If Gamers Ran The World

Gamecity 2008 and later at St Paul's School, 23 Nov 2008

I don’t think it can have escaped anyone’s attentions that there was a reasonably significant election in America recently. And they got me thinking.

Barack Obama is 47. By contrast, David Cameron – who leaps to mind as another potential national leader in the coming years, whatever you may think of that fact – is 42. I got to thinking about what a national leader might look like in ten years time, 2018. Let’s suggest, based on Obama and Cameron, that they’re 45.

They’re 45 in 2018 when they stand for office – that means they were born in 1973. They would have been four when Taito released Space Invaders came out; seven when Pac Man came out. In 1985, when they were 12, Nintendo would launch the NES in the west. At 18, just as they would have been heading to University, the first NHL game came out for the Genesis/Megadrive and might consumed many a night in the dorm. At 22, the Playstation was launched. At 26, they could have bought a PS2 at launch; at 31, they might have taken up World of Warcraft with their friends.

They would have been a gamer all their lives. Not someone who once played videogames, trotting out the same anecdote about “playing Asteroids once” in interviews; someone for whom games were another part of their lives, a primary, important medium. Someone who understood games.

And if that was the case, what might they have learned?

Before we go any further, I’d like to briefly address SimCity.

For quite a while, there was a trend of using SimCity (and, to be honest, similarly “vaguely educational” god-sims) as an example of what people can learn from games, especially with regard to politics and the “real world”.

And frankly, I’d like to call “rubbish” on that.

SimCity is a fun game, but it’s a fast oversimplification of urban planning and city management – even Will Wright would own up to that. Its zoning system is based on one particular model of town planning – a particularly dated theory at that – and one that was formed in 50s/60s America. That’s not necessarily the best thing to learn from.

But really, my point is not that using SimCity as a reference point is bad.

It’s that there’s just so much more to games – and games that teach us things – than games like SimCity. There’s a vast amount you can learn from almost any kind of game. This talk is not about SimCity; it’s about all the wonderful things that all manner of games teach us, and that we might use to make the world a better place.

To explore what a gamer might bring to the world, I’m going to break the talk up into a number of sections; in them, I’ll examine some fairly large “issues”, and look at the kind of games that might teach us something about them.


The next 50-100 years are likely to be characterised by scarcity: the increasing scarcity of natural resources like oil, and the realisation that cheapness is often just an illusion. Cheap oil is an illusion. Cheap food is an illusion – you might notice in the shops that whilst the price of cheap bread is rising rapidly, expensive bread is rising in price much more slowly. We’re slowly being reminded of the real cost of things. How does your behaviour behave when things become expensive? And how do you behave if you’ve grown up never knowing that some things used to be cheap?

A gamer looks at scarcity and says “oh, this is just survival horror”. Survival horror is, fundamentally, about surviving terrifying situations in the face of scarcity of resources – usually amnunition and health. You can’t play Resident Evil as if it was Quake; that leads to death very quickly. Instead, the player has to make judgment calls about every action. Save points, in early survival horror, are rationed just like ammunition; saving now means potentially not being able to save later. Using this magnum round now means not having it later. Taking the SMG as Claire means that it won’t be there for Leon.

It’s also worth noting that the foes in Resident Evil are quite slow-moving. Normally, such slow-moving foes wouldn’t be scary – but the fact that, as a player, you are so underequipped, makes everything scary. In Resident Evil 4, the enemies become faster and more numerous, and ammunition is in less short supply. Does it still count as survival horror? Maybe not horror, but Iroquois Pliskin makes a good point for it being survival in a recent blogpost:

“I was glad Krpata brought up Resident Evil 4, since that game made some bold and successful experiments in vulnerability. Instead of heightening the scarcity, RE4 uses basic combat mechanics and the feeling of vulnerability key to the survival genre. As he noted on the podcast, the key element is the fact that you cannot run and shoot at the same time. This turns open ground between you and the enemy into the scarce resource; you are constantly torn between ceding and standing your ground. Since RE4 also surrounds you with enemies (there’s an unforgettable standoff in a house, where zombies start swarming through the windows from all sides), your inability to strafe (along with the slow, un-shooter-like turning speed) turns a shooter into a tension-filled dance with death.”

I like that idea of open ground being the limited resource.

The shift to survival horror is a big shift for an economy based on wholesale, overpowering victory. There’s no longer any bonus to highscores and killing everything; the only victory is survival. And when reduced to those raw elements, survival is, by its very nature, horrific. Thinking about bare minimums is frightening. And gamers – or, at least, fans of one particular genre – are already well-versed in what survival looks like.


The next challenge I want to talk about is the ever-increasing complexity, and in particular the complexity of systems like the companies we work for, that’s going to face us in the future. Processor power doubles every six months according to Moore’s Law. Global organisations are larger than ever, in part thanks to the advances in communications technology that have happened in the past hundred years. In a connected world, we’re not just individuals, operating in isolation; we’re part of larger systems. Complexity is not going to stop increasing, and a form of systems literacy is going to become an important skill to process that complexity.

One of the most interesting things in complex systems is what happens when you introduce real people to them. People are flawed and curious and will mess about, upsetting the balance. Eric Zimmerman made a great point at Playful when he pointed out that the looseness in gearing – that point where you can rock it back and forth before the gearing engages – is referred to as “play”. When presented with a system, people like to rock it back and forth to see how much play is present. Systems are not perfect, and a degree of give is expected.

Zimmerman also pointed out that games are unique in being genuinely systemic media. Playing games requires a kind of systems literacy that no other medium demands – to understand rules and patterns, and to learn them on the fly. After all, unlike other forms of games, videogames do not display their entire ruleset (if indeed any of it) up front; instead, the player has to play with the world and infer the system behind it. And Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Media Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has commented on this kind of play before:

“Probably the best way to develop better intuitions about decentralized systems is to construct and “play with” such systems.”

Explaining some of his own research in this space, he said that “What’s needed are microworld construction kits, so that you can create your own microworlds, focusing on the domain you find most interesting.” And whilst he likes the idea of “microwrold construction kits”, to me, that just sounds like games.

So what kind of games exemplify this well?

Fighting games. Beat-em-ups are complex systems that run at sixty frames a second, and whilst they provide a vague overview of their (highly) complex systems of rules in the manual, the way most players have learned about them is through educative tutorials and inferring them backwards through the game. That leads to some the vast proliferation of FAQs on sites like Gamefaqs; I’ve referred to this Tekken 3 Mook many times in my life. In them, you see complex analysis of systems, with frame counts for the duration of each move and its recover time, and lists of unblockable combos, that have all been inferred through trial and error. Of course, the high-level players have taken this analysis and then internalised it: the ruleset lives and breathes within them, and what was once carefully analysed appears instinctive to the outsider observer. In fact, what you’re seeing is a highly advanced form of systems literacy.

A good example of this systems literacy can be seen in the Tekken series’ “chickening” system. Some characters can reverse other characters’ attacks. The “chicken” maneouvre allows the attacker to reverse the reversal. The only catch is that there isn’t time to input the chickening command string as a reaction – they have to be input so rapidly after the initial attack that there’s no chance to react. That means the only way to chicken an attack is to anticipate that your opponent is likely to reverse a move, and immediately input the chicken string. This means that you’re planning the next move based on an understanding not of what your opponent is currently doing, but based upon your knowledge of their decision tree. That means you’re juggling the moves list – and, indeed, the strategies and tactics – for two characters in your head, not just your own. This is clearly very advanced systems thinking, and beat-em-up players practice it all the time.

You can also see similarly complex systems in many MMOs. Clive Thompson gave a particularly good example of this in one of his recent “Games Without Frontiers” columns:

“Constance Steinkuehler — a game academic at the University of Wisconsin — was spending 12 hours a day playing Lineage, the online world game. She was, as she puts it, a “siege princess,” running 150-person raids on hellishly difficult bosses. Most of her guild members were teenage boys.

But they were pretty good at figuring out how to defeat the bosses. One day she found out why. A group of them were building Excel spreadsheets into which they’d dump all the information they’d gathered about how each boss behaved: What potions affected it, what attacks it would use, with what damage, and when. Then they’d develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked — and to predict how to beat it.

Often, the first model wouldn’t work very well, so the group would argue about how to strengthen it. Some would offer up new data they’d collected, and suggest tweaks to the model. “They’d be sitting around arguing about what model was the best, which was most predictive,” Steinkuehler recalls.”

That’s when it hit her: The kids were practicing science.

At one point, Steinkuehler met up with one of the kids who’d built the Excel model to crack the boss. “Do you realize that what you’re doing is the essence of science?” she asked.

He smiled at her. “Dude, I’m not doing science,” he replied. “I’m just cheating the game!””

Again, it requires a reasonably high degree of systems literacy to recognise that the game is a regular system, and as such, its behaviour can be calculated. Learning what you can and can’t calculate or predict is an important skill: it’s possible to calculate or predict with certainty what moves you have time to perform given any particular attack by an opponent; that can be memorised. By contrast, the chicken buffers of Tekken are not calculated; they’re informed guesses based on the state of the system at that point in time.

Games are a fantastic platform for exposing people to the kind of systems literacy that is all around us, and will only increase in volume.

Effectiveness & Efficiency

Populations are only going to rise. And the density of that population is going to be rising as well. At the moment, over half the world lives in a city. When you think about it, that’s incredible. In 2002, China had 171 cities with more than a million people in them – how many of them can you name? We’re moving towards becoming an urban society, but we’re going to need to learn how best to create urban societies that are sustainable and make the best possible use of space. How do we do that?

One game that might teach you that is Tetris. But I don’t think it’s a very good example. Tetris is about all efficiency – getting the blocks to fit together as best possible and make them disappear. You ram them together in neatly tesselating patterns. When you design a city like this, you end up with Dubai.

Skyscrapers are incredibly efficient at being a single thing that were designed for… but they’re not very good at being multi-purpose buildings. All the office blocks we’re building now won’t make very good residential blocks in the future. By contrast, think about some of the older buildings in the town you live in; many of them will have had many uses in their lifetime, from being residences to becoming offices or shops.

Efficiency is a dangerous idea to puruse, because it’s a calculation that only takes certain, quantifiable variables, into account; the ratio of input to output. William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s “Cradle to Cradle” talks a lot about this, and it’s a book I’ve written about before. Rather than efficiency, they consider the importance of effectiveness as a goal:

“In very early societies, repentance, atonement, and sacrifice were typical reactions to complex systems, like nature, over which people felt they had little control. Societies around the world developed belief systems based on myth in which bad weather, famine, or disease meant one had displeased the gods, and sacrifices were a way to appease them…

But to be less bad is to accept things as they are, to believe that poorly designed, dishonorable, destructive systems are the best humans can do. This is the ultimate failure of the ‘be less bad’ approach: a failure of the imagination. From our perspective, this is a depressing vision of our species’ role in the world.

What about an entirely different model? What would it mean to be 100 percent good?”

And one game that’s all about efficiency is Desktop Tower Defence. That game requires that you plan the layout of your turrets to begin with. However, as the game progresses, your early turrets are too weak to be of much use as offense. They’re still useful as obstructive defences, though, and so they remain effective – just in a different role to the one they were initial created for. As such, you’re always trying to plan for both the immediate demands of the game, and also the long-term future. And it’s this kind of effectiveness that we should be planning for.

An End to Colocation

Peak oil means that cheap travel is probably over, too. Unfortunately, we’re left with an economy that’s bootstrapped internationally, and that’s not going to change. This is part of the complex systems we previously mentioned. Many of us have dealt with remote working before – working from home, working with colleagues overseas, in different timezone – and it’s only going to become more common.

What you quickly find out, though, is that it’s not very easy. Nobody ever gives you lessons in teleconferencing, and yet it’s a skill that takes a while to learn. Of course, as gamers, we’ve been playing online multiplayer for years, and have learned many ways around this.

Like most gamers, my first online communications were through in-game chat windows, like those in Quake; “hit t to Talk”. Of course, this required that you learned to type furiously quickly so you could free up your keyboard to go back to shooting one another. As a result, gamers learned to bind useful macros to individual keys, making the process of communication more mechanical, but also immediate. “Incoming Scout” was a very useful key to have bound in my QWTF days, for instance. And text chat is still a useful lowest-common-denominator, especially when immediacy isn’t always prioritised; the continued popularity of instant messaging services should be testimony to that.

Most gamers nowadays are used to voice communications too, though. One of Microsoft’s best breakthroughs with the first iteration of live was making voice-comms mandatory for every online game, and supporting that across their network. Whilst i’ll be the first to admit that Live often descends into a lot of people yelling at each other, it’s also led to many great experiences, and Live gamers are all getting much more practiced at using voicecomms. Like teleconferencing, you have to learn that you can’t just start talking; you have to learn to anticipate and take turns. It’s particularly effective at harnessing the immediacy of communication – for instance, in first person shooters or co-operative games – as well as making it easier for people’s personalities to bleed through into the game world. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing is up to you.

Gamers haven’t just mastered in-game communication, though. they’ve also learned how to organise and manage large groups of people to get playing. You see this a lot in clan and especially MMO guild management. It takes a lot of effort to keep a large group of people motivated to play a game, and to encourage them, and to get them to actually turn up on time and in enough numbers to make running an instance or raid worthwhile. It becomes a kind of management, and it’s something that employers are taking notice of. There are already stories about people being hired not just for their business skill, but also for their experience managing large raiding guilds.

Of course, once you start managing people at this level, you can’t just hold 40 conversations on a raid; you need to be able to direct attention appropriately. That requires not just better communication skills but more useful, and more accurate, input, in order to make better decisions. This is why you’ll see these amazing customised interfaces on the screens of high-end raiding players, where the viewport is practically full of tables and readouts. This sounds like it might be counterproductive, but it allows a skilled operator to manage his team much better, and makes communication much more useful and efficient – because everything about the system of the game is being communicated by the HUD, it keeps voice or text chat for the useful insight or giving of commands, rather than having to interrogate players about their status all the time.

Communication is a skill that is learned, and it’s something we can practice. It’s also something we can enhance with better research or information prior to communication: informatics and data-gathering becomes more useful when the people you want to communicate with aren’t 100% available, or can’t communicate the nuances of their situation. You can acquire data from them without them actually having to tell you.

And this ability to process data – and understand that we’re now very much living in a data-rich world – leads me onto my next point.

Living in a Data Rich World

These days, we’re all leaking data all over the shop. We leak data every time we touch in or touch out with our Oystercards. We leak data every time we update our Flickr stream or our Facebook page. We leak data from our games. By doing this, we begin to surround ourselves with a persistent layer of context for our actions. As that context moves into a public space, it becomes shared and merged with that of others, creating a kind of supercontext (to borrow a term from Grant Morrison, recontextualised by Matt Jones).

And once that data’s in the world, we can do something with it. If you think like a gamer, you tend to see numbers next to things as scores, because, you know, gamers love scores. And some of them love numbers that aren’t scores; consider the popularity of Championship Manager, the world’s most popular spreadsheet, or Nippon Ichi’s strategy games, like Disgaea, the world’s most insane spreadsheet.

This all comes into a head in things like Nike Plus, which I’ve written about before), and if you’ve read those talks you can probably imagine what I might have said about Nike+ here. In a nutshell: it takes the solitary, worklike chore of running, and gives you a pretty graph. Not only that, it lets you share your graph with others – people you might know at work, but also strangers, in vast challenges. Sometimes, it’s fun to run with friends; sometimes, it’s fun to work as a team; and this makes the act of running alone more fun.

What does this stuff look like when you apply it to things that aren’t specifically fun, like the world around you? Dan Hill (now of Aruip) wrote an excellent blogpost considering the idea of a “well-tempered personal environment”.

“the idea is for a system that makes previously invisible aspects of people’s behaviour visible, in order to help change individual and collective behaviour.”

So this is another kind of feedback loop – and, as Brian Sutton Smith has pointed out, games essentially are feedback loops. Dan is facilitating those feedback loops through high-score readouts embedded in the world. And, he points out, it’s important that those readouts are real and embodied:

“physicality is what will ultimately resonate with people, over and above surface attachments to particular web experiences.”

Game design can affect the products and devices we use to engage with the world; turning devices into their own little feedback-loop-generators is a side effect of applying gamelike thinking to product design.

There’s also something very powerful that occurs when you present data in a gamelike way. The way you present data changes the connection that people have to that information. A lot of what gets described as “playful” design is really just about making it clear what the data you can alter is, and providing simple inputs to make that change – it’s all about highlighting those feedback loops.

So a good example of that is the dashboard on a Prius. By making the default readout on the computer screen Miles Per Gallon, rather than Miles Per Hours, driving becomes a game about increasing the efficiency of your fuel consumption, rather than getting from A to B as fast as possible. The car exposes how its power is generated – be it from the engine or from the battery – and then empowers you to change that (by coasting more or charging the battery harder on hills).


The final thing I’d like to consider to day is the notion of failure. Failure is not necessarily something we’re going to face more of in the future; knowing how to deal with it is, however, a useful skill for life, and it’s a skill that gamers are exposed to all the time.

When we learn in games, we learn by failing; we learn whether or not we can really make that jump, or if that enemy really is vulnerable to fire. Part of understanding the complex systems of games is making mistakes. And, as we become more experienced, we learn to discern between something being “possible but not by me (yet)” or “impossible for anyone”. Once you learn that progress comes from failure, you stop seeing failure as an absolute, and more as a step on the path.

There is, of course, both good failure and bad failure – some failure is acceptable as exploration, but others are more serious. You could argue that more serious, permanent failures – the difference between dead and “dead dead”, as we used to say in the MUD – are not necessarily conducive to “fun” – something games tend to seek to provide. Then again, that doesn’t stop some games using such mechanics for good. The Essex MUD’s concept of permanent death, or Steel Battalion’s erasure of your save game upon the death of your pilot really raise the stakes of the risk/reward mechanics at the heart of most games.

And some games really place the notion of exploratory failure at their core. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time makes failure an integral part of its gameplay by giving the player a limited ability to rewind time. Mistakes are not instantly punished; they’re only punished if you don’t learn from them (and make them when you have run out of the magic rewind power). I think it’s dangerous to remove any notion of challenge from games, but there are ways to make that challenge scale up-or-down, and Sands of Time balances challenge and exploration very, very nicely.

A more abstract example of a game about failing can be seen in Every Extend. Every Extend is a very simple game: you have a “ship”, and you navigate around a small playfield, destroying enemies. You begin with ten “extends”, or lives. Beyond moving, your only way of defeating enemies is to self-destruct, losing an extend in the process. Exploding enemies will set off a chain reaction, however, and if you extend that chain reaction far enough, the ensuing points will earn you an extra life. So the game becomes about a mechanic of sacrifice: you lose a life first, but then have the chance to win it back. Some lives are loss-leaders, helping you understand the game; others regain you many extends. Some extends are critical to being able to continue the game; others can be “wasted” if you like. This sort of game reaches its ultimate refinement in Boomshine, a beautiful little flash game where you have a single click to trigger a certain number of chain-reactions.

Gamers may know the value of failure, but they also aren’t afraid to fiddle with things – to try to find glitches, or shortcuts, or to invest time in playing with the system. Games, as mentioned earlier, are feedback loops; you do a thing, see what happens, and then respond. A gamer’s response to the world is not only to play, but to install tools to see how you can play: readouts, new UIs, new ways of gaining greater volumes of feedback to process.

Playing, tweaking, fiddling; these are a really important part of the learning process. This is “play” at its most simple, and it’s something that unless we’re careful, we simply stop doing as adults. If you become afraid of failure, you essentially become afraid of play. Similarly, chasing success all the time isn’t necessarily the healthiest of attitudes; not fearing failure means that we can pursue braver, more outlandish solutions to problems. In moderation, the health attitude towards failure that gamers exhibit can only be a good thing.

Back to the beginning. Back to politics. And back to Barack Obama.

During Obama’s election campaign, some of his volunteers built an iPhone application to help Obama supporters campaign. It’s a really nice piece of design: it sorts your phonebook by state, and helps you keep tabs on how your friends have said they might vote, and who you’ve yet to call. But one feature within it really leapt out at me:

The “Call Stats” feature lets you “See nationwide Obama ’08 Call Friends totals and find out how your call totals compare to leading callers”.

It has online high-score charts; you can compete against people you don’t know to be the best campaigner. On the sly, they turned politics into an MMO.

Now, politics and elections aren’t games – whilst there might be scores for a while, there are greater things at stake than mere scores. But that’s the kind of thing you build when you look at the world in a gamelike way; incentives, readouts, better feedback loops. That’s the kind of thinking that can only become more pervasive as games themselves do.

So what does a future run by gamers look like? Well, if they can handle complexity, and they’ve stocked up all the magic item chests ready for when scarcity hits, and they’ve failed enough times at the low-stakes games that they know they can make it at the high-stakes ones, and if our environment is one carefully planned out for effective growth rather than rammed together for efficiency, and if they understand how to handle the ever-more complex forms of communications necessary to deal with the large, distributed teams of people necessary to understand complexity – and if they can create a world that supplies and consumes the data necessary to make smart, informed, decisions – then they might just make it awesome.

No-one would ever tell us that games were a waste of time. No-one would ever mention SimCity again.

And even if we don’t get that, maybe a fraction of that will trickle through, that’s still a start. Games are wonderful things, and people who get games are wonderful people, but they don’t just have to make more games, you know. You could change the world.

That seems like a nice note to end on.