Dirk Knemeyer

“Games” will NOT be everywhere

I’m feeling pedantic. It is with increasing annoyance that I keep running into the “games will be everywhere!” meme. The origin of a lot of this noise was Jesse Schell’s much-celebrated DICE 2010 presentation. He punctuated the concept of games being everywhere with examples about toothbrushes that track and reward how you brush your teeth, as well as Prius-style gas mileage efficiency trackers that recognize or reward driving to a particular standard of efficiency. The only issue is: none of these things are games.

In order to be a game – “a contest with rules to determine a winner” – we need a whole superstructure above and beyond a toothbrush that tracks our behaviour. The data needs to be recorded or at least displayed somewhere. It needs to be competitively compared to other users or some standard. And the person using the toothbrush in the first place has to give a shit about the contest in question, actively changing their behaviour to impact their standing or results. THAT would be a game. The simple fact that devices are providing feedback mechanisms which track behaviour and even provide acknowledgment for performance does not constitute a game. Adding a jingle or flashing lights when someone brushes long enough does not constitute a game. And, if brushing “long enough” constituted a game we’ve been playing games with our toothbrushes ever since the first electric toothbrush that stops to let you know you are “done” is a game: go the distance, you win. Stop early, you lose. This is nothing new. Recording the data on the cloud and comparing it to other people doesn’t really count.

Companies of every possible product and service will look for ways to “hook” users and compel them to use their stuff and promote the experience to others. This basic practice has been in full force since the first Cro-Magnon tried to get more branches from the flathead down the way in exchange for his stones. In some real way that is the very essence of marketing. A toothbrush manufacturer may indeed attempt to capture the vision Schell outlined. Some people may indeed be interested in it and “play” the game. But how many of us want to make a game out of brushing our teeth? Once the novelty has worn off, is there a game there anymore?

Six years ago I was giving a presentation all around the world called “The Future of Digital Product Design”. That presentation has been incredibly predictive of a lot of things happening today that people in marketing and design were not talking or thinking about. A key focus of that wide-ranging presentation was on emotional design, and the power and importance that stimulating people’s emotions and deeper centers of meaning would be for business success. One of the examples I used was a vacuum cleaner, explaining exactly how such a mundane household product could be positioned by a smart company to create a meaningful relationship with the user, to elevate the vacuum cleaner as a part of the domestic ecosystem. The problem with this is: users don’t want every damn thing in their life to be competing for their attention. Some things need to be important and essential. These might be things like a favourite chair, a computer, a pair of glasses. These are things that are used for hours every day, things that materially impact our happiness and well-being. Some things need to not. These are things that are supplementary to our lives, like vacuum cleaners. And toothbrushes.

Which brings us back to this horrible “games are everywhere” meme. They aren’t everywhere; they won’t be everywhere. Sure every money-grubbing corporation in their salivating greed will attempt to leverage cheap and ubiquitous web technologies to get us to use their products, and use them more, and tell our friends about them. Some of them will create games around them. Some of them will even succeed to such a degree that people actually care about and play the games and in the process makes the producer more money. Yay, capitalism works.

I’m not going to attempt an articulated definition of “what is a game?” tonight. Like most definitions of ubiquitous words that cover broad categories that is a briar patch that will require more and tighter logic than my aging mind can muster when writing an impromptu essay after midnight. But suffice it to say all of the noise out there about games being everywhere, of translating the fact that toothbrushes will be Internet-enabled and capable of user feedback and behaviour tracking somehow constituting a “game” is ridiculous. Even if said toothbrush company actually does create a game. That’s marketing, it’s not a game.

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