We asked psychologist and games researcher John Hopson where designers should draw the line when designing a game that players want to play by "tricking" players into becoming "hooked". According to Hopson, he thinks the line comes when the reward mechanisms are unrelated to the game design. "Every game has something players find rewarding, otherwise you wouldn't play it," he said. "There's no way to make a fun game that doesn't have a reward mechanism of some kind. The point of my work is to help designers understand the impact of their design choices so that they can choose mechanisms that are consistent with their overall vision for the game. If the game is intended as a deep, immersive experience, the designer needs to choose reward mechanisms that encourage that style of play. If it's a casual game played in short bursts, the rewards should reflect that. Think of it like cooking. It's perfectly ethical for a chef to tweak the levels of various ingredients in their recipe to make it taste better. It's not ethical to add in some other chemical purely to cause cravings."
Do you think that WoW and other popular MMOs are hitting that balance? Do you think that they're hitting the best combination of motivations, the deep-seated ones that cause players to respond to the game and each other in positive rather than negative ways?
What I'm seeing now -- we're calling it a "secret world headquarters for world-changing game developers" – is called Gameful. The whole point of Gameful is can you make something that has a positive impact either on someone's real life or on a real problem that we're trying to solve. We define "positive impact" in four different ways:
- One is you're just increasing positive emotions. Does somebody feel better after they've engaged with what you've made? And do those feeling sort of trickle into their everyday life, kind of lifting them up?
- Does the game improve some kind of a relationship? A relationship with a family member or a neighbor or a coworker? That's something we can measure.
- Does the game give you a sense of accomplishment that matters -- not just that we got you to work hard and earn some totally vacuous, meaningless achievement badge, but that it matters to you? It was a goal that you set for yourself and that has some intrinsic meaning to you.
- And then also, are you being of service to a larger cause? Some project that matters beyond our individual lives or even our individual communities -- hopefully at a planetary scale.
So whatever you're making should be trying to have a positive impact on at least one of those four levels, and ideally, all four. To me, that's how you know you're being really "Gameful," by going for those four criteria and having a positive impact.
There are really cynical people who could exploit games to get people to do really trivial, Mechanical Turk-style work or to buy stuff or to look at ads; that's kind of cynical and exploitative. You should start with a positive impact and work your way back from that to see how game mechanics can support you. And I think gamers are smart enough to not get tricked, because they can always play a real game, you know? They don't have to play your game-ified game; they can play a game that was made just for entertainment. And that will give them all of those positive emotions and sense of accomplishment and relationships and meaning. So unless your game-ified project has all of that plus the added benefit of doing something real, then you will lose.
So are games like World of Warcraft helping people becoming more open to being guided in a positive way?
I think one of the big things that's different, especially for a generation that grew up with MMOs, is this sense of being ready to rise to the occasion, of having a kind of radar for heroic opportunity. There's still too big a gap between being of real heroic service in a lot of cases and being of heroic service in a virtual world -- one is vastly easier with lower risk.
But we're starting to see networks and projects that bridge that gap. I love the Ushahidi project, in which during a crisis like the Haiti earthquake, you can have people online working through text messages from people who were trapped or people who were out of water or needed medical attention, and you could help translate them, help put them on maps, help verify them, help get them connected to first responders on the scene ... And you could do that online, from anywhere in the world. And it was relatively low-risk, but really freaking important. I mean, you could save a life, right?
And I know that the developers of Ushahidi are very interested in working with games like World of Warcraft to say, "The next time there's a disaster somewhere, let's put some Ushahidi missions in the game. Let's get WoW players on Ushahidi and connect it somehow to what they're doing. Let it be in game with in-game rewards. But give them a chance to do something that has that added bonus of really saving a life, right?
My hope for the future is we're going to see that gamers are trained to rise to the occasion.
One of the other great examples: seeing the investigate your MP expenses, in the U.K., and gamers rise to the occasion of investigating political corruption. You know, a lot of that work was very Mechanical Turk-style. You had to transcribe text that was in an image form, you had to verify numbers, adding up, very kind of boring, tedious work.
But because it had a real purpose -- you know, trying to ferret out political investigation, and you could actually investigate the MP who was from your district -- it was totally inspiring and had a real purpose. Gamers were able to do that and effectively bring attention to corrupt politicians who had to resign, and they got new legislation put in place as a result of these investigations. That's a big deal.
And you're seeing gamers work in games like Fold It and this new game, Eterna. You're actually working to cure cancer in a non-trivial way, where scientists are going to synthesize in a lab real RNA that you've designed in the game in this virtual modeling environment. They're going to make real versions of the RNA to test to see if it could help with curing cancer.
These are real things that I think MMOs are helping gamers feel like they're ready for that, to rise to that occasion, to do that thing online that could actually save the world for real.
Read Part 2 of our interview: McGonigal on why you're as awesome in real life as in WoW
"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to an Olympic medalist and a quadriplegic raider. Know someone else we should feature? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.