Game theory

Posted by Shane Casey on Fri, 03 Jun 2011

Cross-post from the MZ blog at

Your game has begun

“A game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”

- Bernard Suits

We love to play games. From the day we’re conscious of the world around us to the day we die there’s an innate desire to play. Why? Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?

Gaming has long been one of the most active areas of the internet – growing with and pushing the development of technology. Flash gained widespread penetration through its suitability for web games, and the creativity of the game-developing community has driven advances in underlying technologies that make the web a more fun and engaging place to be.

And, true to form, many of tomorrow’s biggest advances in web technology are being pushed forward by a demand for games. Adobe’s latest Flash Player preview (codenamed “Molehill”) provides hardware-accelerated 3D graphics, meaning web games like MaxRacer and Zombie Tycoon will soon be the norm. 3D performance in a browser like that was unimaginable only a few years ago and the potential applications are endless. (Read more about Molehill on The Lab.)

Other web technologies are also pushing their boundaries through games. Web developers are using HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript to retrace the steps of the pioneering flash games with classics like pool, tower defence games, platformers and even Line Rider. But what we’re also seeing is how this kind of play helps push developing technologies to new levels. They’ve even managed to get a game into the address bar of your browser!

The convergence of Facebook’s social graph and our natural social tendencies has created the perfect breeding ground for game growth. CityVille, for example, currently has over 90 million monthly users, 20 million of whom are active daily! The developer of CityVille, Zynga, has been so successful that recent investments have valued the company at as much as $10 billion dollars. To put that in context, Sainsbury’s is valued at $9.55 billion.

But Facebook isn’t the only place where games are big business. Angry Birds launched in December 2009 and now, less than 18 months later, it has sold over 12 million copies on iOS alone. It’s so popular the developers Rovio claim users play 16 years of Angry Birds every hour. The game has now been ported to Android, Windows, OSX, Playstation and is even coming to Facebook soon. On the surface, there’s nothing to Angry Birds – fling some birds, pop some pigs – but the numbers tell a different story. A simple game mechanic can make users devote countless hours to overcoming those “unnecessary obstacles”. And have fun while they do it.

Fun - in diagram form

Fun - in diagram form

Paradoxically, the difficulty of making something fun is defining the simplicity. Game designers speak of what’s called “the flow” (don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Mr Miyagi on you). A game or a task is fun if it can strike a balance between difficulty and the skill required to overcome the obstacles. Players become more skilled at completing tasks with practice, so to keep those endorphins flowing, the difficulty should increase correspondingly. So you could say, learning is fun… your mum was right all along!

The rise of the smartphone means more and more people have a gaming device in their pocket and a recent survey found one in four US and UK adults are “avid mobile gamers”. But as technology advances, we’re continually finding new ways of having fun. Ubiquitous GPS chips and geo-location data have led to innovative new games such as SCVNGR and competitive game mechanics are at the very heart of the success of Foursquare, Gowalla et al.

The application of game design and thinking outside of “gamespace” is gaining wider recognition via the buzzword du jour: gamification. Expect to hear it a lot this year, as marketers fall over themselves to turn every task or consumer interaction into a game, but try not to get too cynical. Games are engaging, rewarding and addictive because of how we naturally respond to them. Understanding what motivates your audience isn’t just a fad.

Shane Casey is Head of Digital Innovation at Mason Zimbler

Follow Shane on Twitter: @shane_casey

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