Column – Life could benefit from being game-like

March 22, 2010 — Leave a comment

Originally published in The Daily Toreador.

I come to you today with a confession: I’m a point addict.

Part of it may be my Y chromosome, but I love competition. I used to strive to have the highest grades in class not just because I like being smart, but because I liked knowing I could do better than everyone else. I love high scores, and I’ll sometimes play Xbox 360 games longer than I would like just so I can pad my oh-so-precious Gamerscore total, which is thousands of points higher than most people on my friends list.

There’s a part of me that seriously wonders: if life were more of a game, would I be doing better at it?

Let’s face it; I’m not the healthiest guy on the planet. I can blame growing up with an auto-immune disease for some of that, but I certainly don’t eat as well as I should or exercise as much as I could. Thing is, I often find it hard to find enough immediate incentive for doing such things. Sure, in the long run I’ll live longer and keep my girlfriend happy by looking better, but in the short term eating an entire box of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies sounds really good right about now.

Several months ago I was flipping through an issue of Wired when I came across an article about Nike+iPod, or just Nike+. It’s an interesting Nike “smart shoe” that connects to your iPod and calculates things such as your distance, pace, time and calories burned as you run. When you’re done running, you can upload all that data to the Nike+ server where you can set goals, attempt challenges and compare data with friends.

Now, I actually liked running already. For as nerdy as I am and as much time as I spend indoors, I’m proud I can run a mile in just more than 10 minutes. But these Nike+ features threatened to turn running into something more for me.

Nike was going to turn working out into a game.

This shouldn’t sound entirely new to anyone, even if you aren’t familiar with Nike+. Chances are you’ve at least heard of “Wii Fit,” which did something similar. And sure enough, “Wii Fit” had me doing push-ups and yoga poses in front of my TV for awhile. But Nike+ boasted some more interesting features.

For example, the Wired article talked about how certain businesses were going to start offering bonuses to their employees who met certain Nike+ goals. You could earn points and exchange them for, say, gift cards. Why? Well, think about it. A lot of businesses provide health insurance to their full-time employees. If their employees are healthy, and require less medical help year-per-year, rates might go down. The insurance company sure isn’t complaining.

During the weekend, The DT’s tech critic, Timothy Poon, directed me to a video from this year’s DICE summit &- a sort of symposium for game developers to talk about game design. The video in question was a half-hour talk by Jesse Schell, a professor at Carnagie Mellon University. The presentation was titled “Design Outside the Box,” and it discussed gaming beyond Facebook, beyond “FarmVille” and “Mafia Wars.” Where is gaming going? His answer: life.

He theorized a world where you score points from toothpaste companies for brushing your teeth for a full three minutes. A world where Dr. Pepper gives you bonus points for drinking their product five times in one week. A world where you unlock achievement points after reading 500 novels or helping the environment by using public transportation. After all, technology is getting so small and so affordable that it will soon be pretty easy to keep track of all of this and more.

On one hand, this paints a rather scary picture. It’s not hard to envision a corporate Big Brother where our every move is monitored and influenced. Schell used examples like tattoo ads, that if placed on your body with e-ink and always visible, could earn you revenue as well as bonus points in the game of life. Kind of a scary thought, that humans might be tricked into becoming walking billboards.

But on the other hand, he says, what if such “game” systems could make us better people?

The advantages of incentivizing things like exercise and recycling are fairly obvious &- any method that could encourage people to do things like these should be examined. But Schell also considers this: Would we be better people just because we know we’re being tracked, measured and judged? That our children and grandchildren might have a record of all our stats? Of where we were in the ultimate global high-score board?

I think there’s definitely a line somewhere, and we’ll have to figure out how far is too far when it comes to tracking our lives. However, I know that I, personally, would be healthier, stronger and maybe even smarter if there was a greater incentive of some sort. Maybe there’s something to the idea of turning life into a literal game, so long as we don’t go overboard.

Britton Peele


Freelance video game critic for sites like GameSpot and GamesRadar. Amateur fantasy author.

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