Games for the Real World

Gamers love to create mazes and run people through them, but the points don’t matter. We need to put them in a place where what they do makes a real difference. - Julien Smith

Julien Smith has had me thinking for a long while about his idea of dungeon masters for the real world. I never spent much time in the tabletop and pen-and-paper realm, so that argument doesn’t have as much pull for me as the idea of designing video games for the real world.

No, not in the sense of video games for learning, though that’s definitely useful in its own right.

I’m thinking more along the lines of crafting a real-world experience that is as compelling and immersive as the best video games are. There are a lot of “games” you can get for your phone these days that purport to make your boring real-world habits into a fun and exciting adventure, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Those carrot-style achievement systems that keep people coming back to check the site, maintain their farm, or obsess over finding every Easter egg are superficial. The greatest of video games-the ones you get sucked into for hours on end, the ones that inspire creativity from cosplayers and fanfiction authors and other people who want to literally live the game-aren’t made great by a bunch of meta-badges for accomplishments. In my experience, it’s always been the combination of story, gameplay, and the world (often tied with story) that creates an immersive experience.

Story drives engagement. There’s a growing science behind the power of story and how central it is to the manner in which we understand the world. The best teachers use story to immerse the student in the material and facilitate learning that sticks. Business uses it heavily now too. The most successful products don’t sell their features, they sell the story of what it means to own the product (Apple is the perfect example). Likewise for games, it’s those with the best characters and best plots that make playing that extra five minutes (or an hour) to see what happens next worth it.

Interactivity is gaming’s greatest strength. Unlike most other forms of popular entertainment, games require the player to not just invest attention, but also action. Rather than passively consuming the content, a player must successfully overcome challenges to continue advancing the story or exploring the world. Gameplay, the mechanics and rules of the game, have an enormous impact on how fun the game is to play. The term encompasses a broad range of factors, including the controls, the skills the player can use, how they can (or can’t) interact with the game world, and what determines success (and useful feedback when the player fails) in facing the challenges posed by the game (or by other players).

The world and story tend to overlap and influence each other, but the world is the setting (post-apocalyptic, fantasy, alternative history, spaceships! etc.) of the game. It creates the container for the story and the gameplay. The world determines what should exist in the game, and which rules make sense. A well-crafted world is the raw material upon which great games are built. The setting and backstory provide players with the opportunity to build upon the existing canon to create their own stories and adventures. In particular, sandbox-style games rely on the world to provide structure to the player while otherwise leaving them to their own devices; free to explore whatever interests them and how they define success within the game. Great sandbox games, while harder to find, can be played for years without becoming boring, especially when teamed with a community of player-creators who make the game their own, creating and sharing new stories, adventures, and items within the game’s community. The world holds the potential for infinite play and exploration.

It’s the rare game that successfully mixes those three elements that I’ve found myself playing until the dawn breaks without even realizing it. The balance of which element weighs most heavily in creating a compelling experience depends upon the genre and the individual game, but all three elements must be there.

There’s one other major piece that makes all those games work: a well-crafted progression of difficulty and skills. You start pretty much every game with a limited skillset, just enough to grasp the core mechanics and succeed at the first challenge—killing your first rat or founding your first city—that the game throws at you. As you grasp the basics, the game then gives you access to new powers and options and challenges you further, first in a structured way, then getting more open-ended as the game continues. The real point of all this is that you always feel as if you’re being challenged and improving; once the game is no longer a challenge, it gets boring.

Sometimes a game can sidestep boredom with a worthwhile reward for the diligent efforts of the player: a piece of loot or a useful new ability that validates the effort of the player when overcoming the adversity and frustration of a challenging side-boss or even an arduous task. You might get access to the Penultimate Pirate Hideaway of YAARR!, or find some Rocket Boots or the Epic Sword of Uber Pwnage +5!

My interest is in how all of these above elements can be mixed into real-world learning experiences to make learning awesome - for me own purposes, specifically how it works for teaching movement and building a truly enjoyable, lifelong, fitness habit. I understand the gameplay (physical skills) reasonably well by now—after all, that’s what I’ve been teaching in classes for three years at this point. The puzzle I’m now trying to solve: how does one add story into that experience to make the whole process more compelling? How can we reframe the world to see it as a sandbox filled with opportunities for play, exploration, and connection? I don’t know exactly how yet, but I’m going to figure it out.

I want to create an experience that makes spending time developing our physical skills and mind-body connection as compelling as the best of video games. Maybe then physical engagement with the world would be the first choice for our free time instead of spending countless hours vegging out in front of a screen. Entertainment still has its place, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been an avid gamer for just about all my life, and I believe that there are benefits to games (and, to a lesser degree, more passive forms of entertainment) but it’d be better with them pushed down many rungs of the priorities ladder as an occasional treat rather than as a near constant they tend to be now. Perhaps then we’d see massive improvements in health and happiness everywhere.

It’s time to make more of life into a game, beginning with movement.

Let’s make the world our sandbox!

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