon's "gaming" of class, attendance is up, class participation is up, homework is turned in on time.
A Modest Gaming Proposal
Jesse Schell outlines a vision of the future in which much of our behavior is controlled by a gaming culture that integrates into our everyday behaviors.
We're, before too long, going to get to the point where every soda can, every cereal box is going to have a CPU, a screen and a camera on board it, and a wi-fi connector so that it can be connected to the Internet. And what will that world be like? Well, I think it will be like this.
You'll get up in the morning to brush your teeth and the toothbrush can sense that you're brushing your teeth. So hey, good job for you, 10 points for brushing your teeth. And it can measure how long, and you're supposed to brush your teeth for 3 minutes. You did! Good job! You brushed your teeth for 3 minutes. So you get a bonus for that. And hey, you brushed your teeth every day this week, another bonus! And who cares? The toothpaste company. The toothbrush company. The more you brush, the more toothpaste you use. They have a vested financial interest.
You go to breakfast, there's the corn flakes. The on back, there is a little web game that you can play while you eat, instead of reading the back, you play a game while you eat your corn flakes, and you get that and you get ten points just for eating the corn flakes. Then it turns out you can see your list of friends who also have corn flakes and the scores they got because you're wi-fi and Facebook connected and everything. And so you get 5 bonus points because you just beat out one of your friends at the corn flakes game.
Then you go and get on the bus. The bus? Why am I taking the bus? You're taking the bus because the government has started giving out all kinds of bonus points to people who use public transportation, and you can use these points for tax incentives.
While you're sitting on the bus riding to work and you're playing your Tetris and getting a few points here and there, you suddenly remember, I had this dream last night. I had a dream that my mother was dancing with this giant Pepsi can. Then you realize: Oh, yeah, the REM-tertainment system, which is this thing that you put in your ear and it can sense when you enter REM sleep, and then it starts putting little advertisements out there to try and influence your dreams. And then you can fill out a little form -- it's a test to see if those things came through into your dreams. And if they did, then big points for you! Right? You can use these points at the grocery store, or whatever.
And you get to work on time. Good job! Excellent! You get to work on time. And you get a special bonus -- I don't know, for something else, maybe because you've been there on time all week.
Then there's your officemate. He's, like: Check it out, I got the new digital tattoo. It's a tattoo that you can change the image. It's got, like, E-ink in it, in your arm. So you can change the image all the time to whatever you want. A lot of people are using "Tattoogle" ad sense. Right? So he's got the ads up, and you're thinking, "You're really dumb because Tattoogle ad sense has light sensors in it. So that when your arm is covered, you're not going to get any money from people seeing the ads." And you show him how yours is lower on the arm so it's more exposed so you get more points for it. And just then you realize that the two of you have your ads suddenly synchronized just by chance. So you say, "Link sync!" So you get 30 points for noticing a link sync, that the two of us have that. And he says, "Pop Tarts!" because they are both Pop Tart ads. And the system is listening, and it can tell that we said "Pop Tarts," and then we do high five because the body electricity sensors can tell when you do a high five, and that's the rule. That's how the game works. That when the ads line up -- because it makes you pay more attention to the ads, because that's how the games will work. The games will be tricking you to pay more attention to ads.
Then you go to lunch and you had Dr. Peppers all week. So you know of you've got to have another Dr. Pepper because you have 10 points, 10 points, 10 points. And then you have another one and then another one, but you know there is a special with Dr. Pepper this week if you have five Dr. Peppers in a week, 500 bonus points. So you definitely have to take advantage of that.
And then you've got a meeting at another building that's a half a mile away. And you could take the shuttle over, but you thought, "I'm going to walk" because the health insurance plan that you're on gives you bonus points if you walk, like, more than a mile each day, and we can sense that easily, you know, through your digital shoes. And if you get your heart rate up over a certain amount, then you get more bonus points from your health insurance company.
So then you're going shopping on the way home, and -- man, this is like a place you can get a lot of points and it's really complicated. So you don't figure it out. You let, like, your app figure it out. It looks at all the point systems you have; it looks at what you want and then it tells you which ones to buy in order to get -- ooh, wow, a lot of points, just because I made good choices shopping.
Then you get home and your daughter is, like, "Oh, I got my report card!" You're like, "Good job! You're getting 2,000 points from the State for getting such good grades." And you're getting 5,000 as a parent from the Obama bonus for the good parenting bonus, which you're excited because you can use that as tax relief. Then you say, "Hey, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Did you practice your piano?" She's like, "Yeah, I practiced my piano." "Well, what score did you get?" "Oh, well, I got 150,000." "150,000! That's the best you've ever had on that particular sonata. That's 9,000 points given by the Arts Council for your scholarship fund, so, you now, go you." Right?
And then you go and watch television, and I don't even want to talk about this. Bonus points points points points points. Because there is the eye sensors that can tell when you're watching the ads, certain ads, especially, because you're going to get points for them. And your remote has a little screen on it and a little camera so you can be on live chat with other people you know are watching this show and play these games and get all these points while you watch television. That will be a very natural thing to do.
Then, finally ... oh, the day is over. You're going to bed. You sit down with your new Kindle 3.0, which, of course, has the eye-tracking sensor in it that can tell what you've read and how much you've read of the book. And it's important to read the whole book because, then, if you leave a review on Amazon, you'll get super bonus points if it knows you read the whole book through. As you finish the book, you're very surprised -- oh, did I mention that Microsoft acquired Amazon a couple years back? Because they did. And you get an achievement unlocked. This thing has been tracking you for 20 Years. You finished 500 novels, this is like a big achievement.
You think that this is all very silly? You think that it is some neo-Orwellian notion that could never come to pass? What if I told you that there are people designing this now? What if I told you that they Big Brother would not command you to do anything, he would entice you with points?
The Game of Consumerism
Meet Seth Priebatsch. (Video at end of article.)
"So, I'm also fairly determined to try and build a game layer on top of the world. And this is sort of a new concept, and it's really important. Because while the last decade was the decade of social and the decade of where the framework in which we connect with other people was built, this next decade will be the decade where the game framework is built, where the motivations that we use to actually influence behavior, and the framework in which that is constructed, is decided upon, and that's really important.
There's still a lot of people who are trying to figure out social and how do we leverage this and how do we use this, but the framework itself is done, and it's called Facebook… They've created this thing called the Open Graph, and they own all of our connections. They own half a billion people. And so when you want to build on the social layer, the framework has been decided; it is the Open Graph API. And if you're happy with that, fantastic. If you're not, too bad. There's nothing you can do."
Priebatsch goes on to describe a specific agenda for turning our lives into a game that gives us points and makes profit for other people. He discusses the different gaming dynamics that would be built into this "game layer on top of the world". These include: The Appointment Dynamic, the Influence and Status Dynamic, the Progression Dynamic, and the Communal Discovery Dynamic.
The result of all of these dynamics, and others that he did not discuss, is to change and control your behavior. To make you go places at certain times, to eat certain things, to spend money. Of course, these things could also be harnessed for good and useful purposes, to help people take their medicine, save gas, exercise, drive safely, etc. But the dynamics are driven by profit. The game is on.
Priebatsch sums up this way:
"Last decade was the decade of social. This next decade is the decade of games. We use game dynamics to build on it. We build with mindshare. We can influence behavior. It is very powerful."
The notion of being controlled by someone else, all facilitated by Facebook, is a sobering thought. But the dynamics of gaming are something that we could harness ourselves if we choose useful apps intentionally. In fact, Priebatsch's approach has been discussed here before in a "white hat" context.
It will take discernment to notice what we are using and what is using us in the decades to come. Things are getting all "Minority Report" very quickly.
Here are the longer videos referenced above:
Jesse Schell Video:
Seth Priebatsch Video: