Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Future Is A Grind

Jesse Schell's DICE presentation has been circulating recently, and clever responses have already been written. Nevertheless, I'd like to break it down one more time to discuss why it conflicts so strongly with the creative impulses we gamers benefit from.

His advice is like telling novelists that they could learn a lot from marketing copy. Advertisements are much smarter and more efficient about their use of words than novels are, right? Ads get their hooks into people right away, play on their anxieties and dreams, and move product fast; books take a while to get going, don't sell themselves so well, and appeal to niche audiences. People supposedly value books for their "escapism," but advertisements are making crazy money by relating to people's real lives. I predict that in the future, every book will be written on the back of a cereal box, and the toy inside the box will be a merchandising tie-in.

Schell gears his presentation to the business side of games: he isn't talking about "good" or "fun" game ideas, but ideas that will make the publishers/designers in his audience rich. Why do we spend time thinking of awesome concepts, he asks, when instead we could be getting gamers hooked early on some powerful stuff, exploiting "psychological locks and keys" that will leave kids fiending for more time in Club Penguin? He advises "skilled game designers" to adopt the concepts that have allowed lucky amateurs to cash in on Facebook.

I doubt Schell himself likes these sorts of games. He pointedly leaves out discussion of quality or taste, because the only goal here is wealth. He spends the first third of his presentation in exaggerated disbelief over the profits social games make, then ties them to other far-flung concepts like Xbox Live Achievements. "People are insane" about Achievements, Schell says, and I agree -- I also cannot understand the obsessive-compulsive drives that lead people to care about their Gamerscores, which debase every accomplishment by aggregating them in a form devoid of context. But he goes on to imply that designers should do more to emulate Achievements, not because he likes them in any way, but because they prey on the compulsive tendencies that some individuals have. 

I think avoiding that route is a matter of taste, or pride, rather than an ethical issue. Let me assert that many designers actually care about making good games. Most got into the industry because they liked playing games. They get upset when reviewers trash their work, but they also feel lousy if they realize they've made an awful game that they would never play themselves. Hellish crunch periods are (and should be) the major issue with current game development practices, but designers also have a very typical human anxiety: that they might be wasting their lives in a job that produces only disposable experiences, and they would prefer to create something that's worth a damn. They don't want to create a thin crust of "game" to cover an XP dispenser. They want to entertain people, not addict them.

It seems lofty to talk about creativity in the game industry, which is a business. But businesspeople interested in long-term success (i.e. the goodwill of their audience) will find a compromise between art and industry. Hollywood has always been obsessed with profit, particularly after banks got heavily involved in studio operations; yet great directors, like Hawks or Welles, managed to create forceful, personal works within the assembly-line system the studio had in place. (The MGM logo even contains the motto "art for art's sake" -- a pose, maybe, but the phrase seems more at home above "MGM" than it would next to "EA.") As Jim Rossignol points out in the article linked above, games are free to borrow from literature, film, and other media. The industry can keep getting better, and try to create games that can stand beside the great works in other formats. The game industry has never produced its own Magnificent Ambersons, or Middlemarch, but if it takes Schell's advice, it never will.

I dislike Lee Sheldon's grading system as well. It seems to shift away from rewarding creative and fluent work, and toward allowing students to grind up good grades out of regular attendance and diligent hand-raising ("building off what she said, I'd like to add..."). Schell claims that Sheldon got more students to show up for class, but doesn't their work count for more than their capacity to be talked at? Why doesn't Schell mention better test scores or paper grades, instead of the most superficial measures of academic success?

Sheldon's syllabus reminds me of those JRPGs where any sufficiently patient/obsessed player can grind to level 99. It's interesting that Schell thinks this XP system an improvement on the standard American grading method, but considers no alternative systems. The Oxbridge system is the inverse of Sheldon's design -- his more casual grading system converts to an RPG status screen, but Oxford students are ranked on a hardcore action score table. At Oxford, at least in English Lit, it's difficult to score above 70, and very hard to go over 73-75 on an essay or class (with some variation in tutors). This absolute scale is sort of an illusion, as any score over 70 (as I remember) converts to an alpha/A, but it has a powerful effect. Students in the US will often hit the roof of the grading system for their class, at A, and discover the level of effort required of them; ambitious Oxford students are motivated to pour ever more time and thought into their work if they want to chase high scores. It's the difference between achieving competence at an arcade game -- the ability to play some time without dying and get your quarter's worth -- and pushing yourself to secure a spot on the list of high scores. You may only be beating your friends, but it still matters. There will always be some legendary jackass who got an 80, or some other achievement you can never match, but the pursuit is what compels you. Sheldon's system feels more open, friendly, and easy than traditional US grades, and the Oxbridge system more obscure, elitist, and hard(1). As a hardcore gamer, I prefer elitism; I want the difference between everyday accomplishments and exceptional ones to be recognized.

(Of course, the memory of the work you did in school is what counts, not the marks your teachers left on it. But so long as those marks encourage better essays, the system is worth talking about.)               

Schell also proposes that Facebook games succeed due to their symbiotic relationship to their player's real lives, and that in the future, real life will be invaded by RPG experience-collecting systems. He confounds various sorts of "realism," from advertising claims to reality television to cinematic depictions, as if they were all doing the same thing. Schell really goes full implausible when suggesting that Avatar grossed big because it asked deep questions about technology's interaction with reality. Anyone who insists that Avatar was intellectually engaging may be living in a dream world themselves, or trying to sell you their new book called Avatar and Philosophy. (So uh, why wasn't demonlover the highest grossing film of 2002? Why did The Phantom Menace outgross eXistenZ in 1999? Those movies must do huge business on DVD if consumers are now so preoccupied with the intersection of technology and reality, amirite?) It's a bit like claiming Gears of War was a success because of its bold prediction of future directions in architecture and urban planning. You can find that in the game, maybe, but who really believes that's what drew people to it?

Schell suggests that consumers "hunger for reality" and "self-sufficiency." As a multimedia addict, I don't see self-sufficiency as much of a driving force in my own life, and I'm not inclined to take Schell's word for it that everyone else cares more than I do. (I'm also not sure why he brings up a straw-man convergence theory as a possible counter to his reality/authenticity argument, and then dismisses it, when convergence seems to have no relation to authenticity at all?) Consumers may want authenticity, but what do they mean by "authentic"? It's in that group of words, like "realism" or "natural," that have been used to justify or condemn every work of art under the sun at different points in history, and never have a precise meaning. Schell's belief that some Waldenesque revival will actually drive us to spend all their waking hours appeasing abstract score systems devised by advertisers and government initiatives is singularly perverse. Wouldn't mass desire for "authenticity" lead to anything but acceptance of a corporate invasion of private life?

As a thought experiment, Schell's vision of the future is disturbing and thought-provoking. As a prediction, much of it seems suspect. Some of the scoring is hard to imagine: what could it possibly mean to get a high score on a piano performance? Will the computer program mark you down for playing "too mechanically"? I don't believe that this future could work to improve people, as suggested in the presentation, because it would rarely benefit corporations to encourage self-reflection. Even Schell's example doesn't really make sense to me. How does it benefit Amazon to reward you for reading a book to the end? Wouldn't they prefer it if you quit reading things halfway through, then went shopping for more? If they really wanted to maximize turnover, they would front-load early chapters with achievements so that Bookscore junkies could get their points fast and continue buying up inventory. Owen Good's article on CRU, a top Achievement grinder, showed that she cared little, if at all, about most of the games she played. How could turning reading into the same sort of soul-sucking numbers game benefit readers? They won't care that their 500th novel was a Star Trek book, any more than CRU cares that a Spongebob game took her over 165,000 points. 

Schell seems to think his vision is inevitable -- "what's gonna stop it?" he asks. I have a few suggestions:

1. Burnout. There's a reason that "grind" is one of the ugliest words in the gaming lexicon. To me a MMO is a game I play hardcore for a couple of months, then quit while hating it more strongly than I hate any other game in the world. As soon as I become halfway competent at the task I've been preparing for -- tanking endgame instances in WoW:TBC, or skirmish PvP in Eve -- I realize that the carrot dangled in front of my nose from the beginning has always been rotting garbage, and I quit. I'm certainly not inclined to play another MMO for a while afterward, and I know people who have never gone back to MMOs after their first cycle of addiction and disillusionment. I imagine Schell's MMOish future hellscape would work much the same way for me. You could probably trick me into grinding Dr. Pepper points for five days straight, but I would never touch another goddamn Dr. Pepper after that. I'm not sure advertisers will be eager to incentivize a short-term, intense interest in their products if they find consumers are violently repulsed by the thought of their products afterward.

2. Sensors. Would we really accept machines that track eye movements and do everything short of reading minds into our households? If you're one of the paranoids running NoScript, Adblock, Tor, Privoxy, and Vidalia, would you ever let this happen? If the motion control gimmick grows old and dies, as the Guitar Hero concept has, won't all these sensors be left collecting dust like so many plastic instruments?

3. Divergence. Schell's takedown of the theory of technological convergence is persuasive. It's strange, then, that he then bases all of his predictions for the future on an unstated premise of conceptual convergence. He asserts that technology diverges and splits infinitely, but forgets that ideas also diverge and split infinitely. New ideas inspire contrary ideas and waves of dissent and apathy. The concept of grinding stats will not conquer and reshape society. Many people will never be enticed by the thought of increasing values in a spreadsheet. If the idea of grind continues to spread, as it has been spreading through the Facebook games Schell points out, some of his predictions may turn out right. But the idea will not be inescapable. Would it really matter if there were sensors in your television, if you watch all your TV on your computer?

4. Greed. A thousand pitfalls await corporations that implement these systems, because when you introduce game-like incentive models, people exploit them. Does anyone remember the massive wave of cheating and botting that followed Microsoft's announcement that they would offer real rewards for people playing Live Search Club games? This development shouldn't have surprised anyone familiar with RPG communities, where power gamers discover exploits and quick-leveling tricks that break a game's intended progression. Devise a sensor that tracks people's eye movements during commercials and rewards them with points, and someone else will write a howto about setting up a pendulum that tricks the sensor into thinking you watch TV 24 hours a day. If no tangible rewards are in place, consumers won't care about these systems; if rewards actually are  attractive, then people will manipulate the system to gain more points more quickly than designers intended. I don't think that all consumers yearn to be free, or anything like that. I just believe that people are greedy, and they like to cheat the system. Introduce an incentive structure, and people will game it.

(1) Boring personal detail: I describe this system as I experienced it while studying abroad, reading English Lit, and it works differently in some ways for many Oxford students. I was graded on my essays and performance in one-on-one tutorials, not the final essay exams that are all-important for many students. Because our work was graded on the same (pseudo-)absolute scale as everyone else's work, I think my description of the system remains accurate. Reported (possibly mythical) "high scores" came up in conversations with foreign students and Oxford students alike. 

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  1. Schell is a corporate schill. He looks at games and all he sees are dollar signs.

    I mean how can you score a person's life? Yay! you brushed you teeth, have 10 points! You survived cancer! have 500 points! It soon starts getting ridiculous. The future he envisions is dystopian and Orwellian to an insane degree, and he wouldn't do it for any political ideology (though there are some who would use it that way) he would do it for money.

    If he was on fire I wouldn't piss on him.

  2. I think this is a bit of an overreaction, Chris. Schell was talking exclusively about the commercial potential of games, and left art and entertainment out of it. The reason for this, I would guess, is not because he doesn't value those aspects of games, but that he doesn't see the commercial use of games being mutually exclusive to the artistic use of them. Even when every company is using games to market their products as Schell describes, there will still be companies dedicated to creating games for entertainment, and individuals dedicated to creating games as art.

    Rather, I believe Schell is pointing out that there will soon be a massive market for games outside of where we've traditionally placed them, and soon game designers will replace copy editors in designing the next generations of "advertainment." You're right in saying that getting points for doing what companies want you to do will not make you care about the products more, but that's never been the goal of advertising. Advertisements won't try to trick you into buying them--they only want you to pay attention to them. Maybe it's a funny commercial, or maybe it's claims of quality, but these techniques are only try to catch your eye and don't do much to convince you to actually buy. Watching Schell's run-down of the future, you can see that he isn't anticipating you really being conscious of the ads swirling around you, and in that regard, life will pretty much be the same for you and me. Where it differs is emphasis on interaction, games, over more passive advertising. Schell points out that companies have already recognized this potential and are making games right now, and Schell's prediction that soon professional game-makers will be hired by advertising firms isn't too bold.

    I will say that, regarding your complaints about the grading system, that I agree with you that it's a poor way to grade student. But I believe this is because it's modeled after a poor game, not that it's modeled after a game. Using game design principles can make things work more effectively because games are really the structuring of incentives and penalties: how could these principles NOT help anyone wanting to exert some kind of control over groups of people? But getting XP points is a weak game, as you point out, and doesn't serve as a good foundation for a robust game system.

    And here is where I think Schell finds his point: as he says, right now, whoever happens to be around is responsible for designing these games. How much better will they be when you start hiring people who actually know what they're doing?

  3. @Interactive Illuminatus:

    Thanks for the extensive response. My tone might have been a bit more vitriolic than intended, but I'd still like to stand by specific points.

    I got the impression that Schell was proposing that game designers shift their focus from traditional "fun" to "psychological tricks." I think he does mention ideas about fun and entertainment, but he contrasts them with the XP mentality. It's certainly interpretation on my part, but he says things like this:

    "We thought about 'finding the fun'...we thought of clever game ideas, but who does brainstorming for new psychological locks and keys?"

    Schell seems to suggest that the new model differs from "fun," "clever," and (in my eyes) "satisfying," and now it will be about hooking people psychologically and stringing them along. Schell's only example of "what happens when skilled designers" adopt these concepts is Lee Sheldon's grading system, which we agree we dislike.

    I didn't mean to imply that all social games are bad, but I think Schell focuses on the weakest part of them, which is XP grinding. In some parts of his presentation he talks about the motivation of playing these games alongside friends -- which can be seen as their main draw, and the basis for the "social games" tag -- but he passes over this element in the grind-heavy final section of his presentation. There are also social gaming companies (I ran into some at GDC) that are trying to create more satisfying narrative experiences within their browser-based formats. I think that Schell may take the wrong lesson from the success of social games.

    I think the best time I ever had playing WoW was when our guild leader took around 10 of us (in TBC era) to blaze through some of the raids from original WoW. We weren't leveling, it wasn't difficult, and there were only one or two drops that were still interesting (as sort of collector's items). It was all just socializing on Vent and listening to a strange history lesson, as the veteran players reminisced about how hard this raid used to be, how many times they wiped on this boss, etc. It was a huge wave of nostalgia for a part of the game we TBC players had never seen; despite all the artifice of Azeroth's design and the scripting of the raid itself, it briefly felt like a very old and lived-in place. To me, that sort of player-derived meta-lore has always been one of the most compelling aspects of MMOs, and one of the least-discussed. That was a sort of social gaming I can appreciate, but it was totally divorced from most of the game's incentive systems.

    I take your point about advertising. It would probably be less intrusive than I imagine. But for me personally, when you add an incentive system, I tend to fixate on it and consciously tailor my activity to better work the system; then I get sick of wasting time on flimsy rewards, and burn out. Schell claims you will be conscious of your current "scores" across various systems, and I think for me that would eventually cause distraction and backlash.