Whether or not you play games like FarmVille, you've probably wondered why they are so damn addictive, despite seem pointless:

As it turns out there is a very good reason for that, and it stems from our biochemical need for simple challenges that create a sense of accomplishment and purpose, thus triggering release of endorphins and other powerful "happy" brain chemicals.

According to game guru Jane McGonigal, who just published a groundbreaking book on the field of game psychology called "Reality is Broken," our modern society is well, basically, not very good at delivering these challenges, and in many ways the alternative reality created by gamers functions much more in accordance with the basic laws of human psychology, providing a sense of power, connection and well-being that is sometimes hard to find.

So the million-dollar question is this: can the behavioral mechanisms created by gamers be reverse-engineered to make our real-world lives more happy, fun and productive?


This question has spawned a new industry somewhat tentatively called "Gamification," the focus of the first annual Gamification Summit, a remarkable (and sold out) gathering of social media and gaming pundits that I attended this week in San Francisco. Alongside scrappy startups and more developed platform vendors like Bunchball, Badgeville and BigDoor were $100 million venture capital firms and some big name brands, all working to crack the puzzle of how to incorporate games and game-like interfaces in everything from high-end media properties like the USA Network's Club Psych to workplace productivity tools (check out Fuzbi) from ecommerce sites like ModCloth to MNN's very own WorldShares.

If you thought you were sick of seeing all those goofy badges from your Foursquare friends, you ain't seen nothing yet. Marketing experts are calling gamification the "new social media," and many big companies are jumping on board. But in some cases they are doing so without really understanding the fundamental tenets of gaming and how they can be leveraged to get an entirely new kind of engagement with their constituents.

Social gamers like uber cool Natron Baxter are a bit worried about this trend as they explain in their recent blog post. With the proliferation of random points, currencies, badges and trophies, there could well be a public backlash, making it difficult for people who are trying to use serious games to effect change in the real world. Yes, you heard me right.

Serious games.

Natron won the #1 social game of the year with EVOKE which was designed by McGonigal for the World Bank to help people understand what would happen if we had a global food shortage in 2020.

Another "massively collaborative" game related to social change that McGonigal co-created was World Without Oil, an almost military-style simulation of the 32 weeks proceeding a peak oil crisis. Both games have been acclaimed by educators for their ability to teach people about immensely complex issues, but more importantly for their ability to inspire real social engagement on these issues.

Last year a bunch of gamers got together for the first Games for Change conference that looked at a wide spectrum of social challenges and how they could be overcome (at least theoretically) through game play. Though many of these games employ the familiar mechanics of games — points, leaderboards, badges, etc. — they do so in service to a high-level narrative that drives the game in a way that McGonigal would call "Gameful" (the subject of a new game challenge site), meaning they fill the user with a sense of wonder, purpose and joy ... emotions that most would agree seem to be in increasingly short supply.

Reading the headlines on any given day, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that reality is broken. Though many poopoo games as frivolous exercise, perhaps the secret windows into human psychology they provide can offer a new way forward in our attempt to solve modern society's greatest problems.

In the meantime, get ready for a whole bunch of goofy badges.

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