Jesse Schell gave a talk at DICE 2010 that has attracted quite a lot of attention:
The talk strikes a nerve for many, I think, because of its frank discussion of how things like Facebook have cause ripples in the game development community. And his disturbing day-in-the-life of a person embroiled in a sensor-enabled infinite set of point-collecting games that drive her behavior, even her dreams, is not to be missed. But I mention the talk here, because I think he makes some great points that get at what generates player empathy.
In particular, two sets of examples. He discusses how Webkins was brilliant because it brings to life in digital form the imaginary animal that has always been a part of playing with stuffed animals for kids. And he points out a digital plant on the new Ford electric car dashboard, that flourishes to the extent that the driver saves gas. In both cases, the designer is forging a strong connection through the use of a digital being that responds to a person's actions in meaningful ways. And in both cases, the digital being is combined with relevance to real-world activities (playing with a favorite stuffed animal; driving responsibly). In my lab I've found that games which have player avatars tend to evoke more social exclamations and interactions among players who are playing in the same room. I believe avatars and characters are one of the fundamental innovations game designers have made in terms of generating powerful emotion in players, and Jesse highlights ways this innovation is making its way outside the realm of games and into applications that are meant to use emotion to create behavior change.
Jesse also spends time talking about social networking games like Farmville and Mafia, and points out that a powerful reason these work is that they tie themselves deeply into our existing social networks, creating a game out of games we already have going on among us--who is 'the best', who takes care of whom and why... so the game leverages existing social connections to create a far stronger emotional resonance. In our lab we've been creating a series of experimental game prototypes that make conscious use of psychological research about what generates greater connection among people, with some very interesting initial results that echo the points he makes.
It's great to see a prominent game designer and teacher taking up these fundamentally psychological approaches to understanding the transformation of what games are and how they function in our everyday lives, toward design innovation. I hope others are inspired to look more deeply into the psychological roots of powerful design choices to inform how they design and develop games.