How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking—And How Publishing Can Benefit
Adam Penenberg is the editor of PandoDaily and author of the new book Play At Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking, available through our bookstore. You can also find Penenberg's collected work on his website.
Look around. Games are everywhere. Start with that carton of orange juice in your fridge, which might advertise it's worth three points, redeemable for discounts and prizes. It's a game. What about frequent-flier miles, which are games that reward loyalty? Mega Millions, Powerball, Take Five and other state lotteries? Games. Nissan has an in-car gaming system that encourages drivers to compete for best efficiency levels (Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum). Talk about a mobile game. You could look at Twitter as a game, the pay off being more and more followers and greater numbers of retweets the more you use it. The next time you go to Target notice the checkout screen. On it you'll see a game that rates the cashier's speed. According to one report, Target maintains a running average of an employee's scores, requiring that more than 88 percent of transactions make the speed cut, with a cashier's score affecting salary and promotions. Target has turned cashiers into players of a corporate game. In some urinals men may see a fly stuck on the bottom, a game mechanic put there to steady their aim (and keep restrooms cleaner). Corporations of all stripes and sizes are layering in games into the workplace, for employee training and to promote activities as far flung as carpooling to distributing server time for engineers.
The term "Baader-Meinhoff" describes that feeling you get when you hear or read a word you've never encountered before and then subsequently notice it all around you. It's born of our brains' tendency to filter out uninteresting information until it isn't uninteresting anymore. (If you think about it, the first time you read "Baader-Meinhof" may be to experience Baader-Meinhof.) This is what may happen to when you begin to notice all the games - and their corresponding gamelike elements - that surround you. That's because games (or at least the characteristics of games) have been creeping into almost every facet of our lives. Some refer to it as the "game layer."
Do me a favor. Peer at the game-like iconography of your iPhone. If you do you might recognize it as reminiscent of old video games like "Pac-Man" and "Space Invaders." Notice that when you poke an icon with your finger the program gradually fills up the screen with a dash of color. That's a game mechanic. It offers a sense of anticipation - Voila! Email! - and triggers the release of dopamine, a hormone in the brain that encourages us to explore and try new things, and rewards us when we learn. Since we like the feeling we get when our brains are awash in it, we'll do whatever it takes to get it, over and over. We also miss it in the event we run low. That's when our cravings are dashed and we experience disappointment. You find out you didn't make the swim team, your boss didn't approve your raise, or your local bakery ran out of your favorite chocolate chip muffin. Video and computer games, as well as slot machines, are particularly good dopamine generators. In fact, video games uncork almost double the levels experienced by humans at rest. They provide "threshold effects," in which prizes or level changes are dribbled out to keep us hooked. It's the same system that drives compulsive gamblers and cocaine addicts.
What's more, good game design offers a user constant learning. You didn't receive a manual with your iPhone did you? Instead, you probably could use it right out of the box. It's intuitive. Just by looking at it you knew what to do. That's good design, and has become a trend in consumer electronics. But the reason it works is because it owes a lot to games. Video game players don't receive manuals with Grand Theft Auto or Sim City either. They start playing and as part of the playing process they learn as they go.
At their most fundamental level, games provide feedback loops. Daniel Cook, chief creative officer at Spry Fox, a Seattle-based game design firm, divides them into four parts:
1.) A player performs an action. In "Angry Birds" it involves pulling back the rubbery band of a slingshot, aiming, and letting the fowl fly. For a crossword puzzle it means filling in blank spaces in a grid with a word, words or phrase based on a clue. In a first-person shooter it's piloting an avatar through a simulated world, avoiding obstacles and firing weapons.
2.) The action results in an effect. The "Angry Birds" player watches the bird soar through the air and strike makeshift structures housing oinking, blinking pigs. The crossword puzzle solver sees how his answer fits in a given space and whether it runs afoul of other answers he has given. For the first-person shooter player: The avatar reacts to his control of the joystick, mouse or touchscreen, and there are lots of explosions.
3.) The player receives feedback. After an irate, chattering bird hits its targets the structures protecting the pigs shatter like a house of cards tumbling down, pigs are vaporized and points accrue. Each crossword answer affects other answers-for example, a word running horizontally fills in vertical spaces on the grid, and a quick glance at the corresponding clues confirms or debunks the validity of the original answer. The shooter observes how each and every movement affects the avatar's actions, which are buttressed by visual and sound effects and growing point tallies for each successful shot or action.
4.) Armed with additional knowledge, the player performs additional actions. A new bird is loaded into the slingshot and the player adjusts his trajectory based on what happened on the previous shot. (How many pigs are left? Where are they located and how are they protected?) Five down has three of six letters filled in courtesy of other answers the player has already inputted into the grid. The player in the first person shooter aimed too high on the previous shot so he adjusts the angle of his weapon or he knows to avoid that floating jellyfish-like alien skittering into his avatar's path.
At the heart of any good game are mechanisms to help deliver enjoyment, the stuff that makes a game a game. They need to have what game designer Chelsea Howe describes as a "fractal elegance," which means "self-similar," that the pattern at the beginning of a game is the same at the end. That makes it eminently graspable to virtually anyone. Because we humans are, in Cook's words, "infovores" who "are wired to solve black boxes," a "fundamental aspect of our neurological learning wetware," these game mechanics play on our innate need to learn. They are "rule-based systems" that encourage a user to explore and learn through feedback mechanisms how to navigate a simulated environment. At its essence, a game is simply "a set of interlinked puzzles where solutions to one puzzle lead to clues that help on additional puzzles."
Perhaps Albert Einstein was right when he said, "Play is the highest form of research."
The Big Takeaway For Book Publishers
What, you might ask, does this have to do with book publishing? Plenty.
As a journalist and author I have been covering technology for 20 years, and it's clear to me that the ebook is simply a stopgap measure to something far greater. Here's why: Technology marches on through predictable patterns of development, with the initial form of a new technology mirroring what came before, until innovation and consumer demand drive it far beyond initial incremental improvements. We are on the verge of re-imagining the book and transforming it into something far beyond mere words.
Take note: The first battlefield tanks looked like heavily armored tractors equipped with cannons; early automobiles were called "horseless carriages" for a reason; the first motorcycles were based on bicycles; the first satellite phones were as clunky as your household telephone. A decade ago, when newspapers began serving up stories over the Web, the content mirrored what was offered in the print edition. What the tank, car and newspaper have in common is they blossomed into something far beyond their initial prototypes. In the same way that an engineer wouldn't dream of starting with the raw materials for a carriage to design a rad new sports car today, newspapers won't use paper or ink anymore.
Neither will books. Mere text on a screen, the stuff that ebooks are made of, won't be enough. That presents opportunities to artists to create something wonderful.
Realize that the first movie cameras were used to film theater productions. It took early cinematic geniuses like Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin and Abel Gance to untether the camera from what was and transform it into what it would become: a new art form. I believe that this dynamic will soon be replayed, except it will star the book in the role of the theater production, with authors acting more like directors and production companies than straight wordsmiths. Like early filmmakers, some of us will seek new ways to express ourselves through multimedia. Instead of stagnant words on a page we will layer video throughout the text, add photos, hyperlink material, engage social networks of readers who will add their own videos, photos, and wikified information so that these multimedia books become living, breathing, works of art. They will exist on the Web and be ported over to any and all mobile devices that can handle multimedia, laptops, netbooks, watches and other wearable tech, and beyond.
Naturally game design will feature prominently in this cascade of creativity.
For the non-fiction author therein lie possibilities to create the proverbial last word on a subject, a one-stop shop for all the information surrounding a particular subject matter. Imagine a biography of Wiley Post, the one-eyed pilot from the 1930s who was the first to fly around the world. It would not only offer the entire text of a book but newsreel footage from his era, coverage of his most famous flights, radio interviews, schematics of his plane, interactive maps of his journeys, interviews with aviation historians and pilots of today, a virtual tour of his cockpit and description of every gauge and dial, short profiles of other flyers of his time, photos, hyperlinked endnotes and index, links to other resources on the subject. Social media could be woven into the fabric of the experience-discussion threads and wikis where readers share information, photos, video, and add their own content to Post's story, which would tie them more closely to the book. There's also the potential for additional revenue streams: You could buy MP3s of popular songs from the 1930s, clothes that were the hot thing back then, model airplanes, other printed books, DVDs, journals, and memorabilia.
A visionary author could push the boundaries and re-imagine these books in wholly new ways. A novelist could create whole new realities, a pastiche of video and audio and words and images that could rain down on the user, offering metaphors for artistic expressions. Or they could warp into videogame-like worlds where readers become characters and through the expression of their own free will alter the story to fit. They could come with music soundtracks or be directed or produced by renowned documentarians. They could be collaborations or one-woman projects.
In some ways this harkens back to the promise of the much derided CD-Rom of the 1990s. But the tablet computer was also once snubbed (recall the Apple Newton, an unmitigated disaster for Apple). As with the Newton, there wasn't the processing power and storage available in the 1990s to make these immersive books a viable consumer product. Nowadays, with bountiful Wi-Fi, interconnected social networks and powerful processors, it does.
I want to emphasize I'm not predicting the end of immersive reading. I see a future in which immersive reading coexists with other literary, visual and auditory modes of expression. You get the full book-all the words on the page or screen, but you also get so much more. And ask yourself: Which would you rather have, the hardcover book of today or this rich, multimedia treatment of the same title? Suddenly mere words on a page may feel a bit lifeless. And remember that today's youth are tomorrow's book buyers, and they have been brought up on a steady diet of video games, entertainment on demand, with text, photos, and video all available at the click of a mouse. For them, your future consumers, simple text won't cut it.
Now, I realize that many can't imagine life without a good book or now ebook to curl up with, but these may be the same people who might have thought they'd never forgo the pop and hiss of vinyl records, jettison the typewriter for a laptop, spring for high speed Internet access, or buy a BlackBerry or iPhone. In an earlier age they might have even resisted adopting the Qwerty keyboard (what's wrong with ink and feathered quill anyway?) And sure, there will be some books around. After all, even today there exist vinyl records-just not a lot of them.
As an author, I'm excited by the possibilities. Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding newspapers, magazines, and books, I think all writers should be rosy. Because where there's chaos, there's opportunity.
And besides, it's inevitable.