Life’s a Game

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Business; shopping; studying; your entire digital life – you could see them all as games. Or at least as areas where game play, and game theories, can teach us a lot about interaction and engagement.

Games were the dominant theme of this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) – the digital sector’s annual shindig in Austin, Texas last weekend. This huge geekfest is where the future is dreamt up, debated and sometimes sold to the highest bidder.

Here the discussion about games was not about consoles or brand extensions for films, but using game theories as the basis for developing entirely new services and products, understanding the gameplay mechanics at the heart of social commerce for example.

Everywhere I went across the vast conference campus, people were thinking about the ‘game layer’ that digital media adds on top of our lives, where ‘people like us’ gabble in social media, buy and sell, engage and market. Entrepreneurs were redesigning it, marketers were looking to harness it, designers aiming to make it ever more vibrant.

It all made for a slightly surreal feel – this perspective that we are building an additional layer on top of our lives. The idea that as a society we’re increasingly trying to lose ourselves in a game layered on top of everyday life.

Of course SXSW ‘people like us’ are not the whole of society. They’re more likely than most to have spent teenage years striving to reach level 14, and far more likely to be a 24-year-old billionaire as a result.

But recent years’ SXSWs have thrust first Twitter and then Foursquare from obscurity onto the world stage. So I for one won’t be overlooking what I saw this year. Whether or not you want to play games with your life, it can’t harm to understand who is setting the rules and how the dice might fall.

Changing the Game with One Swipe

With a flick of the wrist Microsoft has this week leapfrogged rivals by getting rid of computer game controllers altogether.

Kinect goes on sale this Wednesday as a plug-in to Microsoft’s hugely popular Xbox  console. Players navigate menus with a flick of the wrist, then run, jump, dance and of course shout to direct their avatars’ actions on screen. Kinect even “remembers” your body shape so it can recognize you without any log-in.

The first batch of games are pretty tame stuff – water rafts, ping-pong, yoga. But don’t be fooled into thinking Microsoft are just playing around. The launch comes six months after Apple overtook the Seattle giant as the world’s most valuable tech company.

Of course Microsoft has a long trail of failed hardware launches: remember the Zune? this year’s Kin phone? The Portable Media Center? But this time they may have really hit on a winner. “I’m excited to be way out in front” says CEO Steve Ballmer, “and want to push the pedal on that”.

Surely aren’t pedals a bit of a 2009 interface?

Playing safe

Last week a British online game, Smokescreen, won the best game award at the hugely prestigious South By Southwest conference in the US. As well as a coup for producers Six to Start and commissioner Channel 4 Education, it’s also focused attention on how to engage teens about safety online.

At its heart, Smokescreen simulates the internet. In the game, players use ‘Fakebook’, ‘Gaggle’, ‘Tweetr’, ‘MSG messenger’ and other sites to help friends who’ve set up Whitesmoke – an exclusive teen-only social networking site. Players also receive simulated phone calls and text messages from in-game characters.

The producers set out to convince players that the fictional world they were in could actually be real – and so can the risks and threats it contains. What’s brilliant about the game is that it puts online safety into a credible context, even parodying social networks as it goes.

As a parent and a school governor myself, I’m concerned that we find ways to educate children about the risks of the internet without scaring them off what is the greatest educational resource available today.

Because teens are hard-wired to believe in their own invincibility, standard efforts to explain potential dangers can either fail to convince or sound like the draconian measures of an adult ordering them around in what they perceive to be their space.

But still teenagers don’t think twice about putting e-mails, phone numbers and photos onto Facebook and other social networking sites.

The conviction of a serial sex offender for the rape and murder of teenager Ashleigh Hall, ensnared by him through a fake profile on Facebook, dominated the news a month ago. The need for effective engagement of teens about the dangers of social networking has never been more apparent.

Smokescreen offers one highly effective tool to persuade and engage teens, rather than adults telling them what to do. Now we need more such approaches to fulfill the potential of Web 2.0 as an education and networking platform for good.