Interview with Jesse Schell

Last week I spoke with game designer Jesse Schell, the highly influential author of “The Art of Game Design”, professor at Carnegie Mellon, and CEO of Schell Games.  His presentation from the 2010 DICE Summit, in which he mapped out a future where gamelike experiences will be integrated into everything from toothbrushes to bus rides, went viral and sparked widespread controversy.  We talked about the presentation, the promise for games to do good in the world, and how UX designers should approach game-related projects.

The second chapter of your book is dedicated to discussing games as enablers of experiences.  Why the emphasis on that idea right at the beginning of the book?
It’s important because people who are trying to design games are so quick to go to anything tangible.  They want to talk about the particulars of the design right away, how it works and what it looks like.  But what the designer’s actually doing is building an experience, and we should never lose sight of that.  That’s the real goal.

Your DICE presentation predicted that in the future gameplay will be thoroughly mashed into everyday user experiences.  Do you envision the impetus for that coming from the game designers, or from the designers of conventional user experiences?
I see it coming from both directions.  Reality and games are really reaching out to each other right now, and meeting in the middle.

So what core competencies would conventional user experience designers need to develop to game up their interfaces?
Core competencies isn’t the right way to think about it — it’s not learn a little about this or that.  You’d first need to make a fundamental shift in your perspective, and then you’d need to practice.  You’d need to turn away from efficiency and toward entertainment.  So for example, if I were to give you a tax application with just one big red button that you pressed and boom, your taxes were all done, that would be ideal.  If you did the same thing for Gears Of War, that would be the worst game ever.  So people who are gameifying conventional interfaces can get themselves into trouble.

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about incorporating a gamelike experience into a conventional UI?
You can’t just say “Hey, people like games, therefore people will like this.”  That isn’t necessarily true.  And people don’t necessarily want a user interface to be a game per se, but to have gamelike qualities.  There are many things that games are especially good at.  They can provide clear feedback, the possibility of success, mental and in some cases physical exercise, the opportunity to satisfy your curiosity, a chance to do problem solving, or a feeling of freedom.  So you should be asking “What are the elements of games that people find pleasurable?”

Some of the reaction to your presentation has seemed fearful, with speculation of Orwellian implications.  Did you anticipate that response?

Well I think there is some reason for concern, and I really wanted people to have that discussion.  This is something that’s definitely going to happen and it can be a very good thing, but it can also be misused.  For example, you start getting into a lot of ethical problems with advertising because games can be such a powerful medium to influence buying behavior.  It’s one thing when you use a compelling game mechanic to create an experience that you really get into, but it’s another if you’re using it to get people to buy something that could be damaging to their health.

Can games can be used to achieve positive social ends?
Absolutely.  Certainly educational.  If you have the ability to ability to influence behavior in a negative way, then you also have the ability to influence it in a positive way.

Do you think that video games have a place in the classroom?
Sure.  There are a lot of challenges with games in the classroom.   In general they’re best suited for use outside the classroom because games tend not to work well under time constraints.  They’re better as homework.  But there is a place for them in the classroom, and it’s probably best when the teacher serves as a game master.  So let’s say you do a live simulation in class where the teacher sets up the situation then observes and augments it as it goes, with the goal of creating a teachable moment.  That’s something that simulations are really good at.  Teachers know you don’t just pour something into the student’s ear, you have to pry their brains open so that they actually care.  The teacher can use games to engineer that moment, and then drive discussion about how it could be done differently.  I’ve seen this done a few times in training games for firefighters, doctors, and nurses, but it can happen almost anywhere.  The key is to shift from games as a replacement for the teacher and to something that empowers the teacher.

Can games be persuasive?
Games are best at being persuasive when they’re persuading you of the truth.  They can be particularly good at illustrating complex systems.  If you have an argument about whether a nuclear reactor is safe, people may or may not give credence to your words.  But a simulation can prove that it is or isn’t safe because you can actually experience it.

This property of games can also make them very useful in, say, political situations where people need to make decisions about complex systems that are difficult to understand. A team from CMU made a game called Peacemaker, intended for Israeli and Palestinean students.  People on either side of the conflict tend to assume that the whole thing will go away if the guys on the other side just stop being jerks.  Then the students get in the game and start working on solutions, and they discover that what they thought was simple is actually unbelievably complex.  So it elevated their point of view on the conflict.

In your mind, what’s the most exciting work being done in line with the ideas from your DICE presentation?
I like cool entertainment experiences that make people’s lives better. Some of the charity-based ones are really interesting, and can even be meaningful and important.  Looking forward, I’m really excited to see it incorporated in theme park experiences.  You don’t really see interactive vacations, and I think there’s a lot that can be done there.

But many of the attempts out there are boring.  There’s a glut of self-improvement games that are just flops and failures.  Most of them don’t really get the idea of rewards.  There’s a great book called “Punished by Rewards” that I encourage everyone trying this to read.  We have 30-40 years of psychological research proving that if you bribe someone to do something, people will come to despise doing that thing.  Why?  Because of the tricky nature of freedom: when someone pays you to do something, you’re not doing it for the intrinsic benefit anymore. An awful lot of things that will fall into that trap.

You’ve been critical of Foursquare in the past.  Do you take issue with its execution?
No, I think that Foursquare is inherently flawed.  The challenge curve is messed up.  It’s very similar to Tamagotchi, and it’ll probably will have a lifespan similar to the Tamagotchi.  The game as it stands requires no skill.  It also doesn’t fit conveniently into your life; you have to fit your life into it.  So if you’re in random places at random times, you’re going to lose at Foursquare.  You can only win by engaging in boring repetitive behavior, and it’s not fun to actually do that.  You’re always rating yourself against the most obsessed people in the world.

But wasn’t Tamagotchi an important forerunner to other virtual pet games, like the Sims?  Doesn’t that show that there’s some potential there?
Tamagotchi took a simple fantasy, the Sims turned it into an elaborate fantasy.  When you think about it, almost all indoor games have some kind of fantasy component to them, even simple things like chess and checkers.  Foursquare has no fantasy in it, so there’s just not much to expand.  If you take Foursquare and add fantasy, you get larping.

Fifteen years from now, what do you think games are going to be like?
The future of games is going everywhere.  They’re creeping into every aspect of our lives.  Over the long term, one of the big trends will be game worlds with many points of entry.  You won’t only get into World of Warcraft from the PC, but also from mobile and console systems and maybe even in your car or in a theme park.  I also think that speech, where you can talk to a game and it can understand and respond to you, will really change gaming by bringing in real expressive emotion.

Thanks so much for your time Jesse.

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