Burning Houses & Gaming the Future

Back in the distant, hazy days of 1998, Futurist Douglas Rushkoff published a book called “Playing the Future” (published in the UK as “Children of Chaos”). The book’s central thesis was that people born in the late 20th Century and early 21st (since called “digital natives” and millennials) are used to negotiating a chaotic, complex mediasphere in ways that their forebears were not. The book is a fascinating tour of late-90s pop culture, though now amusingly dated for coming from the pre-iPhone era. Even the first-generation iMac hadn’t yet been released when the book came out. As much as technology and cultural trends have moved on, however, Rushkoff’s fundamental point seems clearer than ever. People are indeed getting more and more used to living in a whirl of social media, finding their own meaning and bearings in it.

Marketers (and indeed anyone who wishes to fully engage with this new audience) must thoroughly understand the new media sphere, and intuitively know how to surf it the way digital natives do. To imagine that is a complex task would be to miss the point, as what young people are doing is extracting or weaving their own simple narrative/identity from the complexity. They don’t have to worry about keeping track of every single little technological development, just as long as they are relaxed enough to surf the waves, roll with the punches. As Rushkoff explained, it is a matter of relaxing into the chaos, and treating the whole thing as a game.

“Gamification” is a relatively new interdisciplinary field of study, where game elements (such as points systems, achievement levels or randomization) are applied to traditionally non-game contexts, such as work. The idea is simple: Turn work into play, and people will be better motivated to do it. More specifically, game elements can be designed (and their designs changed as and when necessary) to focus people on priority tasks, or approaching those tasks in certain ways. Games can be used not only to motivate and focus, but to recruit (e.g. as by the U.S. military), and perhaps more importantly to create a suspension of disbelief or an atmosphere in which people are inclined to believe and do things – however briefly – which they wouldn’t ordinarily do. On something of a dark note, this idea draws on the same psychological phenomena underpinning the infamous experiments on obeying authority figures by Stanley Milgram, and the use of out-of-theatre UAV pilots in war. In short, context forms our conception of reality, and our relationship with reality shapes our behavioral tendencies. If you want to change how someone behaves, change what they perceive to be of immediate importance, what they’re focused on.

Taking all of these things together, we can see another phenomenon in a new light, making it look potentially very valuable indeed. That phenomenon is known as Alternate Reality Gaming. An Alternate Reality Game (ARG) is essentially a nonlinear narrative, not unlike a role-playing game, which participants can shape by their choices and contributions, across a range of media types and platforms. ARGs deliberately blur the line between reality and fiction, placing greater emphasis on the idea that what matters is the outcome of people’s beliefs, choices, and behaviors. An interesting parallel is the Buddhist “Parable of the Burning House”, which is a story in which a man needs his children to escape a house which he knows is going to burn down. The children are too busy playing to pay any attention to his calls and warnings. So, the man changes tactics call the children to an even better game outside, and the children leave the house to play it.

Our world is changing rapidly, and that change appears to be accelerating. Major societal and global problems are converging, even as powerful technologies – perhaps most notably Artificial Intelligence technologies – are now developing at a remarkable pace. Soon the world will be very different, for better or worse, and we can make that a change for the better with a little work and imagination now. The children are too busy playing to notice the burning house, however, and so now it is time to offer them better games.