STOCKHOLM: AS PART of our visit to the Digital Health Days conference last week, the INQUIRER spoke to Professor Barry Brown, a researcher from the University of Stockholm, who leads a team looking into the fun side of tech, and how gamification is at the heart of making the digital world a place to nurture health.
Brown’s 'fireside chat' at the conference took as its starting point the Pokémon Go phenomenon which, despite not being billed or promoted as a fitness app, is getting people moving, interacting and losing weight.
He started by telling us more about his, let’s face it, pretty cool job. "I'm research director of a programme called Mobile Life. It’s a research centre, there’s about 30 of us, partly funded by Swedish companies Ikea, Ericsson, ABB, City of Stockholm, with some money from the Swedish government, and we research the future of mobile," he explained.
“We focus a lot on enjoyment because, frankly, academic researchers don’t do a lot of work on enjoyment. It’s not their thing. So we’ve decided to look at what makes mobile phones so compelling and enjoyable,” he said.
Basically, the man is a fun researcher. But what is that magic bullet that makes a game addictive? Of course, if we knew Brown would have a lot less to do, but there are already some conclusions.
“In game design there are a couple of things that get people really dragged in. One of them is the idea of having three of four and wanting to get the fourth," he said.
We talk about Pokémon Go but you have the same mechanism on eBay. "If you’ve ever sold anything on eBay you’ll know they have a star rating system that constantly encourages you to keep selling to get the next coloured star."
But it’s not limited to identifiable reward systems. We point out how much fun it is to 'race' your Kindle when it tells you how much reading there is left to do. "Even web forms do this" he adds, "What level you are in terms of how many posts you’ve contributed. They’re all ways of making the task appealing.”
Pokémon Go isn’t developer Niantic’s first attempt at this sort of augmented reality (AR) game. Its predecessor, Ingress, has been around for nearly five years and hasn’t really escaped the realms of the gaming nerd. What’s the difference? It’s the same basic game, isn’t it?
“They’ve made a couple of changes to the game that really helped. There’s the Nintendo magic, they’re the Disney of our age. They have the great characters but there’s the Nintendo physics. The Mario bounce. We all know the Mario bounce,” Brown said.
Even Nintendo doesn’t have it completely cracked (look at the Wii U) but it’s certain that the company is further ahead with the idea of making us interact with the real world, to move about rather than be trance-like with a controller.
But when the other big hitters, Sony and Microsoft, tried the same thing it didn’t quite catch on in the same way."“It’s an interesting one because the Xbox Kinect is similar, and it worked for a while but then declined. It could be that they just didn’t get the games right. They ran out of steam with some of those physical games," he explained.
"I think that if you look at something like the 3DS with the StreetPass, they are trying to bring more physical elements into their existing products, so that’ll be interesting. I imagine Nintendo knows what it's doing. It usually does.”
The mysterious Nintendo NX is on the horizon for 2017, and we’d better hope that it is well founded as it could be make or break time for the company. But is this it now? Is AR here to stay? Is the future really Pokémon Go?
"I think that gaming is a cyclical business like films. It works for a while and then suddenly it doesn’t work anymore. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just the nature of the media. There always has to be a new thing coming along and at the moment it’s AR,” he said.
It's been brought on by a change in attitudes to mobile, particularly among parents.
“Kids having smartphones is the big change and that’s the longer term change that has made these games popular in the playground. It’s getting younger and younger when it’s acceptable for kids to have smartphones," said Brown.
"The idea of a seven-year-old with a smartphone would seem shocking as recently as last year, and it’s probably still a bit shocking now, but it’s becoming more and more the norm.”
And that’s important because it's a generation who will grow up associating the mobile gaming industry with movement and social interaction in a way that current players missed.
There is a danger, however, that people will take it too far. We discussed the idea of 'escape from' versus 'escape to' and the danger of selecting gaming reality as a way to block out real-world problems. Brown is clear that the tech world can and will self-regulate.
"When anything new comes along there are small numbers of people who can get obsessive about things, but that applies to anything. People still get obsessive about books," he said.
"I think there’s some nice things happening around designing tools that will manage how much time we use our devices, like writing apps that will lock down things on your machine that will make you write.”
Then he drops a story that amounts to a Halloween torch under the chin horror story for any procrastinating INQ writer.
"I found one the other day that makes you write for three minutes and if you stop writing it deletes everything you’ve written," he said.
"I think we’re going to see a rise in the number of techniques used to lock down and prevent overuse of apps. We already have it under the guise of 'parental guidance', but maybe we need to be doing that to ourselves sometimes."
But games are not regulated in the same way yet. Pokémon Go seems to strike a balance, but what if the next game that promises fitness under the guise of gaming is also a minefield of micropayments and levels of addiction that interfere with real life and safety?
Again, the issue of regulation comes up, but this time Brown thinks we could be in for the same fight we’ve been having with the big boys for years.
“If you look at smoking at some point the health industry had to go against the might of the tobacco industry, and I think the same thing could happen here," he explained.
"If you look at the food industry it’s almost unsayable right now but there is a move towards things like a tax on sugary drinks. We are going to have to go against these companies at some point if they abuse the power that mobile gives them.”
We spoke to Robin Farmanfarmaian earlier in the week who talked about virtual reality (VR) as a gateway to controlling mental and physical problems. But Brown's focus is on AR, i.e. connecting the virtual and physical worlds rather than using one as an alternative to the other.
“The really exciting area for me isn’t VR, it’s AR of the type we’re seeing with HoloLens. I’m still a believer that the really exciting media are the ones that connect you to the world, that make that link in some way," said Brown.
“Even in superhero films you find they’re connected to what’s going on in the real world right now. Batman, for example, was of its age. When you connect to those kind of things they get stronger.”
But then there’s the million dollar question. Pokémon Go is a health app, but it’s a health app by stealth. If it had been marketed, even slightly, for its health benefits, kids would have rejected it. So why do health apps have such negative connotations that we have to smush the veggies into the beefburger?
“There’s this thing about Nintendo magic again. Remember that there are a lot of health apps that nobody uses, but there are also a hell of a lot of games that nobody plays," he said.
"Some apps overall get it right. It’s like Steve Jobs used to say: with something new you have to get 10 things right, and most only get five or perhaps six.
“So the best thing to do is to copy Apple, which is what Nintendo did, and that’s the best way to get all 10 things right. Pokémon Go takes lots of elements from different games and combines them and manages to get all 10 things right.”
We continued to talk about ideas and prototypes in what must be one of the most fun places to work in the world. But that's a story for next time. µ
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