I read a lot about psychology, then I tell you guys none of it. This is probably because I spend practically every waking moment working on the graphic design of three different card games and the logistics of manufacturing them. Anyway, Jesse Schell takes the opposite approach and clearly explains the intersection of games and psychology, instead of keeping it to himself.
Prisoners to External Rewards
The unspoken premise of his DICE 2010 lecture is that people are prisoners to external reward systems. "External reward" is practically a curse word to me, a thing I'm ever vigilant against. I don't need experience point systems giving me a false sense of mastery, or Xbox "achievements" for watching the opening movie of a game (that's a real one). But people absolutely are driven by external rewards. So much so that Schell doesn't even question it, he simply takes it as given.
He muses about a (dystopian?) future where games with external rewards permeate every minute of our lives. He looks at the beginnings of that in our current world and extrapolates out an extreme future where this stuff has completely taken over. What will stop it from taking over? Nothing, of course. Humanity has thoroughly proven that it can be manipulated by hollow external reward systems, and so these systems will take over. Most "games" on Facebook right now are hardly games at all, they are simply viruses-of-the-mind that are designed to spread, rather than to be of any actual value. Once your shoes have sensors on them, your Corn Flakes box has an internet connection to your friends' Corn Flakes boxes, and your e-book reader has eye-tracking which rewards you with points if you really read a book...points and "games" will be woven into your everyday life.
Who Exactly Will Design Our Future?
Facebook "games" generally have their (virus-like) systems designed by skilled game designers. Schell points out that currently the external reward systems we see cropping up in places like his car's dashboard (that shows a plant growing the more energy he saves) are designed by "whoever happened to be around at that company." He rightly points out that actual game designers have the power and skill to make sure the future external reward systems that will permeate our lives will actually improve our lives also. These systems could cause us to read more and better books, to brush our teeth as much as we should, and so on. Yes, that could happen. DanC of lostgarden.com made that exact point as well, and we've already seen the benefits of it in exercise games like Wii Fit.
I'm with Schell every step of the way in his lecture, except for that last bit though. While it's true that skilled designers could use all this for good once sensors and points take over our real lives, it seems almost certain that they generally won't. If Facebook is any indication, they will simply create the most effective mental viruses that drive whatever commercial behavior they want, with little regard to the victims (consumers).
The Good Side of External Reward Systems
For the record, I'm ok with (and sometimes do consulting work for) external reward systems that are not evil. For example, a leaderboard system or matchmaking system surrounding a competitive game is an external reward system, but it also legitimately improves the experience of competition. As mentioned above, the various fitness games we're seeing these days use points and gamey systems to motivate us to exercise, and I can't say I'm against that. It's a helping hand to do what we should be doing anyway. These things certainly can be used for good...it's just that they so often are used for evil (such as to stimulate addiction with no benefit to the victim).
Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Freedom
I urge you to be vigilant against external rewards. Brush your teeth because it fights tooth decay, not because you get points for it. Read a book because it enriches your mind, not because your Kindle score goes up. Play a game because it's intellectually stimulating or relaxing or challenging or social, not because of your Xbox Live Achievement score. Jesse Schell's future is coming. How resistant are you to letting others manipulate you with hollow external rewards?