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Does the World Need a Game Layer?

Seth Preibatsch of Scvngr is getting a lot of attention at SXSW this week for his presentation, entitled "The Game Layer on Top of the World". He demonstrated some of his ideas by applying them to our education system, calling it a poorly designed game.

His talk owes a great debt to Jane McGonigal who is a researcher in games and how they can be used to improve society. Her tag line and the title of her new book is "Reality is broken."

Really? Is gaming, used today by many to distract themselves from reality, going to help people create a new reality? Or said another way, do we need to put a game layer on the world?

Don't get me wrong. I understand that gaming is a huge industry. It's the "gaming" talk that gives me pause. Putting a "game layer on the world" seems to me to be a different shade of the "Happiness" craze we're experiencing right now. Where the pursuit of happiness has become a pressure to be happy and world issues have to be spoon fed to citizens like vitamins in a steak to a dog. It makes me curious what would happen if Seth and Jane were locked in a room with Amy Chua.

Still I applaud what Seth and Jane are trying to do—discover ways to motivate people to care about themselves, their families, and their worlds.

Most incentive and behavioral research will tell you, however, that no amount of extrinsic motivation will produce long term, sustainable results and that to truly change someone's behavior the motivation must come from within.

Does it make sense to get there with games? While play is an intrinsically motivated activity, "gaming" suggests a construct that may actually take away from what people like Seth and Jane are hoping to accomplish in society.

If the goal is to leverage what makes us human, I wonder why we can't start with how our humanity affects our reality, instead of trying to change reality to get at our humanity. I don't have a cool made up word for it, like "gamification." But maybe we could just call it getting real.

Get back to life, back to reality at

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  • Rob Strulowitz

    Interesting perspective on 'the gaming layer'. I've been in the online learning business for 12 years (specializing in behavior change for 6). I can tell you from experience that game play opens a channel to deeper engagement. At the same time, you're right that intrinsic motivation is key to sustaining that behavior. So, it's a Catch-22. If gamification can help inspire a learner (and we're all learners) to care about the material being presented AND a programmatic approach is taken to driving inspired intrinsic habits, then I believe it's the ideal...

  • Alicia Morga

    Absolutely. I am a Cialdini fan. And there is no doubt that leveraging innate human traits helps both business and social causes. My concern is the possible consequences of dressing up reality, as it were. I'm just wondering out loud where it might lead.... Thanks for the comment, Alicia

  • Will Kriski

    You may be right, but these extrinsic symbols are actually representing intrinsic desires. The internal desire for status and recognition, etc. At the deepest level what gaming has discovered is the dysfunction of the ego. The need to be right, to win, to achieve, to be better than others. Why do people like Facebook? Because they can talk about themselves and have others comment on it. Some like to share content to be seen as cool or trend-setting.

    So from a marketing perspective, it is recognizing internal egoistic desires and trying to take advantage of that, similar to the Power of Influence wrote about such as reciprocity, social proof, etc.