When I've spoken about the end of cyberspace, and the displacement of the idea of cyberspace as a Platonic plane of information, separate from and superior to the real world, someone's almost asked, "But what about Second Life?" (or World of Warcraft, or Everquest, depending on what year we're talking about). The idea is that these kinds of games and game-worlds represents a continuation of the vision of cyberspace as alternate world.
My response has been twofold. First, despite claims about the utility (or potential utility) of Second Life to business, or the number of hours devoted players spend in World of Warcraft, so far as I can tell, nobody argues that these constitute alternatives to physical reality that will lead to the death of the office or the transformation of travel. They have their appeal, but their appearance is not a sign that the tectonic plates of reality are starting to rumble. Second, it looks more likely that with the coming of ubiquitous computing, some of the kinds of interactions and feedback that make games compelling are going to migrate into the real world, but with serious social and economic implications.
This evening I ran across a piece by Brett McCallon on the growing pervasiveness of games in everyday life that echoes this last point:
"Lexulous", and the game's incredible popularity on Facebook, does say something about the way that gaming is infiltrating the experience of seemingly non-gaming-related activities. As gaming becomes more mainstream, and as designers learn to use gaming mechanics to enhance our work, education and relaxation, we can envision a time in which nearly every experience offers the possibility, if not the requirement, for play….
Exercise is only one of the non-gaming areas into which gaming has intruded in recent years. Games that teach foreign languages, cooking and other skills are also becoming increasingly popular…. Even such mundane activities as household chores can be made less onerous through the addition of gaming mechanics. A free, web-based game called "Chore Wars" lets players apply traditional role-play game rules to their laundry, dishwashing and vacuuming duties. For each completed task, players are granted "experience", "gold", etc, which helps their characters advance through imagined quests. It's a fairly basic system, but as a means of motivating lazy spouses and housemates to pull their weight, it could be quite helpful.
I think McCallon's argument is inaccurate but in a revealing way. It's inaccurate in the sense that while we are going to see the growth of feedback and incentive systems around everyday activities, they're not going to really be games. They may borrow some bits and pieces from games– familiar visual tropes, rewards, and the like– but they won't turn housework into a game, any more than my offering my son a quarter to clean his room turns my family into a labor market.
But what's revealing about the piece is that it suggests how likely we are to embrace the language of games when thinking about, and interacting with, these technology. I saw something of this when I was interviewing people about the impact of the Prius MPG estimator on driver behavior. As I wrote in 2008,
Interestingly, many drivers describe efforts to boost their fuel efficiency as a kind of game. One driver, a former Silicon Valley tech executive and car afficionado, recalls that "When I got my Prius, it absolutely felt like I was piloting a large, rolling video game, seeing how to optimize the mileage." Another, a Valley educator, reports that driving her Prius has "become a game for me. I always try to improve the mpg over the last trip." When I gave my end of cyberspace talk at IDEO last week, I brought up the Prius MPG estimator, and one personal immediately said, "It's like a game!" Game designer Amy Jo Kim recalled, "When I first got my Prius 4 years ago, I was completely transfixed by the real-time MPG display. Multi-scale feedback! I could see my mileage per tank, in 5-minute increment, and moment-to-moment. I experimented with my driving style, trying to beat my "high score" each day." A 2006 Cnet article described the Prius as "a mobilized video game… surely the most expensive, biggest gaming machine built… so far."
This may sound like a distinction without a difference, but think about how many times we borrow bits and pieces of phrasing from one realm and apply it to another, and how those borrowings have but a limited influence. We talk about business as war, or coworkers as teams, but we understand that these metaphors don't mean we should bomb a competitor's offices. Doubtless we'll be able to learn some things from game designers about how to improve the interfaces for, say, home energy monitoring systems, but it's not clear that creating an entire game– complete with characters, more elaborate rules, goals, etc.– would be necessary or even desirable to achieve substantial energy savings.