Big Think Interview With Jesse Schell

A conversation with the video game designer.
  • Transcript


Question: How can we make kids more eager to learn?

Jesse Schell:  I think one of the things we have to do is to do more studies about curiosity and the nature of curiosity and what makes it...  How do you instill it? Is it even possible?  I'm not sure we even know.  So one of the ways we have to begin is by doing deeper studies of curiosity and how to bring it about.

One of the things that we do know, and you know there's writings about this going back hundreds of years.  One of the best ways to instill... to make children curious, is to forbid them from things.  John Locke talks about this in his writings about / on education, and he talks about the best way to educate children is to create educational games for them and to put them on a high shelf and say, “Well, I'm not sure you're old enough for this.”  He says that combination of simulation for education and kind of making it off limits gets them excited about it and then gets them involved in wanting to educate themselves.

What are the challenges of implementing games in education?

Jesse Schell: One of the challenges we have I think today in trying to figure out how games fit into education is everyone sees the incredible, explosive growth that's happening in the games industry.  People are seeing games penetrate into their lives in all kinds of places.  We're seeing them on mobile; we're seeing the growth of platforms like the Wii in the home, but everyone's kind of scratching their head and trying to figure out How does this fit into education?  One place we're not seeing explosive growth of games is in the schools, and I think part of the reason for that is it is challenging to find the right way to fit games into education.  Games are an incredibly powerful educational tool, but they don't fit well into our existing educational system, which is leading many people to a conclusion that our educational system must be reinvented to take advantage of powerful tools that have only recently appeared.

One of the biggest challenges, I think, of games in the classroom is that you don't know how long a game is going take necessarily.  Games don't fit well on a time table.  Classrooms are all about time tables.  Secondly, games are all about customized learning, customized education.  Every game you play is different.  When everyone reads a book, they're all reading the same words.  When we play a game, we each have a different experience because we each make different choices.  The current educational system is not well set up for customized education, but as we come around and find better ways to customize education, games will fit in better and better.

How would you change our current educational methods?

Jesse Schell: Certainly one of the things if people want to have customized education that involves children exploring, children fulfilling their curiosity, children building things, children creating things – you have to build for that, and you have to plan for that.  We already see this a little bit in schools.  We see lab sessions, right?  And the whole idea of a lab session is We're gonna be hands-on; we're gonna try some things; we're gonna do some things.  But the problem with them is they're too small, and they're not well connected to personal plans of growth.

What I think we're gonna see more and more is we're gonna see ways that the curriculum is kind of split.  Here's the time when this is the lecture time; this is the time we all hear the same thing.  Now here are the cutout times where it's time to explore.  Now one of the reasons that schools are hesitant to kind of have these... like let kids go and do their own thing and do their own piece of it... One:  If the kids don't want to be there, and what if they're just going to do nothing useful, right?  That's certainly a problem to be overcome.  Then secondly, the other part of it is that it's much harder for a teacher to keep track of all the different things that the different students want to explore.  But if we want high quality education, these problems have to be overcome.

Question: How do video games fit into the media mix?

Jesse Schell: It's certainly true that games are sort of a super set of all other media.  You can put a book in a game, you can put a movie in a game, you can put play in a game – you can put anything into a game.  But you can't necessarily put games into all these other media because when you look, when you take a step back, you're like what's going on with digital gaming?  Ultimately, any kind of media can go in there, and as we kind of push into the 21st century, we're going to see this happening; we're going to see every kind of media getting subsumed into video games.  I would have to think that by the end of the 21st century, video games will be the defining medium of the 21st century.

Are there technological barriers keeping people from being more emotionally engaged with video games?

Jesse Schell:  I think the primary technological barrier that keeps us from being more emotionally engaged with video games is the barrier of speech.  Computers can talk, they have sound, they can take touch inputs, they have cameras – but one of the things they really can't do is listen to us.  As Professor Chris Swain at USC—and he speaks about this very eloquently–he points out that at the beginning of the 20th century we had silent film, and nobody took it very seriously as a medium; it was kind of a toy, it was kind of an amusement, a minor thing... until it learned to talk.  Once film could speak, suddenly it started to sort of take over the world.  By the end of the 20th century it was the dominant medium.  As he likes to put it, film became the literature of the 20th century.  And he then suggests that games are in the same place that silent films were, except that now it's not about them talking – it's about them listening.

Once you can have a meaningful conversation with an artificially created video game character with just your voice, the potential for this to be an emotional medium rapidly grows and just expands, and it will suddenly become incredibly more natural.  This business of... there's two parts of it.  Part of it is just having computers understand speech, understand what we say, just understand the very words.  But then to understand it in context and to be able to form appropriate responses...  As these two things start to grow and come together, we're going to see a medium like we've never seen before.

How would a video game’s ability to listen change the gaming experience?

Jesse Schell:  When you look at the difference between literature or film and video games and the types of stories that we have, what we see in literature are stories that are very much about personal drama, and emotion, and conflict.  When you see video games, everything is about action, everything's below the neck.  All the verbs that are happening are jumping, and running, and moving.  Everything is about the physical, and everything in literature is about the emotional, and film is somewhere in the middle because we can't necessarily hear what's going on inside people's heads in film, and we can see them.  So we have this interesting mix in film.  What will happen is suddenly video games will be able to go over to the literature side but in a much more powerful way because you'll be able to have gaming experiences that are all about interacting with characters in a very emotional, intense way.  We'll be able to have conversations with characters... games where you'll... The verbs will change from running, and shooting, and jumping, and ducking to persuading, and antagonizing, and convincing, and compelling, and begging, and pleading.  It'll be a very different kind of game because as well as being able to sense just the words that you've said and what you mean, it will be possible to sense the emotion.  It's already... We can easily sense facial expression on some level, and as technology improves we'll be able to sense that more and more and also be able to sense other emotions.  You won't be able to... There will be games where the only way you're able to win is by engaging in a meaningfully emotional way with a virtual character.  That has to be an incredibly powerful experience.

How are video games improving our lives?

Jesse Schell: I think right now one of the ways they're making our lives better is they make people think.  That's one of the things video games are good at.  In order to win the game, you can't just sit there; you have to think.  You have to think and engage and make decisions, and I think... When you talk now to the people who are at the forefront of educational reform, all of them are talking about How do we use these games?  I see how powerful they are.  They're all picking them up like some kind of sword and trying to charge in to figure out how to use this to make education better.

I think in terms of improving ourselves, that's one of the areas we're going to see at the forefront, but I think there are going to be many other areas, as well.  We've already seen the success of things like the Wii Fit, which is an exercise platform for the Wii, and it's been incredibly popular.  In terms of people sticking with it and it really changing their lives, I'm not so sure, but the fact that they've already made I think two billion dollars selling those things speaks to the fact that this is something people want.

You talk to wealthy people who have a personal trainer, and they talk about how effective it is.  This person comes in and says You need to do this, and you need to do that.  There's a social pressure in order for you to do this and not let the trainer down, and trainers know these kinds of psychological tricks in order to kind of put you right at the right level you need to be.  Everyone will be able to have that kind of personal trainer, not only just for physical things and exercise but for their education, their hobbies, for their art, for their spirituality, for anything in their life that they'd like to improve at. [00:14:40.80]

As a game designer, how do you react to media stories about video game addiction?

Jesse Schell:  It is certainly true that there are people who play video games in a way that makes their life out of balance.  Usually these are people who have some significant gap in their life, and they're filling it with something in a way that isn't healthy.  Some people say I... You occasionally hear people make this accusation that Well, there's these problems with video game addiction; it's ruining people's lives, and the problem is these video game designers try and make the games too compelling.  They design the games to be addictive, and if they would just stop doing that, the problem would go away.  But this is like saying that obesity is the fault of the bakers for making the cakes too delicious.  And if only you would make the cakes a little less tasty, there would be... this whole obesity problem would go away.  That's not where the problem lies.  The problem lies with people understanding how to take these entertainment experiences and integrate them in a healthy way into their lives.  As predominant as these entertainments are in our lives, the problem does not... I mean, it's definitely a problem for some people.  It doesn't seem to be an epidemic problem.  It is definitely a problem for some people and certainly worthy of study and understanding about how to best manage it.

Why are massively multiplayer online games particularly popular in Asia?

Jesse Schell:  Part of the reason I think massively multiplayer games are so popular in Asia is partly because the bandwidth and infrastructure is there.  They've had bandwidth and infrastructure that has been miles ahead of where we've been.  So they've had more time to kind of work on it.  There's greater opportunity for an audience.  Then, on top of that, you have situations with copyright over there that are problematic.  The retail game model, the traditional retail game model, of selling discs in stores has very much been destroyed by piracy.  But a massively multi-player game is not destroyed by piracy – in fact, it is enhanced by piracy because the pirates become a network to distribute the software.  The players have to connect online, and there's no stealing the game because you pay as you play.  So I think that combination, then you also consider the lower penetration of consoles in Asia is something that kind of has pushed people more to the PC, and massively multi-player games work well on the PC.

Then further, you can kind of take it to kind of a social angle.  Some people would suggest that people in Asia are more likely to work together on teams.  They're more comfortable working that way, and that's what the... If you're gonna succeed in these games, it's about forming large teams and working together and succeeding.  It's a combination of things.  One thing we're definitely seeing is almost everything that goes big and succeeds in Asia starts to come over here.  We started to see it happening... We saw it initially with subscription-based games, then we saw micro-transactions taking off there, and now they're taking off in America and Europe, as well.

Why are these games so captivating?

Jesse Schell:  I think for massively multiplayer games, it's a combination of things.  One of the reasons people like to go to games at all is games give you concrete achievement.  In life, we seldom get very clear, concrete achievements.  Anything you achieve, it's always like Well, it could have been a little better.  But when you've made level nine [clap] – it's level nine!  I mean, there's no you half made it, or you sort of made it, or someone made level nine better than you.  You made it.  Bing!  Gold star – there it is.  And people like that concreteness.

So you take that factor of the concreteness, and then you combine it with a persistence.  Traditional video games – you play them, you win them – it's kind of over.  You turn it off, and it's gone.  These massively multii-player games are persistent.  You become level nine and you turn it off for three months – you come back, and you're still a level nine.  You can go to level ten.  These can become something that you do for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years if you want to.  People like that; it makes it more solid, it makes it more real, it makes it more meaningful.

Then you combine that with the social interaction where you have a lightweight connection to people – in other words, you don't have to go through the headache of forming social commitments, but you still get to do something meaningful where you work together as a team, and you did something that you all can be proud of.  There's a lot of factors in there that... There's really a lot to like.

What is the future of virtual currencies?

Jesse Schell: At Schell Games, we're doing a lot of work with virtual currencies and virtual economies right now because so many of the games we do are online and are working on social networks and are working off of micro-transactions.  You end up having to think about these things, and it's a very curious space.  It's a space that we're all kind of finding our way in and kind of learning how it works.  There's some basic things that we certainly know.  A lot of people assume that Oh, I'll create some kind of virtual economy and people will spend money on it, but that's certainly not true.  What you have to do is you have to create a situation where people are going to want to put money in.  So you have to find a way that people are going to feel invested, and if you look at the way a lot of the successful online games are created – particularly the free ones – they create a situation where they work hard to get you psychologically invested, and then they find exactly the appropriate time to kind of say, “You know, this game could be a little better if you would just put five bucks or if you would just put ten dollars in.”  Or maybe they'll even mask it:  “If you would just contribute eight Facebook credits” – that kind of thing – “then you could suddenly make this better.” 

We're not used to this as game designers.  Game designers are used to we're gonna make the best game possible, and we're gonna want people to know about it because they're gonna pay up front, and then we're gonna deliver a game that they think is great; then we don't have to think about that anymore.  Now it's like we're all designing the point-of-purchase display at Wal-Mart, and we're trying to figure out How do we position the racks of gum that's gonna make people buy more than one pack of gum?  That ends up being how you have to think about it.  So very often now one of the big changes is:  we design games around a psychological moment where people are willing to spend money, and we figure Well, how do we make that moment as exciting and as engaging as possible?  We're not used to that.  We're used to kind of having fun be at the core, but now funding is at the core, and we have to kind of build out that way, which is very different.

  Do you foresee the virtual currency model spreading to other industries, like advertising?

Jesse Schell: What's going to happen with virtual currencies is interesting because the advertising folks, just like everybody else, are really kind of trying to struggle to figure out What does this new digital media mean?  Interactive advertising is problematic because when you say Here's an advertisement.  Now you can interact with it.  You're first interaction is Make it go away  because you don't want advertising.  That's the whole point of advertising:  you don't want it.

Advertisers are going to realize the incredible power that... the ways they can tap into these virtual economies as we become more and more connected.  People think that these virtual economies... they think that they're isolated, that they're off somewhere, but everyone's going to start to realize that it's just information on the Internet.  If you want to give me 100 gold if I buy a 24-pack of Coca-Cola at the grocery store, you could do that now.  There's no technological barrier to keep you from doing that.  The grocery store already has a unique bar code that you swipe when you exit, they already know your email address, most likely; all you have to do is give them one more piece of information about your World of Warcraft account and BANG – you could start doing that right there.  And the same goes for Farmville or any game that has an online or virtual currency.  The advertisers are going to start to see that Wow.  These currencies mean something to people.  People put in hours and hours of their lives trying to build up this currency.  How can we have them engage with our brand... purchase our products, spread the word about our new products, give reviews to our products, etc. and reward them with these virtual currencies?  We're starting to see it happen already.  On Facebook we've seen quite a bit of this, and I think we're gonna see it kind of branching out into the real world quite a lot.

They're starting to get the idea.  They're trying to figure out how to begin.  There's a kind of a priming the pump problem that they have right now, but all it's gonna take is a couple successes in this space, and you're gonna see just a huge ocean of… experiments.  And some of them are gonna succeed.

Recorded on June 21, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont