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All the World is Becoming a Game

February 24, 2010

Here is a must-see 28 min. video (3 parts), Is Your Life Just One Big RPG?, by futurist Jesse Schell, head of a 60-person game company (Schell Games), author, The Art of Game Design, CMU Professor, and former Disney Imagineer.

Schell introduces some epic themes, among them:

  • Games as psychology experiments. Successful games are in fact clever experiments in creating positive sum mental transactions (real or imagined). In this highly connected world, good psychology will blow up in size and economic value far, far faster than we’ve ever seen before, yet much slower than we’ll see tomorrow. How few of us realized that Facebook, Zynga, etc. would grow as quickly as they have? Only those who knew how many bored and underutilized folks are waiting to have their free time taken over by something better than cable TV, and who are now just a click away from engagement in a game.
  • Game architectures moving into physical reality. We will learn to use the better tricks of virtual world games in all our important physical world activities, governance, work, education, etc. Schell cites fellow game designer Lee Sheldon’s classes at Indiana University, which use experience points (class and online discussions, homework, tests, outside experience gained and written up during the course) rather than peer-relative curves to “level up” students through the course and assign the ultimate grade. Presumably this is more fun and engaging for today’s student, and it has been increasing student participation as well.
  • The hunger for the real. As Pine and Gilmore noted in their prescient The Experience Economy, 1999, the more the world becomes a game, the more we want to feel connected to something real. Schell’s best quote of many great ones: “We live in a bubble of fake bullshit.” Amen. We can expect this bubble to keep accelerating in pervasiveness and allure, too.
  • Technology divergence versus convergence. As with biological species and subcultures, divergence is far more the rule. Convergence is the exception. Those who’ve read my speculative works know I argue this as a 95/5 Rule (95% of the time, complex systems look divergent, 5%, they look convergent). The tree of technology differentiation continues to grow, though once any tree gets big enough, the rate and importance of new divergence slows (new variety becomes just twigs on the end of the tree, rather than big trunks lower down on the tree).
  • The near and farther future effects of games on society. Many of the social effects of virtual games may get worse before they get better, but they should be much more positive forces in the longer run. I’ve written about this as a possible fourth law of technology, one that seems generalizable to most disruptive new technologies, from cities to cellphones. Schell essentially scares the bejeezus out of you in the last five minutes of this talk, talking about the coming dehumanization we may see with first generation effects of these games. Perhaps without knowing it, Schell is channeling young-adult fiction writer M.T. Anderson and his brilliant dystopia, Feed, 2004, which eloquently describes a soon-emerging world where kids get internet implants in their heads at birth and as a result, have degenerated to something resembling futurist H.G. Wells Eloi, passive units to be manipulated by near-Singularity corporations. Fortunately, Schell opens the door at the end to recognizing that these technologies will also be powerful forces for positive behavior change, personal growth and intellectual advancement as well. I’d like to hear a lot more about all that, frankly.

Futurists, if you have ideas about that or anything else, feel free to share them, thanks!

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2010 2:39 am

    I love this! Life as a game. I don’t like it because it’s a true or accurate statement. I like it because it’s a fabulous context for living. What I love about looking at life through a gaming lens is that everyone, everything and all situations become easily distinguished as “aspects of the game”. This makes life, circumstances and how people occur to us just part of the game. And because a game has clear set rules that are either created or inherited, participating in the game becomes almost natural. The inquiry I have is the following:

    So what makes a game a game?

    Do rules make a game? Can a game exist without rules? What about time constraint? Perhaps. What about teams or individuals? Do players need to be present for a game to exist? I say yes, that all of these are necessary items that make a game a game. However the most important distinction that makes a game a game is that something is more important than something else. In most games winning is more important than losing. In poker, having one hand makes one card more important than another. In bear hunting, a bear is more important than a squirrel. This distinction creates resistance and movement. In life, one experience is more important than another experience. In our culture, happiness is inherently more important than suffering. Also in life, one place, “over there” is more important than “over here.” This creates movement. We see this in trends, music, art, films, fashion. In reality, all categories (games) that play by this rule have constant movement and changing.

    If this is a game then what makes the game interesting? What makes a game interesting is putting something on the line. So what’s on the line? Ever notice how a poker game is far more interesting when there is money involved. Investing your own “reality” in anything is a risk, or something you are putting at stake or on the line. You can also put something that has not yet come to pass at stake in a game. In the NBA, the championship is at stake, even though it hasn’t happened. This is the essence of a game. When something can be lost or gained in the process, consider it a game. What excites me about turning life into a game is that it creates urgency everywhere. It turns simple tasks into adventures. It makes a minor detail into a valuable statistic. It turns a cluster of behaviors into a map for living.

    Can you imagine? If life is turned into a game and everyone agrees on the rules, and everyone chooses a team and everyone puts something on the line we will have an amazing game on our hands. It will be a serious game. It will be a fun game. People will have access to games that empower their lives and families. People will have access to seeing what games are not worth playing. And they will know, its just a game.

    I see freedom in this concept. Now the challenge is, how do we turn this intention into reality? That is a game worth playing.

    • February 25, 2010 3:41 am

      I agree Jim, this is an awesome way to look at life. The best games we play have rules that we agree upon, beforehand, as fair. And as you mention, we get to play good games multiple times, so we take each one less seriously. What a great way to increase tolerance, innovation, learning and play, and realize that we are never finished. As our futurist friend Buckminster Fuller says, “I am not a noun. I seem to be a verb.” Always in motion, always in play.

      One of my mentors at UC San Diego, the incredible teacher Dr. Paul Saltman, said “Sports (by which he meant games) are not life, but a great analog for life.” But the higher percentage of time we spend playing games, particularly games we choose, the more the analog becomes reality. Baudrillard talks about these concepts, obtusely, in Simulacra and Simulation, 1985/1996.

      I’d love to know some more recent books, that take role playing, virtual worlds, and serious games into account in this way. Anyone have some reccs?

  2. February 27, 2010 7:43 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis, John! If anyone wants more of my thinking on game structures, check out my book (and creativity cards): Also, I’ve decided to track our progress toward the coming (present?) gamepocalypse. Check my blog at

    • March 5, 2010 11:47 pm

      Thanks Jesse! Gamepocalypse Now is a great name for a Gaming Futures blog. Hey… you kind of look like the serious Martin Sheen, which is a bit scary actually. 😦
      Martin Sheen - Apocalypse Now
      Never get out of the boat. Unless you’re willin’ to go all the way. 🙂

  3. March 5, 2010 4:46 pm

    I find these revelations about the future of gaming very promising. A lot of what is going to happen will be silly and to some will seem dangerous. I think we are a long way from implants and that only a subset of the population will want such connectivity. A personal mobile device will be enough for most.

    One of the things that bothers me about all this is the denial that games have been a part of our existence without the internet. To say that politicians haven’t been playing games with the lives of their peoples is ridiculous. Just because it’s “real life” doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a game all along. Games are serious, they have consequences, and they lead to development too. Just because people are creating incentives for people to participate in their lives in ways that are fun, not just “real” is awesome.

    I’m currently designing a game that I hope can help create more peace and free discussion between peoples. I’d love for ya’ll to check it out. Click my name to see our company blog.

    Thanks for writing!

    • March 6, 2010 12:07 am

      Thanks for this Scott! I see you are in Victoria. That is a beautiful city. I hiked the West Coast Trail a few years back. Must be awesome to have that at your doorstep.

      Have you considered running a Victoria Future Salon? A monthly meetup would be a great way to network all the future-oriented Victorians, and I’m sure you could find help there to run it as well.

      I checked out your G.A.I.A. weblog, nice name. Good luck with your startup venture and peace game. What is your take on Peacemaker? It is an early peace game but it has gained some traction. Perhaps you can also team up with They have a great domain name but I don’t see much there yet. And if you are looking for additional partners or testers you might connect up with the students at UN University for Peace: They have almost 200 students at their Costa Rica campus in their various Peace Master’s programs. These are some creative, serious and idealistic folks.

      • March 8, 2010 12:50 am

        Thanks for the links and checking out my site. I really appreciate it.

        I remember reading about the Peacemaker game and checked it out again. I think it’s great that they are giving people tools to help train leaders for difficult situations. Peace in that particular place is very challenging, as we all have witnessed over the decades, so any advanced thinking applied there deserves applause and support. If I wasn’t so busy trying to make my game a reality, I might actually buy and play it.

  4. March 5, 2010 6:49 pm

    Thanks for extracting some of the highlights from the videos into a nicely annotated and linked collection of bullet points!

    I don’t know if this was mentioned in the video, but among all the great references I see in the post and the comments, I notice one important omission – a book I consider to be a classic presentation (in form and content) on the idea that all the world is a game:

    Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, by James Carse

    FWIW, a while back I blogged about this book and some additional perspectives on the pervasiveness and permeability of games worlds, based primarily on insights shared by others at the 2006 Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium.

    • March 6, 2010 1:03 am

      Hi Joe! That was *exactly* the reference I was looking for. This appears to be an amazing little book. 47 average 4 star ratings at Amazon. Picked up my copy today for 49 cents plus shipping. I guess it helps that it was written in 1986.

      Carse’s distinction between finite and infinite games seems very important. The more global and time-independent our perspective, the more we can see ourselves as part of an “infinite”, or at least indefinitely iterated game. That must make us a lot less worried about losing in any particular game, and improve the quality of play in our lives. 🙂

      I looked at your Gumption blog, it is truly a feast of fascinating insights and foresights. I have started a new “Friends” page at the top of this blog, and listed your website there. Congrats on all the great work.

      Have you ever considered running or co-moderating a Future Salon? Reading your blog I suspect you’d be amazing at it. Jan Vandenbos and Brenda Cooper are our Seattle/PNW Future Salon organizers. They would love to have other co-moderators to work with, and I know of at least one other person in your neighborhood who could be a great partner. Perhaps you four could team up and produce one salon each every three months? That would be a great way to get the Seattle Future Salon more active again in 2010, and connect up more of the future-thinkers and future-doers in the Emerald City.

      • March 10, 2010 6:36 pm

        Hi John,

        Thanks for the kind words, and the link on the FutureSalon friends page.

        I hope you will enjoy Carse’s book. Among his most salient observations, with respect to Jesse Schell’s talk and your commentary, is that infinite games involve playing with boundaries (vs. the play within boundaries that characterizes finite games).

        I will contact Jan (via the info on the Seattle Future Salon Yahoo Groups site) to conspire with her and others about co-moderating a Future Salon in Seattle.

        BTW, a friend sent me a link to an the full, unsegmented, 28-minute video of Jesse Schell’s “Design Outside the Box” presentation at DICE 2010 on G4TV. As I noted in my original comment, I didn’t watch the video when I found this post, but after receiving 2 recommendations from trusted sources – and given the ability to watch the video in its entirety – I have a keener appreciation for Jesse’s insights, and your expansion(s).

        Jesse’s reference to Pine & Gilmore’s Experience Economy sequel, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, combined with his emphasis on bringing some of the benefits of online games into the physical world, got me thinking about the concept of re-authentication … about which I may compose a blog post of my own (since that seems to be the best way for me to figure out what I really think about something).


  5. March 9, 2010 8:58 pm

    Terrific post & analysis John! I think the crux of Schell’s observations is the relentless commoditization (thanks to digitization) and remixing of popular games – more and more finite mini-games being stitched together into the infinite game of life. I think “games” can more generally be viewed as formalized complex goal-oriented behaviors. Due to convergent acceleration, which is being driven by better games and in turn drives game commoditization, we’re about to live through a revolution in the serious / social gaming space (just as we’re seeing in most or all fields). But in a few years will we call it gaming? Or will we recognize games, fundamentally, as extensions of basic life processes that we can readily see employed in various systems and at various scales? Web-based social media is already blurring these lines.

    Two related links:

    Nash Equilibrium: (I think Nash is limited a bit by the reductionism inherent in his equations. Would be interesting to hear him speak in reaction to the concept of infinite games and/or open systems.)

    Robert Wright’s classic Non-Zero:

    • March 10, 2010 11:03 pm

      Thanks Alvis! You sure have an insightful take on these issues. You and Joe would enjoy hanging out, I think!

      James Carse’s perspective that you can look at your own life as a finite game, or at your and others “life” as an infinite game, as you note, and probably hold both perspectives simultaneously most of the time, is quite profound I think. This seems like a solution to a lot of unnecessary conflict and intolerance going forward, as our understanding of games and ourselves as players steadily improves.

      I added your great blog, Social Node, to our Friends page. Score one for Mountain View! 🙂

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