Interview: Jesse Schell on gaming, the social sciences, identity loss and behavioural shaping.

Previously Creative Director of the Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, Jesse Schell thinks hard about the future of games; he’s worked on Toontown Online and teaches game design at Carnegie Mellon university. You can see his amazing DICE talk on the future of gaming here. This interview was conducted for a PC Gamer piece on Social Gaming about a year ago.

To the tune of: Björk – Human Behaviour

Previously Creative Director of the Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, Jesse Schell thinks hard about the future of games; he’s worked on Toontown Online and teaches game design at Carnegie Mellon university. You can see his amazing DICE talk on the future of gaming here. This interview was conducted for a PC Gamer piece on Social Gaming about a year ago.

Jesse is very small.

You’ve posited that social gaming, or at least the tools developed for it, will become the backbone to how technology integrates with our lives. Your vision, in particular, focussed on direct ‘nudge marketing’ and how, if done crudely, it could become invasive. Do you honestly believe this will happen?
I think you are asking whether there will be annoying kinds of advertising related to games. Have you been on Facebook? Yes! Totally! There will be LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of annoying marketing games, in shapes and forms we can only start to imagine. “Buy a 24 pack of coca-cola, and get 100 free gold in World of Warcraft!” “Tweet about NBC TV shows five times this week, and get 20 farmcash, and a coupon for MacDonalds!” And on, and on, and on…

Is it a good thing? (Use your own moral code here, class).
Is it a good thing? I would say that no, mostly advances in annoying advertising are not good. I mean, a lot of cool and weird game experiments will show up because of this, and that’s good, but for every cool one, there will be twenty that are just irritating.

Will you be pushing this in your own projects (no matter, whether you think it’s good or bad)?
Well, part of what we’re doing at Schell Games are facebook games and other social network games. And for those to succeed, they have to be viral. And to be viral, you have to risk being annoying sometimes. Taking that risk goes with the territory.

Most of us get our happiness from others – so in social games, relationships should be first, content second. So few of them feature any real relationships at all, though, and very little content. How do they get away with this?
I wondered who took my happiness! It was you!

It’s not true when you say they don’t feature real relationships. If that was true, facebook games would work just as well with strangers as they do with your real friends. But they don’t. We don’t want to be ashamed in front of our real friends, and we want to feel equal, or superior, to our real friends, and so, there are powerful forces at work that make us want to succeed at games when our real friends are involved. So, real relationships are at the fore. The games don’t develop these relationships, but they do use them. And as for “very little content”, since when do games require “lots of content”? Where is the “content” in chess? Or draughts (yeah, I’m in my UK groove!)? or football? All a good game needs is a simple interaction with someone whose opinion I care about.

Is this just another consequence of our more efficient living – work has got more efficient, but instead of saving us time we’ve ended doing more than ever. Now we’re saving time on socialising too. The ultimate form of socialising is to feel the long-lasting happiness from being social in the shortest time.
Definitely, part of the appeal of social networks is to be able to socialize efficiently. That’s not a bad thing, historically, that’s what letter writing was for — a way to stay in touch that didn’t involve having to make a journey. Now we just have methods that are 100x more efficient than letter writing. How you choose to use them is up to you.

What are the great unanswered questions in social sciences that gaming could help answer?
One of them is surely this: Exactly what do people find rewarding? The social gaming universe right now is Darwinian experiment, evolving at 100x the speed of traditional videogaming, to find out what people find it rewarding to play, and to spend money on.

Are the major social gaming companies being short-sighted? The way they used playgen payment models, the way their systems don’t merely utilise social networks but almost abuse them – they’re driving the public away. At the moment, they’re still growing quickly enough no-one notices how many are dropping out, but if it ever gets to the stage that it becomes harder to drop out…
Some techniques definitely will gain money and players in the short term, and lose them in the long term. Is it crazy to use these techniques? It’s crazy to use them in the long-term, but in the short term, it will get you money and players, so it would be crazy not to use them! You can always change techniques later — in fact, you definitely will, since players, games, and technology are all changing so fast. None of us know what this stuff really looks like in the long term, so, yeah, a lot of companies are focused on the short term right now.

Is this technology repeatedly top-slicing our society, splicing off those who know how to access and manipulate these new information sources, and leaving them in a position of power over the rest of us?
No — it’s doing the opposite. Wasting the time and money of those who understand the most — which gives everyone else a chance to catch up!

Normally our value systems are inculcated in us through a combination of school and parental behavioural shaping, and a hint of own personality depending on how troublesome we prove. How are these things going to compete with relentless personalised marketing?
It’s a fascinating question! Does personalized marketing change us, or make us more like ourselves? Given the choice between the impersonal marketing that dominated the 20th century, and the freeform, personal marketing of the 21st century, I guess I prefer the latter. But to your question — in the 21st century, people will have an unprecedented freedom to become what they want to become — which means if you don’t like yourself, it’s your own fault.

This behavioural shaping isn’t good in another way – it only reinforces certain acquisitive behaviour. Will moral institutions (religions, humanists, illuminati) have to reorganise as digital lobbyists for the human soul, shifting their millions away from lobbying government for laws to shape behaviour to building their own incentive structures and social networks?
Yes, this is starting to happen now. There are countless grants to try to create videogames to encourage positive behavior of all kinds — better health habits, better learning habits, better environmental habits. It’s a tough battle though — for how can the government afford better games than the junk food, entertainment, and manufacturing industries?

Science fiction writers have been positing a total corporate societal takeover for years, but it hasn’t happened yet (I think). It won’t happen with this either, will it?
You mean like in Jennifer Government, where you need to have a credit card ready when you call an ambulance (everyone should read Jennifer Government, by the way! It would make a great movie, but I don’t think Hollywood has the guts to put out a movie where Nike is the villain)? No, corporations won’t take over the government through games, but they will nibble away at our identities with them, bit by bit.

Back to social gaming. The market’s not matured yet, in any way. Is this still the Wild West? Rife with Red Indies, and the big corporations laying railroads down and trying to tame a land they don’t yet understand?
Yes, mostly.

Facebook has established itself as the premium platform for social games. Do you think that was the only mistake World of Warcraft made – not establishing itself as a platform in it’s own right, when it had such a huge userbase. Do you see Facebook ever being superceded?
“Ever” is a long time. I will say that I believe that Facebook will be the dominant social network five years from now.

Evony – the advertising scandal and Gifford’s admission, in court, of being a liar for marketing purposes-  shouldn’t detract from them having made a passable strategy game. Can marketing and game design continue to be separated like this?
No comment on this question — I don’t know enough about the situation.

Most social games aren’t really games – just addictive mechanics designed to elicit cash. Also not really fun. In fact, in that they keep you from your friends and waste your time, are they completely invidious?
If they weren’t games, and they weren’t engaging, people wouldn’t keep playing them. And sometimes people don’t keep playing them. But when people do play them, and pay to play them, it’s because they are engaging. Remember, games don’t have to be “fun” all the time, they just have to be engaging.

If you were going to make a social game that appealed only to hardcore gamers, what would you do?
We have that! It’s called multiplayer FPS! Remember, it doesn’t have to be on facebook to be a social game!

The Money Farm

To the tune of: Money, Money – Cabaret
The Money Farm

Buy a PC Gamer-approved product every day this week and you get reward points. You’ve levelled up, now you’re a PCG Ambassador, so you get a PCG fan kit. Meanwhile, your health insurance is incentivising you to walk as it’s worried about your heart rate, and a tobacco firm is incentivising you not to read The Guardian because of its coverage of cancer risk. You get an achievement from the local council for not giving money to a tramp, and your eyetracking device is giving you bonus points for reading every line of an advert (but not the small print). It’s a nightmare and it’s coming.

What no one is mentioning is a crash, a bubble bursting. There’s a risk that social gaming could collapse overnight. Yet this is unlikely, because the place where it’s based, Facebook, is now so central to our lives. Instead, social gaming is spilling out virally into the world, and its effectiveness in altering our behaviour means it’s soon going to be affecting you in ways you may not even notice.

An excerpt from a feature I wrote for PC Gamer, in the issue on sale now. I’ll put up the uncut version when my contract allows.

My Average Friend

You’re my average friend (on Facebook, at least). You like music above all, with a slight fondness for writing, technology and poker. You went to Oxford, where you did English and Law, you’re liberal, and your first name is James (it would be James, Ben, Martin, Mark or Adam but only James is the average length). You live in London, England.

Your top ten movies
“ ”
Fight club
Donnie Darko
Star Wars
Amelie
Shaun of the Dead
Hot Fuzz
Pulp Fiction
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Requiem for a Dream

Apparently you are a NIHILIST who likes nothing above all (incidentally, isn’t Walter’s line in The Big Lebowski, in response to Donny’s shout of “Nazis” “No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of” an excellent summary of nihilism?) Nothing, that is, except semi-fantastical action with a dark edge of humour.

Your top TV:

Lost
Heroes
Spaced
24
Peep show
Family guy
Brass eye
The Simpsons
Battlestar Galactica
Curb your enthusiasm

So you’re an escapist then – Coronation St and Eastenders don’t make your top ten, but the kooky soap opera that is Lost is easily your favourite show. You’re also deeply sardonic/sick/wrong and take more of your culture from the USA than the UK.

Your top music:

Arcade fire
Radiohead
The smiths
Foo fighters
Nirvana
Blur
Jeff Buckley
The killers
Beck
White stripes

I’ve never listened to the Arcade Fire. How can you be a friend of mine? Assuming they’re like the rest of your tastes, you like droney depressed white men singing about how weird life/relationships are.

Your top books:

Catch 22
1984
Watchmen
His dark materials
Cryptonomicon
Slaughterhouse Five
V for vendetta
Fight club

Notably, you don’t read that much; you’ve only entered half as many books as you have movies and a quarter as many as TV. Again it’s all escapist stuff, with an edge of depression and mental illness. Nice.