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See Inside December 2010

The Game of Life

Bringing joysticks and scoreboards into our daily routine may be the key to making us better people

ONE DAY SOON, as you stand in front of the bathroom mirror brushing your teeth, you may see, alongside the morning headlines, a scoreboard that ranks your household's current carbon footprint versus your neighbors'. Your electric toothbrush will beep to notify you that dutiful brushing twice a day every day for the past six months has earned you enough points for a 10 percent discount on your next checkup. You take a shower (a brief one, so as not to jeopardize your family's enviable energy-consumption score and the tax benefits it confers), get dressed and log in at your home-office computer for the morning meeting. Now that you and your co-workers appear on-screen as personalized avatars, you can answer your e-mail during meetings without appearing rude. And ever since arbitrary sales quotas were replaced with personalized “life meters” (which swell on-screen to reflect real-time, positive feedback from your clients), you've felt more purpose and ownership over your daily tasks. It's going to be a great day.

A future in which almost every aspect of your life includes a gamelike experience is all but inevitable, says video-game designer and Carnegie Mellon University researcher Jesse Schell. He and a bevy of game designers and psychologists are convinced that the key to a society of healthier, more productive and more engaged citizens lies in bringing gaming into daily life. “We think of games as trivial, but they're really just a way of rapidly engaging our problem-solving abilities,” Schell says. “If the game is designed well enough, any problem can go in there,” from changing your diet or learning a new language to understanding Middle East conflicts or reducing your carbon footprint. “These are problems that many of us can't or don't want to engage with, but games can change that because, by definition, any successful interactive system will make people want to engage.”

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