Friday, May 14, 2010

The Problem with Real-Life Experience Points

Exciting, right??? Experience points are nothing new.  They’ve been a part of gaming since Dungeons & Dragons.  As games grew to incorporate longer play sessions and replayability, they needed systems to reflect persistent player advancement.  For the uninitiated, here’s an analogy.

Gaining experience points is like crossing the board in a game of Checkers.  You reach a benchmark (the other side) and gain strength (being kinged).  Imagine doing that multiple times, with each benchmark being designated as a “level.”  The term “leveling up” refers to the advancement from one level to another (let’s say you could be triple- or quadruple-kinged in your game).  Systems like this are put in place to statistically reflect, for the player, his or her character’s progress.

Where my Checkers metaphor falls apart, however, is that experience points were essentially invented to simulate a character’s accumulation of real-world skills or knowledge – hence the name.  Characters in role-playing games often obtain experience from killing monsters or completing quests.  And the points system reflects how a person might grow from accomplishing these tasks. 

Ironically, point-based progression like this has moved from simulating life to organizing life.  More and more websites and services are taking cues from the role-playing genre and attaching these systems in an effort to drum up traffic or participation.

Experience points are beginning to lap themselves, and it’s freaking me out.

What Once Was A Game…

Because of the average gamer’s familiarity with such systems (look back to Final Fantasy on the NES or at the current popularity of World of Warcraft), various meta-games have arose using experience points as a model.  The Call of Duty series popularized persistent progression in multiplayer separate from any story-based character.  Headshots, flags captured, teammates saved: they all contribute to a player’s profile.  As the player earns enough points, he unlocks new weapons and abilities.  The need for new unlocks becomes quite addictive, fueling sales and repeated play.  At this point, it almost seems foolish for shooters not to offer persistent multiplayer like this.

achievement_unlockedTaking a step back from the games themselves, we can see the Xbox Live Achievement system can as an experience-like (meaningless) record of a player’s accomplishments.  Developers assign point values to numerous in-game challenges (or to chapters in the story).  It’s then up to the player to pad his Gamerscore by beating the campaign, testing his mettle online, and collecting every damn flag/skull/audiolog/beacon/yougetthepoint he can. 

Would people explore every nook and cranny of a game without these nutrient-devoid carrots dangling in front of them?  I don’t know.  Maybe if Nintendo Power told them how.  As it stands, we’ve had achievements for so long I can’t imagine games without them.

Here’s another one that’s sort of game-related: the gaming website Giant Bomb.  Started by Jeff Gerstmann following his iffy departure GameSpot, Giant Bomb is devoted to the idea that games are fun.  So why bog ourselves down with news minutiae when we can watch videos of guys slogging through the mess that is Deadly Premonition?

Giant Bomb’s main feature beyond extensive video coverage is its comprehensive, endlessly editable wiki.  And to encourage users to have a good time digging through it, they instituted a quest system.  Users earn experience by blogging, editing posts, and viewing specific sets of related pages (one quest has you looking up noted video game musicians).  It’s a clever way to bump up your Average Time on Site stat and convince users to return often. 

But what does being a Level 8 Giant Bomb user get me?  Nothing, yet I’m compelled to keep grinding away.

…Is Now Your Life

Even the Xbox Live meta-game seems tame compared to some of the ways experience points and their ilk have infiltrated the real world.

chorewars The first step toward reality is Chore Wars, an online “game” that draws heavily on the D&D model to foster competition between friends, family, or co-workers.  Users create a profile, party up with real-life friends (or at least people they know outside of Chore Wars), and assign tasks for one another to complete.

Assuming you worked in the silliest office environment ever (okay, maybe not the silliest), you and cubicle-mates could all make characters and set experience-rewarding goals like “Sell Five Toasters” or “Clean the Break Room Fridge.”  Or, god forbid, your boss gets in on the action and – instead of thinking about your quarterly review – decides that he’s going to award Gauntlets of +2 Customer Service to whoever closes that Alabama lead first. 

Chore Wars also bills itself strongly to parents eager to fabricate incentives for kids to clean up their army men.  Hook them with the fantasy-focused character creation, keep them “playing” with the experience gained each time they clean the table.  But they’re not the only game in town marketing this real-life experience system to families. 

In 2007, Viva Chu launched Handipoints.com, a Club Penguin-esque virtual world that runs on currency earned by completing real world tasks.  “We're trying to motivate kids to stay active in the real world,” Chu told CNET in 2008.  Parents construct chore lists for their kids, who then earn points that can be redeemed for in-game goods like costumes or pets.  Work begets gaming until gaming hits a roadblock, then more work. 

My only question: whatever happened to allowance?

A Blurry Line

henry iv quote If you can’t tell, I’m a little worried about the augmented reality we seem so willing to embrace.  Start-ups like Chore Wars and Handipoints are becoming more and more commonplace.  Just look at Foursquare.  Why do I want a badge for becoming the Mayor of my couch?  Because my friend doesn’t have one?  Okay…sure, why not?

We’re attempting to turn the entire world around us into a game.  Sure, you can point to aspects of politics or other systems and highlight the gamey aspects for purposes of critique.  But what’s the point of a game if there’s nothing to break from? 

In an excellent blog post entitled “System Fatigue” on Gamasutra, David Hayward writes, “Games should be exceptional experiences, not an addictive layer of weaponised mundanity.”  He’s discussing larger issues of collectibles and extraneous questing in modern games, but he does touch on these real-world games that purposefully blur the line between our senses of play and responsibility.

ouroborosIf we invented experience points to – in the realm of play – simulate real world progression, forcing our real world responsibilities into systems of derived from play is like some kind of Ouroboros of progression. 

Status symbols in the real world – money, jobs, property – may be farkakte, but we needn’t complicate it with meaningless achievements or complicated leveling systems.  Let your actual experience suffice.  Life needn’t be incentivized.  It’s cool enough.