How Video Games Are Infiltrating–and Improving–Every Part of Our Lives

Games are sneaking into every part of our lives — at home, school, and work. Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, and even the Army depend on games. and Pretty soon, you’ll be a part of one. We guarantee it.

How Video Games Are Infiltrating–and Improving–Every Part of Our Lives
Illustration by Justin Wood Illustration by Justin Wood

Jesse Schell peered out at the 400 or so attendees of last February’s DICE (design, innovate, communicate, entertain) Summit, the video-game industry’s answer to TED. Dressed in a crinkly button-down shirt and chinos, the 40-year-old game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor had no idea how his speech would be received. Organizers had invited him to share insights about his work at Disney Imagineering, where he had helped design large-scale theme-park rides such as Pirates of the Caribbean, but he knew the Mouse would have his head if he violated any nondisclosure agreements. So the day before, on the flight from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas, he’d sketched out something radically different, something he titled “Beyond Facebook.”


He began his speech with the premise that a real-life game could be stacked on top of reality. You’d get points for, well, just about everything you normally do in the course of 24 hours. This was already happening, he explained, and the games were altering human behavior. What were American Express points and frequent-flier miles but games that reward loyalty? Weight Watchers? A game. Fantasy football? A game stacked on top of a game that influences the way you watch a game. In the Ford Fusion, a virtual tree is embedded in the dash. The more gas you save, the more the tree grows. They put a virtual pet in your car, he marveled, and it actually changes the way people drive!

Sensors, he said, have gotten so cheap that they are being embedded in all sorts of products. Pretty soon, every soda can and cereal box could have a built-in CPU, screen, and camera, along with Wi-Fi connectivity. And at that point, the gaming of life takes off. “You’ll get up in the morning to brush your teeth and the toothbrush can sense that you’re brushing,” Schell said. “So, ‘Hey, good job for you! Ten points’ ” from the toothpaste maker. You sit down to breakfast and get 10 points from Kellogg’s for eating your Corn Flakes, then grab the bus because you get enviro-points from the government, which can be used as a tax deduction. Get to work on time, your employer gives you points. Drink Dr Pepper at lunch, points from the soda maker. Walk to a meeting instead of grabbing the shuttle, points from your health-insurance provider. Who knows how far this might run? Schell said. He offered psychedelic scenarios, like the one in which you recall a dream from the previous night where your mother was dancing with a giant Pepsi can: “You remember the REM-tertainment system, which is this thing you put in your ear that can sense when you enter REM sleep, and then [it] starts putting little advertisements out there to try and influence your dreams.” If the ads take hold, you win big points for discounts at your local grocery store. “Then there’s your office mate,” Schell continued, “and he’s like, ‘Check out this new digital tattoo’ ” that he got from Tatoogle AdSense, and when you show him yours, you realize you’re both wearing Pop-Tart ads. You get paid for the ads, plus 30 additional points just for noticing.

After work, you go shopping. Points. Your daughter gets good grades in school and practices the piano? More points. You plop down on your sofa for some television, and “it’s just points, points, points, points,” because eye sensors ensure that you actually watch the ads. In the meantime, you chat with other viewers, play games designed around the ads, and tally more points. Sure, it’s crass commercialization run amok, Schell conceded, but “this stuff is coming. Man, it’s gotta come. What’s going to stop it?”


The applause was nothing compared to the reception his speech got online. The video went viral and was downloaded millions of times. Om Malik, founder of the blog GigaOM and an astute observer of all things tech, called it “the most mind-blowing thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.” Others found it sinister: “the most disturbing presentation of the year,” a “tech nightmare,” a “Skinner Box” dooming us to live our lives inside a game.

Dystopian? Not to many game designers. Schell believes that embedding games in our lives has the potential to make us better people. Seth Priebatsch, the 22-year-old founder of Scvngr, a social location-based gaming platform for mobile devices (Google is an investor), has said that he dropped out of Princeton “to build a game layer over the world.” Jane McGonigal, director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future, in Palo Alto, believes collaborative gaming can help solve the most vexing challenges of our times — global warming, war, poverty, disease. Yes, she really does.

The players have taken their places, the pieces are set, the cards dealt, the dice tossed. It’s time to see who will win, and lose, in this version of the game of life.



If Schell’s vision seems a little, well, out there, consider this: Much of what he discusses already exists, having infiltrated our culture and our business landscape in ways that are barely recognized. Sure, 97% of 12- to 17-year-olds play computer games, but so do almost 70% of the heads of American households, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The average gamer is 34 and has been at it a dozen years; 40% are women. One survey found that 35% of C-suite executives play video games.

As McGonigal points out in her new book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, whether we intended to or not, we have raised a nation of gaming experts. Before turning 21, the average American has spent 2,000 to 3,000 hours reading books — and more than three times as much playing computer and video games. Ten thousand hours of practice, according to Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell, is a defining trait of virtuosos. Globally, 350 million people spend a combined 3 billion hours per week playing these games. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that global sales of video games will grow from 2007’s $41.9 billion to $68.4 billion in 2012, at which point they would exceed the combined global revenues of film box office and DVDs.


The massive multiplayer online game World of Warcraft boasts 12 million registered users paying $15 a month to spend an average of 80 hours a month inside the game. Since the game’s release in 2004, users have racked up some 50 billion hours of playing time — the equivalent of 5.93 million years. McGonigal points out that 5.93 million years ago is when early primates began to walk upright. “We’ve spent as much time playing World of Warcraft,” she notes, “as we’ve spent evolving as a species.” The social games FarmVille and Mafia Wars have together amassed almost 80 million active players, while media darling Foursquare has made a game out of recording the inane aspects of our lives, like dropping into a Rite-Aid to fill prescriptions or buying Big Macs.

There is reliable evidence, which may horrify some, that playing video games can be beneficial. Studies indicate that video games improve decision making, vision, and hand-eye coordination. One study funded by New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center and the National Institute on Media and the Family at Iowa State University found that surgeons who play such games three hours a week commit 37% fewer errors and work 27% faster in laparoscopic surgery — which requires deft use of a joystick, instruments, and a tiny camera — than doctors who don’t.

Surgeons are players in an emerging niche of the industry called “serious games.” The Entertainment Software Association claims that 70% of major employers use interactive software and games for training. Many are simulations that enable users to perfect skills in 2-D before taking on the 3-D challenges of real life — doctors, for example, may practice cutting open avatars instead of cadavers before turning to living, breathing humans. Such simulations make up a billion-dollar-plus business that is growing fast.


Japanese automaker Lexus performs safety tests on its vehicles in what it brags is the world’s most advanced driving simulator at the Toyota research campus in Japan. Canon’s repair techies learn by dragging and dropping parts into place on a virtual copier. FedEx and airlines have simulators to train pilots, and UPS deploys its own version for new drivers — one even mimics the experience of walking on ice. Cisco developed a “sim” called myPlanNet, in which players become CEOs of service providers. Schell, who has a real role as chief of his 60-employee video-game-development firm, created Hazmat: Hotzone, an antiterror team-training game for firefighters.

No company has embraced simulations more than IBM. The company recently released CityOne, a free interactive game targeting business leaders, city planners, and government agencies, with more than a hundred crisis scenarios that require the application of new technologies to create more efficient water use, lessen traffic congestion, and develop alternative-energy sources. Players review various “smart city” technologies such as cloud computing and supply-chain-management software. These are, of course, products and services sold by IBM.

Serious games have also become a staple in education: To practice running virtual businesses, students at more than 1,000 colleges and universities around the world play another IBM sim called Innov8. Even America’s three-letter agencies are gaga over gaming. The Defense Intelligence Agency trains spies with PC-based games such as Sudden Thrust, written by David Freed, a B-list television writer. Thrust users play a DIA analyst confronting terrorists who hijack a tanker brimming with natural gas and steer it into New York Harbor. The CIA and FBI have also commissioned video games to help train agents in counterterror techniques.


The military has led this charge. “Militainment” is a key recruitment and training tool — perfect for young men and women who have already mastered the art of simulated war. Today, Army life can imitate art. Operating the gunnery on a tank or firing missiles from a naval destroyer resembles a first-person-shooter game, while piloting a predator drone over Pakistan from the comfort of a computer 9,000 miles away is a skill that brings to mind Missile Command, a staple of arcades in the 1980s.

The Army has gone so far as to budget $50 million for a video-game unit that will develop games. Lockheed Martin manufactures Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer, a system in which soldiers who may soon ship out to Afghanistan simulate battles over the same terrain — even the same streets — as the ones they will patrol, grappling with everything from improvised explosive devices to snipers to suicide bombers.

It’s telling that the Army’s most successful recruitment tool is a first-person-shooter game where players get points for blowing up enemy combatants. One study concluded that the game, called America’s Army, has done more to influence recruits “than all other forms of Army advertising combined,” with “30% of all Americans aged 16 to 24 having a more positive impression of the Army because of the game.” Extremely popular — more than 7 million people, including 40% of new enlistees, have played the game since its 2002 release — it’s also cost effective: America’s Army cost $6 million to create, and the website is a mere $4,000 a year to maintain.


But all this — from World of Warcraft to IBM and UPS — is only the beginning. Games are on the verge of transforming our concepts of work, education, and commerce. To understand how, you have to know a little bit about what makes a great game and what happens to your brain when you’re playing one.


Schell greets me outside his office at the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s late August, yet Schell’s skin has a Casper the Friendly Ghost pallor. He guides me through the ETC geekorama, talking with the speed of an auctioneer as we walk past full-size R2-D2 and C-3PO Star Wars robots, a Commodore 64 console, walls covered with photos of movie stars and video-game characters, and a student lounge that seems to have been designed by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek‘s creator.


ETC is a feeder farm for Disney, Electronic Arts, and other top gaming outfits. One alum was a lead designer on Zynga’s Mafia Wars; Schell calls another “the Alan Greenspan of FarmVille,” because she sets prices for everything from the seeds to tractors and land.

Schell, whose official title is assistant professor of the practice of entertainment technology (“My business card is 6 inches long,” he says), is a juggler and a magician who has been designing games all his life. As a kid in New Jersey, Schell and his younger brother would play Monopoly with two boards or three dice. He would change the rules of anything so that neighborhood kids, for instance, would have to hide and seek simultaneously. When his parents’ marriage hit a rough patch, the two boys would wander a local mall unsupervised, gravitating to the Atari 400s and Commodore 64s on display at JCPenney, dedicating hours to testing programs he cut out of computer magazines. “That was where I learned to type,” he says.

At 13, Schell designed his first computer game, a rudimentary fishing competition. After the divorce, his mother whisked the boys to Springfield, Massachusetts, where Schell fell into hacking. He also continued to create more games: one helped his brother with his math homework, while another was based on Dr. Who. “A good game,” Schell says, “gives us meaningful accomplishment, clear achievement that we don’t necessarily get from real life. In a game, you’ve beaten level four, the boss monster is dead, you have a badge, and now you have a super laser sword. Real life isn’t like that, right?”


He was learning that a game is, at its root, a structured experience with clear goals, rules that force a player to overcome challenges, and instant feedback. What he couldn’t have known then is that because they offer those clearly articulated rewards for each point players score and new level they achieve, games trigger the release of dopamine, a hormone in the brain that encourages us to explore and try new things. Since we like the feeling we get when our brains are awash in dopamine, we’ll do whatever it takes to get it, over and over again. Video and computer games, as well as slot machines, are particularly good at this. They offer “threshold effects,” where prizes or level changes are dribbled out to keep us hooked. It’s the same system that drives compulsive gamblers and cocaine addicts.

It’s also what makes it possible for gamers to enter a mental state called “flow,” in which they’re completely immersed in what they are doing and lose track of time. (In sports, it’s called the “zone,” when a basketball player, for example, feels as if he can’t miss a shot.) In 2003, two researchers at the University of Southern California studied the impact of violent video games on brain activity. Test subjects climbed into an MRI machine and played a popular shoot-’em-up. These machines tend to be cramped and noisy; people usually want a break after 20 minutes. But the test subjects were happy to remain crammed inside one for an hour or more.

Such is the power of games to influence behavior. Games, says Schell, “are a powerful psychological magnet that can connect into anything that we do.” And now the game designers are tapping into just that — from the workplace to the doctor’s office even to the classroom.



At IBM, Chuck Hamilton has the curious title of v-learning strategy leader. (The v stands for virtual.) One of the stranger parts of his gig is to manage 16,000 avatars that IBMers have created for themselves. Like Cisco Systems and many other companies, IBM saves on travel and hotel expenses by holding the occasional convention or meeting in a virtual space; a couple hundred employees, each represented by an avatar, can attend. “In the early days,” Hamilton says, “people showed up as whatever they chose — dogs, cats, penguins. It was a playful, exploratory time.” But now that these virtual conventions are common fare, IBMers’ avatars are getting, well, more traditionally IBMish. “They modify their avatars to get as close as they can get to the way they really look,” he says. “I do get email from people in Japan and China asking where they can get a particular eye shape or skin color.”

Some companies invent their own games to train employees. Sun Microsystems has conjured up two, Dawn of the Shadow Specters and Rise of the Shadow Specters, which take place in an alternate universe called Solaris, colonized by a race of people who happen to reflect the company’s values. At McKinsey & Co., potential recruits play Team Leader, in which they manage a team whose fictitious client, Wang Fo, faces serious challenges. The players must answer 10 questions, each of which involves a set of decisions. At the end, players see (anonymously) how their scores stack up.


Archrivals Google and Microsoft use game design to tangibly improve company processes. In 2006, Google created a game to help it tag pictures and photos on the web. Search engines have a difficult time with image searches, and while facial-recognition software has made strides over the past decade, a new computer can’t scan a photo of, say, Robert Pattinson and tell you who it is. It can’t tell you what car he’s driving, if he’s a celebrity, or what kind — athlete, chef, actor, singer. (If you don’t know, of course, you may be beyond the help of computers.) Google’s solution: Tap the manpower of the web by making image-tagging a game. The Google Image Labeler, which it licensed from MacArthur fellow and Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn, randomly pairs anonymous volunteers, both of whom are shown an identical set of images. They have two minutes to label each shot. Players receive points when their labels match — validation that a tag makes sense. The more descriptive a tag, the more points the team earns. A leaderboard keeps track of the best scores.

Microsoft’s Code Review Game tackles a very different problem. In 2007, Ross Smith was appointed a team leader in Microsoft’s Vista group, overseeing a group of 85 highly educated programmers who handled mind-numbing work, intensely scrutinizing thousands of lines of code for security glitches. It was as if Harvard Law grads were working traffic court. Smith wanted to see if game design could improve the quality, productivity, and job satisfaction of his crew.

In the Code Review Game, four teams choose a section of code to attack. They receive points based on the type of bugs they discover. Different groups can come up with different strategies: One focused on code produced by error-prone developers, while another team waited until a flaw was identified and then hunted similar bugs, since the coder who contributed to the section would likely repeat the same mistake. The project went so well that the company has used such teams to vet at least six other major releases.


“Work can be tough. It can be boring, repetitive, complex; you have to collaborate,” says Stanford professor Byron Reeves, coauthor of Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete. “If you are not engaged, it doesn’t go well.”

Reeves and his coauthor, J. Leighton Read, believe game design will eventually put employees inside video games. In their book, they create two scenarios for a mythical call-center employee named Jennifer.

In the first scenario, Jennifer spends eight regimented hours a day at a typical corporate cubicle farm. She fields 75 calls a day. Her performance is tracked on a gargantuan, lighted board that lists data like handling time, number of calls on hold, projected-versus-actual call volume. She must log out for lunch, so the exact start of her break can be recorded. If she’s late, she can be suspended. Turnover at this office is high, and there’s no opportunity to get to know coworkers. For the three months she is working there, she is talking constantly, surrounded by a sea of other people. Yet she’s lonely and bored.

In the second scenario, Jennifer works from home. When she logs in, she is greeted by her personalized avatar and joins her 20-person team. While they congregate on a pirate ship (this week’s theme), they are in reality spread across three different time zones. But they can chat with one another, so Jennifer forges friendships. As with the Microsoft bug testers, her team competes with others and her success depends on the success of her teammates. As calls are routed to her screen, she accumulates points for inputting data accurately and following company protocols. There’s even voice-stress-analysis software, so that if Jennifer handles a caller deftly, she scores more. The more points she scores, the more she helps her team, whose progress is expressed by how quickly its ship sails to an island, where they are rewarded with a real-world perk: free holiday airline travel.

In both scenarios, Jennifer performs the same job. The only difference is that in the second, she’s engaged by her work. Her mundane task seems like fun, and the constant feedback she receives in the form of points can give her a growing sense of accomplishment. She’s a motivated, loyal, productive team member. Better for her, better for the company.


As any dieter knows, the problem with staying healthy is motivation. From iPhone apps to sophisticated simulations, games are increasingly being deployed to motivate patients and even doctors.

HealthSeeker is a Facebook game developed for the Diabetes Hands Foundation by Vancouver-based Ayogo in conjunction with the Joslin Diabetes Center (affiliated with Harvard Medical School). Players receive rewards for healthy activity and can reward the healthy behavior of others. The aim isn’t to cure drug abuse or persuade smokers to quit. “We’re trying to leverage what we understand about how our brains work and motivate very small actions by giving very small rewards,” says company founder Michael Fergusson.

Lea Bakalyar, a 36-year-old stay-at-home mom from Atkinson, New Hampshire, claims the game has helped her make small changes that have a big impact, like modifying how she serves food to her family. Instead of putting the whole meal on the table, she now offers portioned plates from the stove. “It has helped take away the feeling of ‘If it’s in front of me, I’ll eat it,’ ” she says. Tanya Ortiz, 24, a housewife from Queens, New York, with type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, likes the social-networking component, which creates “a comforting atmosphere with people who share similar dilemmas,” she says.

The world is full of games like Weight Watchers that encourage healthy lifestyles, of course. A game called ZamZee broadens the Weight Watchers model with middle-school students, pushing them to be more physically active by having them wear an activity monitor that is connected to a website where they can redeem points for rewards. HopeLab, the not-for-profit that created the game, claims a 30% increase in players’ physical activity. Then there’s Pick Chow, which lets kids drag-and-drop virtual food onto a plate and learn the nutritional value of each item; the Snack Neutralizer, a classroom aid to teach children the consequences of eating poorly; and Trainer, in which players are responsible for the dietary and fitness needs of a creature — when the creature exercises, so does the player. There are even iPhone apps that drive you to do more pushups (Hundred PushUps) or your child to brush her teeth (Motivetrix, designed by a German psychiatrist).

Finally, Nintendo’s Wii is so widely used in rehabilitation that some have dubbed it “Wii-hab.” Patients who have suffered strokes, paralysis, torn rotator cuffs, broken bones, and combat injuries play Wii baseball, boxing, bowling, and tennis. Since they earn points, they can easily chart their progress in managing the motion of the game controller. Grueling rehabilitative exercise becomes a game — a competition so engrossing patients can forget they are engaged in occupational therapy.


Quest to Learn, a noncharter public school for grades 6-12 in Manhattan, bases its entire pedagogy on game design. Its students assume the roles of truth seekers — explorers, evolutionary biologists, historians, writers, and mathematicians — and engage in problem solving. There are no grades. Instead, students are rated at levels from novice to master. A typical class may be devoted to a multiplayer game where the students work in teams to defeat hostile aliens, or to a simulation in which the kids run an entire city. The kids even code their own games, which involve math, English, computer science, and art.

Even parents who routinely play video and computer games may have trouble grokking that. But a growing number of academics, led by James Paul Gee at Arizona State University, believe that gaming can drive problem-based learning, in which students develop skills as they work collaboratively to confront challenges. (Gee is quick to point out that he is not advocating for the likes of Halo 3 in the classroom.)

“The problem is that our schools are focused on relating facts and how well students retain this info,” says Gee. “Teachers are teaching to the test.” When Gee started playing video games seven years ago, he was struck by the fact that games are often long and demanding — not nearly as dumb as stereotyped — yet designed to be so intuitive that no manual is ever needed. You learn by playing.

In countries such as Singapore, China, and Finland — all of whose children do better in math and science than American kids — problem solving is the key to learning. In America, we take the opposite approach. We teach math as a theory, then throw in problem sets as homework to reinforce what students have learned. The schools are, in essence, teaching the manual without exposing children to the game. Gee reasons that kids would learn more if they had to solve challenges that required them to use hard skills.

There’s growing evidence to support this approach. According to a 2006 report by the Federation of American Scientists, students recall just 10% of what they read and 20% of what they hear. If visuals accompany an oral presentation, retention rises to 30%. But “if they do the job themselves, even if only as a simulation,” students can remember 90%. While reliable numbers are hard to come by, several games claim improvements over traditional classroom learning. Supercharged, a game designed to teach physics, claims to be 28% more effective than lectures; Virtual Cell (biology) boasts a 30% to 63% improvement; and Geography Explorer, a 15% to 40% gain. Game-based methods may benefit the poorest-performing students most. River City, a game that exposes students to ecology and scientific inquiry, cites a 370% boost for D-students’ test scores, while B-students’ scores rose just 14% versus lectures.

Of course, not everyone is convinced. “Who said education is supposed to be fun and not hard work?” says Alexander Galloway, a professor at New York University. “At some point, you have to buckle down and memorize facts.” Not to mention that video games unleash almost double the levels of dopamine experienced by humans at rest. Yes, this can increase performance in meaningful ways. But what would happen if nefarious companies and marketers realized the potential of hooking us through dopamine release? Therein lies the danger.


We humans are pretty susceptible to addictive tricks, so surely people trying to make money will exploit that to the fullest. In fact, they already do,” says David Sirlin, an independent game designer. “The best defense is to raise awareness about the dangers of being manipulated by external reward systems.” But he isn’t hopeful. There’s too much money to be made.

What worries Sirlin excites Priebatsch, Scvngr’s self-appointed “chief ninja.” The next 10 years, he argues, will usher in the era of game design, and result in a pervasive net of behavior-altering mechanisms. As he points out, the game-ization of commerce is under way. Credit-card schemes, airline mile programs, and coupon cards — they all touch upon game dynamics, but “they just suck,” he said in a July TED speech. (Priebatsch did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.)

Scvngr is, essentially, a mobile-commerce system fueled by real-world challenges. As its press page urges: “Go places. Do challenges. Earn points! You’ll unlock badges and rewards and share where you are and what you’re up to with friends.” Get a point for checking into a 7-Eleven. Earn two for snapping a photo of a Coca-Cola can. Bump phones with a friend — two points for each of you. The points can be redeemed for real goods at selected merchants. Scvngr has signed up 1,000 corporate customers, and more than 500,000 users have downloaded the company’s iPhone and Android apps. (Imagine pairing Scvngr with the payment card Citibank began testing in November: The standard-size card is a game itself, with two buttons and tiny lights that allow users to choose at checkout whether to pay with credit or rewards points.)

Growing rapidly, Scvngr seems cool. But it verges on a marketing ploy, obviously trying to alter its users’ behavior to benefit corporate sponsors. Will the public grow wise to this and walk away? As NYU’s Galloway says, “If you follow human desire and trigger dopamine response, everyone eats Twinkies all day.” Or will Scvngr pull off a neat trick and be viewed not as a game manipulating its users but as one that engages them while also sharing its bounty?

Where Priebatsch sees economic opportunity, McGonigal of the Institute for the Future sees nothing less than a way to save the human race. She believes that if we want to conquer problems such as climate change, hunger, obesity, poverty, and war, we need to play at least 21 billion hours of video games a week.

Say what? McGonigal would like to see roughly half the planet play an hour a day, which is a low-end estimate of the time spent by gamers now — that’s how she gets to 21 billion hours a week. “I reckon that roughly six hours a week should be spent playing games we love, to develop our gamer skills,” McGonigal says, “and one hour a week should be spent playing serious, world-changing, life-changing, or reality-changing games.” For example, she prescribes Evoke, a game she designed with the World Bank Institute that takes place in Africa and has users undertake 10 missions in 10 weeks involving water sustainability, disaster relief, and human rights. A game called World Without Oil simulates how we could survive without nonrenewable resources, while Lost Joules encourages players to save energy by awarding points for turning down thermostats, or for using appliances like washers and dryers during off-peak hours.

McGonigal argues that games like World of Warcraft, which are designed to give us the constant rush of being on the edge of an epic win, can be better than reality. With so many of us dedicating so much time to these virtual realms, all this collaborative play is causing us to evolve as a species. Playing games with others fosters trust and cooperation, and builds stronger social relationships. If designers set the problems within the fabric of a game, she believes our combined efforts could lead to solutions.

The night before his speech at DICE, Schell stayed up until 2 a.m. He couldn’t think of an ending, a kicker that would put his many examples of the gaming of life in the right context. He felt certain that he was right, that this was the next big trend after the social connectivity unleashed by Facebook. He knew that some people would view a world of ubiquitous gaming with fear, and he knew that this unique gathering of the world’s best game designers would have a say in whether the pessimists’ fears would be realized, to tragic effect — or whether the outcome would be far better. And he knew something else: With sensors and tracking technology, our grandkids could discover where we had gone, what we had bought, how — and how well — we had spent our time. Perhaps the knowledge that we could be remembered so specifically would shame us into leading better lives.

“And so,” Schell concluded the next day, “it could be that these systems are all crass commercialization and terrible, but it’s possible that they’ll inspire us to be better people if the game systems are designed right.” He looked out at the crowd again. “The only question I care about right now is, Who in this room is going to lead us to get there?”


About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books


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