Out of all the countries in the world there are only two – New Zealand and the US – that allow prescription drugs to be advertised on TV. The vast majority of the planet never gets to see softly-shot scenes of middle aged women flying kites in a grassy meadow or twirling around a small child in slow motion, free of the life destroying curse of Twitchy Ankle Syndrome or Bladder Anxiety Disease. The reason why these commercials are banned from 99.9% of the world is because they’re extremely effective and transform our zombie-like population of blind consumers into a zombie-like population of self prescribers. But drug advertising is a $50 billion industry and – despite the fact that Doctors not small-town librarians watching The Biggest Loser should be prescribing drugs – removing that spending power from the economy could be catastrophic. Which brings me to digital games.
Now let me be clear – I am a huge fan of digital games. I used to be a big game player, both online and on game consoles. I’ve also developed countless digital games for clients both on the Web and on mobile and they were some of the most fun projects that I’ve ever worked on. Plus people go crazy for games. Farmville, Words With Friends, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft – there’s a long list of games that have attracted and maintained a devoted following of millions.
While some people were slightly alarmed at the prospect of millions of pudgy, Hot Pocket munching teenagers spending hours a day wiping out hordes of Russian soldiers, without actually knowing where Russia is on a map, the consensus seemed to be that in moderation gaming was ok. But now gaming is taking a whole new twist thanks to a growing movement of Gamification, which is the notion that elements of gameplay mechanics should be introduced into other digital products to make them more compelling to users.
Paul Carr wrote an article on Tech Crunch about gamfication in news products. And it doesn’t end there. From finance to food, showbiz to sport, more and more gameplay elements are appearing on the radar. Think achievement badges, virtual currencies, leaderboards, progress/status bars – I’m sure you’ve seen one if not all of these features during your online travels. Its even more prevalent on mobile devices such as the iPhone, where users can now gleefully spin, swipe, shake, pinch and flick their way through a host of game-like activities.
But like the Spastic Tear Duct Disease ads on TV, there are two rather scary elements at play here. One is that gamification clearly works and is highly appealing to users. But without wishing to piss on your virtual crops, number two is that some things in life perhaps shouldn’t be relegated to a glorified round of Tetris.
Despite our rather grandiose view of the human species, the reality is we’re only a couple of evolutionary shuffles from our ancestors who walked the earth millions of years ago. We’re easily led and manipulated, we’re obsessed with short-term gratification (which was key for survival for early humans) and we can be hypnotized by flashing lights and blinking stuff on a screen faster than a Democrat conceding everything during ‘tough” negotiations. In the same way that my 7-month-old daughter is obsessed with a plastic, flashing white kitten in a pink bow that meows, the average adult can be sucked-in by a plastic-looking, flashing white kitten in a pink bow that can be clicked to earn points to buy an entire family of flashing white kittens AND win $5,000.
But secondly, gamification – in my unqualified psychological opinion – can de-sensitize people from real issues. Evidence of this emerged during the first Gulf War when pictures of laser guided bombs destroying targets were beamed all over the world. It **looked** kind of cool. Almost like a video game. But while the pictures of crosshairs locking onto a building, followed by a stream of air to surface missiles got news anchors all hot and bothered, it was never mentioned that there were actual people in those buildings who were actually killed – and sadly they didn’t have a power-up bonus to let them try and repeat the level.
It worries me that serious issues – from financial planning to nutrition – can be reduced to a game. Yes they might get people to engage, but engagement without true comprehension of the issue is like turning up to the golf course without a set of clubs.
So what is a poor, confused digital product person to do? On one hand there’s an approach that clearly works and people like, but on the other hand that approach could have serious long-term effects of trivializing issues and blurring the distinction between virtual life and reality. Hmm, I really don’t know. Maybe….perhaps…..**click**…..hold on, I just saw an ad on TV for a new drug that can treat the effects of Indecisive Personality Disorder. Maybe I need help. Screw you lot – I’m off to the doctor for the drugs I clearly need.
Tags: digital games