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Jesse Schell, ‘Design outside the Box’

April 21st, 2010 | Posted by David Carlton in Critical Compilation:

At the 2010 D.I.C.E. Summit, Jesse Schell gave a talk entitled ‘Design outside the Box’ that set the gaming blog world on fire.  Now that the pace of resulting conversation has slowed, we’d like to take the time to gather links to some of the resulting discussion. But, before doing so, the primary source material: The talk itself is less than half-an-hour long, and is very entertaining so I highly recommend that you take the time to go watch Schell speak.  For more detailed study, I also refer you to his slides and a transcript of the talk.

Early Detractors

One of the earliest responses was David Sirlin’s “External Rewards and Jesse Schell’s Amazing Lecture, and it set the tone for much of the subsequent discussion.  Sirlin said that “The unspoken premise of his DICE 2010 lecture is that people are prisoners to external reward systems“ and, lest you have any doubt about his feelings on the matter, followed that with:

“External reward” is practically a curse word to me, a thing I’m ever vigilant against.

He then discussed the final segment of Schell’s talk, presenting a world pervaded with games taking the form of external motivators. Jesper Juul of The Ludologist also addressed external motivators in his post ‘Demotivation by External Rewards‘, but with a twist: he believes that external motivators may not be as effective as presented by Schell’s talk.  In fact, he claims that they may have the opposite effect:

A famous 1973 experiment (“Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward“) showed that when nursery school children consistently received external rewards for drawing, they lost interest in drawing and began drawing less.

Dan Lawrence of Robotic Shed adds yet another twist to the psychology underlying Schell’s talk, his post ‘Behaviourist Game Design‘ dives into the different forms that external motivators can take.  Variable reinforcements turn out to be particularly effective and are not at all foreign to games. They are:

…exactly how the random drops work in a roguelike such as Diablo or World of Warcraft. It’s no wonder that people will spend hours grinding for loot if their brains are conditioned to do so by the most efficient reward system that we know of.

George Korkoris of Burning North is, like Sirlin, no big fan of external motivators; his post ‘Achievement Unlocked: Read The Article Header‘ goes into this issue in further depth, both talking about how the less dystopian earlier parts of Schell’s talk aren’t as rosy as they seem and about how the picture Schell paints isn’t of the future, rather it’s in many ways the present.  He concludes by “…wondering if I’ll even have a place in the game industry five years from now“ but, decides to go his own way, even if it makes him already obsolete.

Further Discussion

Ferguson of Interactive Illuminatus discussed in his post ‘Rewards: the art of incentive‘ how rewards are baked into games.  As he says, “A reward is something that the player gets as a result of completing a goal“ so rewards are found throughout games. Beyond games, he distinguishes between goals internal to a game, goals that end a game, and goals that are located outside of the confines of the game.  My own post at Malvasia Bianca on ‘Jesse Schell, Games, and Extrinsic Motivation‘ similarly used Schell’s talk as a springboard to wonder about external motivators; I ended up concluding that, within reason, they have their place in games (indeed, that they in the form of rules are part of what makes a game a game), and that some mechanics that seem on the surface like external motivators (e.g. achievements) don’t always function that way in practice. Chris Breault of Post-Hype dug into Schell’s talk in quite some detail in ‘The Future Is A Grind‘, laying out many negative aspects of the world presented therein and going so far as to say:

I doubt Schell himself likes these sorts of games… I dislike Lee Sheldon’s grading system as well.

Despite that, however, he comes back to a less negative view, if only because he doesn’t see the outcome as being so inevitable: he concludes by claiming that burnout, sensors, divergence, and greed may all work to save us from the worst aspects of that future  (a bit odd to see burnout and greed as saviours, but I’ll take it). In his Gamasutra article ‘Persuasive Games: Shell Games‘, Ian Bogost dives into the moral aspects of the world that Schell presents. He cautions against the use of external motivators even for good ends. Following up on Sirlin’s post above, Bogost says, “I’ll put it more strongly: when people act because incentives compel them toward particular choices, they cannot be said to be making choices at all.” Bogost concludes with the following warning:

Instead of revealing the processes that define values, schell games tend to hide them away, compacted into the ideologies of corporations and governments. In that regard, if Jesse Schell is right and such games are on the horizon, we ought to bear in mind a warning. When we ask the question what is worth doing through games, we’d better hope the operator is not a shill.

Reflections, Worries and Optimism

Jim Rossignol’s Rock Paper Shotgun post ‘Counting For Taste‘ takes a rather sad reflective tone; he talks about the transformations that games have had on people’s lives, linking them to Schell’s talk with his claim that

Those people who were scared by Schell’s vision of the future are the ones who have, like Smith in his Texan hometown, identified something magical and transformative about games – something which is present in other places too, like comics, or movies, or even drugs.

Rossignol acknowledges that Schell presents new potential possibilities for game design, but worries that “this absurdly addictive thread within games will end up polluting them.“ Raph Koster’s post ‘Gameifying everything‘, one of the earliest responses to the talk (and apparently a second-hand report) talks about various potential worries that the talk might raise: who sets up the incentive structures, privacy issues, and the psychological hacks involved.  As he says, these are valid extrapolations and concerns; he sees them, however, as concerns that apply beyond games.

J. V. Toups of Dorophone begins his post ‘Farmville and the Face of Transdehumanism‘ with Orwellian comparisons, and says that, “It is no exaggeration to say that we have entire industries devoted to rational subversion of the human will.“ (Incidentally, in his GDC microtalk, Schell addressed these Orwellian comparisons, his response was that the proper comparison was not George Orwell but Aldous Huxley, hardly a comforting thought!)  Toups continues with these comparisons, moving on to omnipresent surveillance and ending his description of futures hinted at by Schell’s talk with a statement that

such advancements are an assault on our ability to exercise our wills and and we should react accordingly. The alternative is to imagine a future where a cloud of media suffocates a human face, forever.

Jay Bachhuber of Wise Gaming begins by talking up some of the more positive aspects of the vision presented in the first part of Schell’s talk. As his title ‘More Ludic Century Nonsense‘ suggests, however, he is dubious about an overly revolutionary view of these developments. Like many other respondents, he ends with a warning of the dangers of external motivators, describing them as “games to make a monkey push a button to get a food pellet.“ In contrast, “Games for learning induce reflection, metacognition, and a real understanding of systems and rule sets.“ Bryan of The Pretentious Gamer talks in ‘Convergence; Social Media Games (Part 1)‘ about the different compulsion cycles in various gameplay models (Sims, MMO, RPGs), and the engagement / reward loops that occur in social media games.

Mitu Khandaker of Girl Gamers Suck is one of the few responders to use Schell’s talk as a springboard for a more positive vision of the future: in her post ‘Scanning the Enlarged Horizon: the Future of Games‘, she writes that “the premise of blending real-life and game mechanics is potentially very exciting”, detouring through controller technology innovations to design and expressive innovations, ending with the statement that:

We’re currently at the estuary; what awaits us is an exciting sea of possibilities.

And finally, my favorite response to Schell’s talk was Annie Wright and Kirk Hamilton’s discussion ‘Regarding Jesse Schell’s DICE Presentation‘ for Gamer Melodico.  It’s wonderfully far-ranging, dancing between the concrete and the abstract, working with Schell’s ideas while challenging him and seeing his talk as impetus for future speculations.  Their final paragraph is as good a summary as I’ve found of the challenges that Schell’s talk leaves us with, so I’ll close by quoting it:

And therein lies the incredible potential, entwined, as incredible potential so frequently is, with some equally incredible challenges.  To me, something about the gee-whiz blitheness with which Schell blasted this stuff out was disconcerting. Sure, the dreamers and the big-picture guys are the ones who can sell us the vision, and we’ve got the tech and the engineers to make that vision a reality. But it’s up to ALL of us to figure how to master it.

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