Full Interview: Pirates, Zombies and the Cyborgification of Humanity

Full Interview: Pirates, Zombies and the Cyborgification of Humanity


This is the full interview between Gamification Co’s Eric Bruenner and Buster Benson, continued from the selections.

Eric: I used to be a writer and have been looking for a way to get back into writing. I stumbled upon your site, 750words.com, separately from gamification, but it’s use of gamification principles has gotten me writing more and more frequently than any other method I’ve tried. Can you comment on this?

Buster: I was a creative writing major in college. It all comes back to me wanting to be able to write and not being able to find the tools to record it. I eventually threw together something together that was very similar to 750 words. It was the peer pressure and the social aspect that really made it stick though, I think.

Eric: Have your own personal necessities been the driving force behind your designs, especially considering HealthMonth, etc.

Buster: Yes, definitely! They all come from some personal anecdote in my life. I build lots of little side projects and most of them only end up ever being useful to me and these are way to too complicated to ever be useful to anyone else. The ones that are simple enough that I can imagine other people using them, I generally try to make them into real projects. The next filter is whether or not its an actual business. So, I build lots of stuff. If it’s useful to people I build it a little bit more. If it’s an actual business, I take the next step.

Eric: When you started developing your most recent projects, 750Words and HealthMonth, were you consciously aware of ‘gamification’ as a trend. There are a ton of gamification elements present in both of these projects. Did you consciously employ those or did you arrive at those methods independently?

Buster: I was probably working on similar things for many years. 23Things sort of stumbled off of productivity tools that aren’t necessarily useful but are fun to use. So that was one of our mottos for years. I’ve been a follower of Dennis Crowley (SP) and Jane McGonigal for years, I used Dodgeball back in the day and I met Jane many years ago and I’ve always been a fan of big games and real world games that were so awkward to play because we didn’t have the right tools to really implement them, but I have been interested in Gamification for many many years before it was a word. That term definitely helps crystalize a lot of the ideas. It’s helpful to have it enter an even more mainstream conversation that a lot of people are engaged in. I had never really thought of badges in particular as a core element of gamification (laughs).

Eric: You said you were interested in “big games and real world games that were so awkward to play because we didn’t have the right tools to really implement them.” Can you expand on that?

Buster: There’s a lot of different ways to think about it, but there have always been cell phone games, for example, that people have played. Think of zombie games, life size Pacman in city streets, those kinds of things. I’ve never really played a whole lot of them, but I’ve been interested in them. On the other hand, I sort of see a general trend in the world in making things more entertaining, rather than useful. Thats closer to the thread that I was following. With gamification, your tapping into parts of our brain, very deep motivations, that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. We’re just trying to tap into those with software now, instead of trying to put all of the software on the app or the service. Rather than giving someone every single way to accomplish a goal, like on 23Things, you just let people cheer each other. That has a much more solid impact on their motivation than giving them every single tool available. There’s been a few things that have made real-world games less awkward. GPS is one. Everyone having a camera is another. Everyone having access to the internet at all times. You don’t want to necessarily have to play games at your computer, and definitely not these types of games. These are games you want to play in the real world. They’re about bringing games into your real life. In order to do that you have to not be at the computer.

Eric: I feel like there is something really interesting, thematically, thats emerging with smart phones and tablets–it’s like a new human organ thats kind of evolving and very rapidly. Its amazing, with implications that seem to be outside the confines of this conversation. Do you have any thoughts about that, though? A smart phone is everything you just described, and it’s mobile.

Buster: Exactly. You can think of a smart phone as a very large step towards the cyborgification of humans. Our senses are beginning to become tied to the objects that we carry around with us now. We all know where everyone is, we know who’s around us, we know the map of where we’re currently navigating, we know our altitude, our speed. All this data is represented within our brains to some degree, in terms of balance, equilbrium–and we can start think of other ways to extend our senses to make our engagement with the real world more interesting, more useful and faster and more connected. I think those are a few really big things that will sort of bring us closer to that.

Eric: As a brief aside, have you ever read Kevin Kelley’s “What Technology Wants”?

Buster: Yes! I love that book!

Eric: Yeah, what your saying definitely reminds me of his writings. So you mention these real world, more flash mob-esque games. Do you play games in the more traditional sense, i.e. video games and physical games, such as sports? What sorts of games do you engage in?

Buster: I did play videogames all through childhood until junior high when a girl I had a crush on called me a videogame nerd. I literally stopped playing videogames that day.

Eric: That is tragic.

Buster: I have sort of picked them up with IPhone games. I’ve played lots of casual slow paced, long lived games like Angry Birds, those kinds of games. As for athletics, I’m more of a runner than an athlete.

Eric: I think its really interesting the types of games and gaming mobile devices have made acceptable now, because your no longer locked away in a basement, or whatever the negative stereotype is.

Buster: Right.

Eric: Along those lines, do you ever look to games and game designers now? Do you ever study them to draw out game design principles? How do you derive the kinds of principles that you employ in your designs?

Buster: I have a few people that I really admire in the gamification world. Gabe Zicherman is obviously one of them. I met and really liked him. Jane McGonigal, Dennis Crowley, Raph Koster, Jesse Schell are all people that I see as my mentors in that area. I also love Will Wright and the creator of MYario Brothers, Shigeru Miyamoto. There’s a definition of games that Jane McGonigal mentioned, that “a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. Gamification comes in and removes the ‘unnecessary’ part. We’re no longer only trying to overcome obstacles merely because we want to, or because it’s fun, but we’re also trying to overcome real obstacles: how to be healthier, how to learn, how to stay connected with our friends and family. That’s really what makes it interesting to me. We’re trying to do things that are insanely difficult for us to do as humans, and have been insanely difficult for us to do and have been insanely difficult for us to do for hundreds of thousands of years. Suddenly there is this new way to tap into motivation and connection with other people thats fun and enjoyable. Thats really powerful. A lot of it is intuition, but somewhere in between these worlds I think, we’re going to find something that helps us to become more–something–more productive, more human, more engaged with the world.

Eric: A gamification space thats starting to emerge, actually I believe the U.S. Navy recently began a simulation to crowd source the Somalian piracy situation, something that I think is fascinating and would love to hear your thoughts on, is the potential to simulate in real time, maybe slightly simplify and crowdsource complex real-world problems. Think about how many times the world has been conquered and reconquered in classic games like Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization’, the capacity inherent there to say ‘stop global warming’ or ‘cure this major disease’ seems overwhelming.

Buster: Oh yea, yea. We’re trying to tackle super serious, difficult problems in a very light hearted manner. I like that. I think its a good combo.

Eric: I think psychologically there is a lot of promise there. Lets move on to talking a little bit about gamification, or game design, the way you design the architecture to incentivize a certain behavior. In 750Words the behavior is writing every day, with HealthMonth the behavior is becoming quantifiably healthier. What sort of principles do you employ, what sort of gamification principles have you picked and try to employ in your designs?

Buster: I’ve learned a lot just from those two projects about what exactly works and what doesn’t work. There is a lot of talk about using gamification for different purposes. A lot of people see it as a loyalty program on steroids. Other people see it as a waste of time, or businesses trying to coerce their customers into doing things they don’t want to do. On the other hand, if you can find businesses or games that tap into what the players naturally want, already–and this is the area that I’m most interested in exploring–it’s always health, its a mastery of a skill, creation of habits, improvement of life, improvement of happiness, all those things that we’re trying to always do. This helps me avoid the whole other side of the gamification conversation which is all about loyalty. I’m really only interested in the portion of that conversation thats about helping people and empower them to do what they already want to do. The things that work for me are finding rewards that are almost completely empty except as a representation of what the user is already getting out of the system. If the creation of a habit is what you want, for example in 750Words the habit is ‘writing every day’, there’s no way to game that system. If you get a ‘streak’, there is no way to write every day and not have a habit. You can’t game that system. You can’t go through the steps and win the game without actually getting something out of it yourself. It’s a very fine line. That’s how HealthMonth came about. People can come up with their own rules they want to follow for a month, then they win by following those rules. There’s no point in trying to game a system like that.

Eric: So what do you think of the ‘dark side’ of gamification, the more coercive or addictive side? What is your stance on that?

Buster: (Laughs) Well, nobody necessarily thinks its a good thing. I guess its offensive for the time being, but its sort of like bringing tobacco to the Native Americans. For a while everyone will be addicted. Everyone will be tricked into playing these games. It might take 100 years, or just a few years depending on a number of factors. But eventually, in those negative gamification scenarios, its an unbalanced relationship. One person is taking advantage of another set of people, I think. The people that are being taken advantage of are eventually going to say no and find ways to take advantage of the game. Thats another unbalanced relationship, where someone is cheating the game and getting all these coupons or daily deals or what have you. Eventually the game is going to be unhappy with that scenario and change the rules. It’s basically an arms race to see who can get the most out of the system. Eventually I think it balances itself out. I just don’t think it will necessarily be fast. There’s plenty of opportunity there to take advantage of current systems.

Eric: How do you see that rebalancing occurring?

Buster: I did a talk at the Web2 expo about this. If your in a game and the rule is, turn in all your free coke bottle caps and you’ll get a free coke, all these people collect these bottle caps for weeks and eventually get a free coke. In reality, the value of that coke is alot less than all the effort required to get it. I call those types of players ‘zombies’. They’re just doing something in order to get a reward that may not even be worth it, or that they may not even want. It sort of taps into the sense of accomplishment. On the other end of the spectrum are people that cheat the system in order to get something that the game has somehow made easy to get. For example, within the Coke game, you can go to the recycling center and collect a thousand bottle caps and get a bunch of free Cokes. I call these types of players ‘pirates’. You sort of game the system and Coke isn’t going to be happy about that. ‘Zombie’ players will eventually grow tired of the game and quit. The game will react to ‘Pirate’ style of play by changing the rules to prohibit that sort of play. Those seem to be two ways to approach, and balance, game systems. Now, there are some games that have no preference about these two styles. They allow all kinds of play to happen. GroupOn is a perfect example. You don’t really know who’s winning in this situation. Is GroupOn winning? Are the businesses winning? Is the customer winning? I think in these kinds of situations the world will probably last longer, because they’re being balanced in both directions.

Eric: Could your briefly break down and explain HealthMonth in terms of what you were trying to do and how you achieved that?

Buster: To play the game you come up with your own rules. It’s sort of a choose your own adventure, where the rules are behaviors. The behavior could be, ‘have three drinks a week’, or ‘go to the gym twice a week’ or ‘avoid white flower, dairy and refined sugar’. You can do something very simple and gradual, such as giving up or instituting a behavior once a week, or give up something cold turkey such as smoking or drinking. It’s very flexible, you can choose to play however you want. You can choose to play with between one and fifteen rules. Its a self defined game. The interesting part is that even though your all playing different rules, your all playing together. You can have a team of people that are all trying to do something thats the same, or a team of people that are all trying to do something different that are just friends. You have a connection to your team and you can cheer each other on. One of my favorite aspects of gamification and games in general is that in games, failure is OK. It’s OK to die, you get a new game. In HealthMonth, every time you miss a rule, you lose a life point, but every time you follow your rule, you gain fruit. With that fruit you can heal each other. There’s a way to collectively forgive each other by playing the game.

Eric: I’ve started using HealthMonth as well and its a similar situation to 750Words. I find it oddly, even nonsensically effective. There’s no shock if I don’t do something but there is this mysterious sense of motivation that sneaks in, which I find really neat.

Buster: Thank you!

Eric: Anyway, that about wraps up our interview. Thank you so much for your time.

Buster: No problem–I’m a big fan of Gabe’s work. Stay in touch! It’s been fun.


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