From physical to virtual and back again

Liz Lawley from the Rochester Institute of Technology Lab for Social Computing closed the conference with a fascinating look at gaming and how it is affecting the information world.  She noted that the boundaries of gaming blurring and context is collapsing.  Gaming is becoming professional networking.  Liz plays World of Warcraft, along with her entire family.  She  went to a gaming conference recently where professors and graduate students were playing each other, and real world colleagues became virtual playmates. 

This graph shows the number of World of Warcraft players for the last several months.  Over 1 million players are online concurrently during prime time in the US.  Why is gaming so popular, and why does it work?  Liz feels that it puts the fun in functional, and game mechanics become like functional software.  Here are 5 ways to make something fun:

  • Collecting:  get stuff and show it off by piling it up in front of us (like poker chips)
  • Points:  get a score
  • Feedback:  know that we are doing the right thing
  • Exchanges with players
  • Communication

Game developers follow these principles by ensuring that you do not get attacked in their game during the first 5 minutes.  They want you to be initially successful so that you can explore the game and learn how to play it.  One way they do this is to introduce non-player characters who deliver information to the players.  They also make the first levels of progression easy to bolster the player’s confidence.  The chart below shows the stages through which typical game players pass.

Even some real world programs use gaming techniques, such as:

  • Tupperware parties:  build the self-esteem of the salespeople
  • Summer reading programs in libraries:  children earn prizes for reading a certain number of books
  • eBay feedback:  buyers and sellers get points and improve their standing in the community
  • Friendster:  collect friends

Particularly for children, there is much that they can learn from gaming.  World of Warcraft lets them interact with people of other generations and develop social skills.

Some games blur the boundaries between virtual worlds and the physical, real life one.  ChoreWars awards points for doing chores.  Participants are motivated to collect points and redeem prizes.  Attent by Seriosity attaches values to e-mail messages to prioritize them and attach an importance to them.  Participants have a limited number of points to "spend"  when  they send a message, which forces them to consider how  important it is.

Gaming has applications for libraries.  How can we make the catalog a game?  How can we make the library fun and make people want to return?  Can we deal with burnout?  (Some games require a long list of repetitive tasks to be completed before the player can advance.)   For those who are interested in further study of the fascinating world of gaming, Liz recommends reading the book Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Koster.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and IL2007 Blog Coordinator

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