Gamifying My Run

December 27, 2013 - Blog

One of the fun, unforeseen things about starting Waxwing has been that it gives me reasons to meet all sorts of interesting people doing interesting things. The other day I had the chance to sit down with Dan Boyd of Here’s the Story and he told me about a game of urban tag called Journey to the End of the Night he’s bringing to Chicago on September 15, 2012. Well, technically we weren’t sitting down, as we talked we moved back and forth between a dark room and a paint-spattered table in the art studio Dan was using to screen print the logo for the game onto t-shirts he will sell at the event.

Our meeting was part business and part screen printing tutorial. As Dan bladed emulsion across the pattern he was using to make the t-shirts he talked about Journey to the End of the Night. In a nutshell, hundreds of people show up in an obscure park in a Chicago neighborhood just as the sun is setting. Most of them start as “runners,” but those more predatorily-inclined players start out as “chasers.” As the names imply, the runners are escaping the chasers as quickly and stealthily as possible as they move from checkpoint to checkpoint en route to the finish line (some seven miles distant), whereas the chasers are trying to tag as many of the fleeing masses as they can. When a runner is tagged by a chaser, he or she becomes a chaser. They are no longer trying to arrive at the checkpoints, but are only trying to assimilate more hapless runners into their growing ranks.

“Last year I ran into an alley and two chasers appeared on the far side blocking my way,” Dan said, “I turned around and saw that two chasers had also appeared at the mouth of the alley I had just came through. They’d been hiding there until I passed and they could spring their ambush.” Dan went on to explain how he slipped into a narrow space between buildings to escape the ambush and continued the race, but that was about all I needed to hear. He had me at “spring their ambush.”

As I type this the little red squiggly line under the word “gamifying” in the title of this post tells me that I’ve made a spelling mistake. Gamification (alternate suggestions: “ramification” and “gasification”) is the process of use game dynamics on non-game activities, such as fueling your car, buying a croissant, or going for an evening jog. Seth Priebatsch of Scvngr recently gave a TED talk  about how gamification can be used to get almost anyone to do nearly anything. He says that just as the previous decade saw the rise of the social layer, this decade will see a game layer superimposed on top of all our everyday interactions in the world. We won’t just buy things, mow the lawn, drive home, or exercise, we’ll be scoring points and leveling up as we accomplish those formerly mundane tasks in the context of a larger meta-game. Gamification is about making a game of life and, whereas today the phrase is relatively esoteric (confounding my computer’s spellcheck) if Priebatsch is correct, it will play a hand in shaping your future.

Journey to the End of the Night is an interesting example of gamification. Journey takes the activity of running (already intrinsically motivating for some, on the level of “eating your broccoli” for others, myself included) and superimposes a layer of game dynamics on it. Suddenly it is imbued with competition, suspense, strategy, social interaction, and always the clock is ticking. Running becomes a creative space where victory and defeat, success and frustration, and heroism and cowardice are possible. The game makes life an adventure, if just for an evening.

As I talked to Dan he told stories of people scaling walls, setting traps, dodging police, wading through rivers, betraying their friends, and making daring rescues during the game. The stories all pointed to the strange power games take on when they are given free rein in the human psyche. Certainly, a host of ethical questions comes up when you take Priebatsch’s thesis that gamification techniques can be used to make almost anyone do almost anything, but for now I just got back from a run (a monumental feat in itself) and I loved it. I barely heard the groans of my protesting body. I was too busy gauging whether I could vault over that fence, or noticing how that tombstone could hide my from a chaser, or following every rabbit trail I came across. My mind was completely in the game. I guess that is the point.

› tags: Large Games /