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Thank You, But It's Still Not a Game

Jeremy Monken | 17 Jul 2012 09:00
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I think we lose something by calling everything a game. Will Wright has described the things he makes as "software toys," which I think would be a much more accurate designation for titles such as Terraria or Minecraft. All wonderful digital toys with which I've spent countless hours making up fun and interesting games to play.

Earned coupons, repetitive tasks, and levels-up are incentives, but they're not games.

Calling these things toys is good because it gives a lot of credit to the player. Things like Garry's Mod or Day Z encourage the player to make their own games, yet those titles themselves impose no will on the player. They say "go out and play, I'll be here if you need anything."

At Boston's Games for Health conference, McGonigal said some things made me want to protect the word "game" even more. She discussed studies that showed gamers fail in the games they play on average 80% of the time, adding "people would give up at that level of failure in real life."

Showing the prototype of her iPhone app, SuperBetter, McGonigal talked about how she wanted the game she had created - a series of tasks and challenges designed to aid others in overcoming injuries and other mental/physical issues - to help people in the same way a similar activity she put together for herself had helped her when she had a concussion that didn't heal correctly.

McGonigal told the crowd, "I want games to be a force for good in the world."

As a serious/educational games designer, I couldn't agree more. Growing up on games like Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, I know how important games can be to learning and growing as a person. I owe my humor to LucasArts, my driving skills to GTA and my love of the opera to Final Fantasy VI.

But the things that help us grow must be games. Real games.

Earned coupons, repetitive tasks, and levels-up are incentives, but they're not games.

As McGonigal told the crowd during last year's Gamification Summit keynote, "When you're playing a game, you know you're playing a game."

When I click Oprah's Thank You button, I don't feel as if I'm playing a game. I feel like I've clicked a button. Maybe the person I thanked feels better, maybe the 258 other people that somehow receive that trickle of gratitude feel better, but none of us has played a game. And we all know it.

So let's try and uncover the world of games from the smog of the non-game.

The majority of the freemium games on Facebook and the various app stores are not games. They are little playsets where players can go to occupy themselves on lunch breaks. When they get tired of the free toys, they're encouraged to buy new shiny new ones with shiny real money.

Just because something has an incentive structure, social media integration, or maintains some type of metric, it is not a game. Fitocracy is a great motivator. I am level 6. But it is not a game.

A game needs some direction, something to make it immersive and sticky. I can jog all day and log it in Fitocracy for all the points in the world, but all I'm doing is earning points. However, if I played Run, Zombies!, I could learn the truth about the zombie apocalypse and earn supplies to rebuild civilization. Both exciting and educational.

The goal of a true game shouldn't be to sell you something. It shouldn't be to make something palatable. The goal, first and foremost, should be to craft an experience that the target player will find enjoyable. Players shouldn't be coerced by social media pressures or tricked into desiring something that can only be unlocked by playing. They should want to play because playing is an enjoyable experience.

I think the definition of games should be this: A game is a session of play with rules and goals that is designed to entertain and delight a perspective player or players.

So go play a game, enjoy it as best you can, and thank the designer. Even if it's you.

Then go click Oprah's button. It might not be a game, but it's still nice.

Jeremy Monken is a writer, game developer and co-founder of GP4CP, an annual Child's Play fundraiser in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @ZenMonken.

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