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Cargo Cult Game Design

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During World War II, many remote Pacific islanders received their first taste of modern goods when Allied or Japanese armies showed up and took over. Soldiers built airstrips, control towers and barracks, and planes regularly flew in and out. To avoid conflict, the islanders were bribed with food, alcohol and amenities. Then, the war was over and the soldiers left, tearing up their bases and taking their planes with them.

When these remote islands were visited again by anthropologists years (or even decades) later, some islanders had created “cargo cults” mimicking the soldiers’ activities. By building landing strips, wooden control towers and straw planes, islanders hoped to re-create the bounties of cargo. That is, they were copying the process without understanding the underlying principles.Plane from a Cargo Cult

As the idea of building game mechanisms into everything becomes the next new hot thing, I’m seeing a lot more cargo cult game design, or “let’s stick a leaderboard on it”. Lots of companies are copying the games they see others build without really understanding what they’re building or why they’re building it.

Don’t get me wrong — the people who are thinking today about building game mechanics into their non-game products are way ahead of the curve and should be commended. But good game design is hard – look at how long it took some of the smartest game designers in the world to figure out how to create really compelling, blockbuster games on Facebook. The Facebook platform was lost in the wilderness for over a year before anyone started figuring it out — but when they did, they revolutionized an industry.

I get a couple emails a week from people interested in making their company’s products more game-like. The person tasked with this is typically in product development, product management or marketing. They’re all pretty smart people, so they look around to see what else is working. Sadly, examples of good games built into non-game products after a product release are few and far between. So they find something that May Be Kinda Similar But May Also Be Different In Some Fundamental Ways (really, that just means foursquare) and co-opt it to their company’s product development plan while changing as little of the original game as possible.

But this doesn’t really work. In fact, it’s not that much different than building a plane from sticks and bamboo and expecting to receive wondrous gifts from the heavens in return. Games are fun when they fit organically into the theme around them. If everything has its own standardized leaderboard of people who have generated points doing X, I’m going to get tired of leaderboards pretty quickly. Game design isn’t black magic (that’s SEO), but it does have to be tailored — or even re-engineered — to fit its environment, audience and purpose. And often, the fundamental questions that need to be answered in these companies can’t be addressed by game design. Game design must come after there are answers to core questions like who are the users? and what do we want them to do? In other words, it’s not a cure-all for core business issues.

So when friends ask me how to wrap a game around whatever they’re doing, I point them in the direction of some fundamental game design writings by guys like Raph Koster and Greg Costikyan. Ultimately, you’re better served by building something from the ground up. Start with the basic principles of psychology and game design and build them into your product at a fundamental level. Otherwise, it’s just an elaborate cargo cult ritual that mimics the process but fails to understand the underlying truths.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

April 17th, 2010 at 6:55 am