We need Dungeon Masters for the real world


Games are useful. Games are fun. Yet, somehow, gamification itself has become the butt of almost every internet joke I’ve heard recently.

It isn’t because games aren’t useful. They are and they can change the world. It’s because gamification is being wasted on the most useless, time wasting crap I’ve ever seen.

Because of this, I feel that gamification is perhaps the most offensive thing to hit the internet in the past couple of years. I will attempt to explain why in the next few paragraphs, hopefully inspiring you, the reader or game designer, to do something better with games than more foursquare logins, Farmville XP, or any other nonsense you are currently hoping to ensnare your users with.

First, my qualifications: I have been a player of video games, RPGs, city-wide games of tag, iPhone games, and more for almost my entire life. But more importantly, I have been a D&D Dungeon Master (â„¢) for over 20 years. In this, I am an eternal student, but I have hopefully developed some sense of what makes things fun, and why people keep coming back. So I am “qualified” to talk about games, as absurd as that statement should be.

But this is actually about more than that. It isn’t about designing better games, or saying that gamification is dead or alive or whatever statement can help sell papers. It’s about saying that gamification is a mercenary industry/profession that sells itself to the highest bidder, when what they should be doing is changing the world.

Are you a gamer? Are you a game designer? Are you currently designing bullshit badges for users that don’t give a fuck, or worse, that they care so much they’re ignoring real life? In that case, I have a clarion call I hope you will hear.

Stop trying to make games better. They are fine. It’s life that is broken. Start fixing that.

Our schools are broken. They churn out people with little initiative who can’t find jobs anyway. The system is no longer levelling people up properly.

Rewards are being disproportionately placed in the wrong hands. Our smartest people go into banking because they receive massive compensation and no downside. They are the min-maxers, the munchkins of our world; they have found the loopholes and been led down the wrong path because of it.

Occupy Wall Street is full of people who want the game world to work better. But no one is fixing it because they’re too busy on their own personal World of Warcraft. This is bullshit and it’s killing us.

Our games are rigged in the wrong direction. This is so obvious is needs no further argument, so I will move on to people that are doing it correctly, and what further steps we can take to solve this.

There are people whose understanding of games is helping real life in small ways– helping understand behaviour and guiding it towards more useful things. Chore Wars or my friend Kyle’s company High Score House is an example. They help people do better at the thing they suck at most right now– life.

Yet the majority of our institutions are broken, giving us no way to get better at the things that matter most. We are natural pattern recognition machines that get very good at understanding and hacking simple systems, so when we’re given a new job, we immediately figure out how much we can slack off, for example, the same way we know how to get a good report card by doing the smallest amount of work possible.

We are naturally detecting which games matter and which don’t– and we are figuring out that most of our life is the fundamental equivalent of gold farming. It’s pointless and it’s fucking sad.

FACT. No one has a fundamental method for teaching people what matters in life and what does not. No one knows how to teach people what the important games are, and how to win at them. Most people on the internet are still buying bullshit $47 make-money-online programs, time and time again, or spending time trying to vote their dog up on cleverly designed marketing campaigns. (Even I’m guilty of this.)

Very few people are doing this for doing something that’s fundamentally good.

No one is systematically guiding people through the dungeon of life, intelligently and for free. Everyone is trying to turn gamification into the thing that helps keep their website stickier. It’s disgusting.

However, there is a culture out there, one that has survived for a long time, in which people are designing games and running people through them, for free. These people take hours, sometimes dozens of hours out of their weeks in order to help their friends have fun. This culture is largely non-profit and runs like Wikipedia. Most attempts to monetize this audience fail because they just want to help their friends have fun.

These people are role-players and the people who design for their world: Dungeon Masters. But even they spent their time in imaginary worlds, making fun stuff for their friends, yet mostly sit on the sidelines in helping to make a difference in their community around them.

The reason this is important is because it proves that there is an initiative in human beings to design things for their friends, to help them enjoy themselves week after week.

But if there are people who do this around the world, everywhere in every language, for free, why are those who are trying to improve the game of the real world relegated to its backwaters, with social workers, teachers, and after-school program leaders being paid nothing, given no social status or benefits?

We need actual mentors, but backed by systems that we know function well because of our experimentation inside of the game systems we have come to know and love.

We already know that some people want and love to teach others, but their systems are broken. Gamers understand how to create and fix system.

Gamers love to create mazes and run people through them, but the points don’t matter. We need to put them in a place where what they do makes a real difference.

What we need are Dungeon Masters for the real world.

Edit: Let me give you an idea of what I mean. The world is filled with systems that children need to go through in order to level up. They are fundamental and easy and everyone knows them.

Swimming: Most people who learn how to swim learn wrong and couldn’t save themselves in a bad situation if they tried. This is a fundamental skill that has a curriculum, but is no longer serving people properly.

Math: Math is a basic set of skills that everyone needs. They’re given it in school and yet many people can no longer do calculations in their head, if they ever could. Another life skill that people are lacking yet don’t know they need.

Advanced skills: And this is just the beginning. Most people don’t know how to see a profitable business idea if they spot one. They don’t know how to make good habits stick. They don’t know to build confidence. They don’t know how to meet a nice girl. They basically don’t know how to learn many of the most important skills, and there is no guide for helping them learn.

Here are skills I’d be more than happy to learn from a qualified person in a game environment.

  • Investing
  • Swimming
  • Cooking
  • Advanced social skills
  • Writing

The list goes on and on.

In a game world, you start with something easy, and you learn as you go on. You gain experience points, and you progress along a pre-set path that will eventually guide you to be able to get through the next level, use your skills in a better way, etc.

Some people have succeeded at this, but most have not. It is those that have had some success in life (whatever form it takes) whose job it is to design the game for those yet to come.





31 responses to “We need Dungeon Masters for the real world”

  1. Jackie Shelley Avatar

    Jane McGonigal did a brilliant presentation on games at SxSw that blew my mind. I do hope more people answer the call.


  2. Gaetan Lanthier Avatar

    A good DM, make the game worth playing! Retweeted and emailed to my D&D fellowship as well!

  3. Jason Sandeman Avatar

    Oh Hell yes! You nailed it with a 20! I find that games are just simplified now. Remember when you used to have to decipher the PHB and DMG from 1e? All the cool little trinkets you could dig up, like the herbs table.
    Back then you needed imagination, and it was all about the game, and the cooperation of you and your root beer guzzling friends. Now, it is all about FB games, and “Help me build my fence.” Gaming has come to a sad state.
    Have you heard of Savage Worlds? That is a game that you can really get into as well!

    1. Stephen Smith Avatar

      IIRC, the saving throw table was on p75 of the original DMG. I do not know why I remember that.

  4. The Literary Analyst Avatar

    Excellent! Loved this post. There is nothing more that I can add.

  5. Ryan Drew Avatar
    Ryan Drew

    Great post. The prevalent ‘one-off’ game philosophy is completely worthless.

    What are your thoughts on Khan Academy or codeacademy.com, which combine learning with badge distribution? I cringe when valuable services are diluted by gimmicky means of attraction and retention. They would have better resonance if they dropped the gimmicks and focused on their missions.

  6. Brent the Closet Geek Avatar

    This is a great counter-point to the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at the concept of gamification. I agree that deeper integration of game design ideas into things that matter is the only real way for the idea of “gamification” to last and be of real value.

    I too am guilty of falling prey to slapping badges on a site for no good reason. I had a badges system on my site for about a day before I took it down in shame, realizing that it had little reason to be there. I may yet add badgers, or points or something in the future but not without carefully considering why.

  7. Brent the Closet Geek Avatar

    * I mean “I may add badges […] in the future”

    I hadn’t considered badgers at all but I’ll add it to the list.

  8. PartlySunny Avatar

    Personally, I think adding badgers is the wave of the future.

  9. Maria Avatar

    Loved that post! Those sites cannot retain their users for ever if their gamification is not well executed…

    Other valuable D&D/real life skills are:

    – Appraise -> Investment Class
    – Diplomacy
    – Heal -> First aid, natural remedies
    – Intimidate (what if you could intimidate a mugger on the street?)
    – Speak Language

    1. Juli Avatar

      I’m not sure if by “Speak language” you mean your native one or an additional one but I’ve found that Rosetta Stone is like a game… or my brain thinks so. I get the same pleasure rush from scoring in Rosetta Stone that I do when I used to level up in WoW. Rosetta Stone is a game for RL because it teaches a life skill.

      Also, I’m learning French and my brain thinks it’s a game so I’m destressing while I learn! It’s awesome.

  10. Billy Avatar

    What is with this site? Over 5/6ths of the page is non-interactive, content-free garbage. Rule #1 of site design: content is king. You seriously need to rework this so the content isn’t stuffed into a 635×440 box while the rest of the page is useless. I’m going to have to submit this for Worst Website of the Year.

  11. Anne Avatar

    Recommended reading about “language hunting” and other “fluency” games by Willem Larsen at the College of Mythic Cartography: http://www.mythic-cartography.org/where-are-your-keys-becoming-fluent-in-a-language-at-incredible-speed/

  12. Rob Avatar

    +K for Gaming and for being the absolutely the biggest nerdiest guy ever, Dungeon Master. I know you’ll take that the in the best way or just ignore it.

    Anyway, I think everyone should learn to fucking type. That’s my personal “swimming and math” issue. Not sure I can be dungeon master there. A few hours a week at a community college and some practice like my wife did ought to do the trick. You’ll thank me.

    If anyone needs some dungeon master beer ideas, for free, find me on twitter.

  13. Sebastian Deterding Avatar

    Curious: Did you come across http://selfhelprpg.info by +Aristotle Bancale? Sounds right up that alley.
    Also, time for a public communication campaign: “I am a Dungeon Master.”

  14. ArthurHung Avatar

    Thanks for once again bringing us another brilliant post Julien. I have something to comment about the following quote:

    “No one is systematically guiding people through the dungeon of life, intelligently and for free.”

    In the meanwhile, there kinda are dungeon masters right now, for adults. They’re called life coaches, usually only accessible to only people who are already passionate and on their way to success. I’m involved at SpiritSentient.com and there are even products & services to improve success clarity, confidence and social skills.

    I’m onto what you are talking about though, I am a natural with kids and have taught at Kids Gymnastics Gyms with awards, and combining it with what I’m partnered with above: I can see myself creating or being involved with an overarching system that spreads its value and becomes as common as drinking water.

  15. The Game Master Avatar

    Thank you for saying it eloquently. And, thank you Sebastian for directing me here. That is exactly what I’m trying to do with The Game of Real Life.

    I do not claim to be a great player of The Game, but I feel that I do have a big piece of the puzzle. I also see what powers and puzzle pieces my “players” have that they can use to form the bigger picture and level up in Real Life.

    If you have made the choice to play The Game, then I invite you to choose your character and start playing http://selfhelprpg.com

  16. James Avatar

    I would be interested to know what more you had in mind about learning to cook in a game environment. I want to start teaching teenagers in impoverished areas who have interest in culinary arts, how to cook. I’ve always thought of life as a game and leveling up, etc. This post has reignited that flame. Thanks

  17. Luke Hohmann Avatar

    Julien –
    I really enjoyed your post, which was sent to me by one of our 500+ trained Innovation Games Facilitators.

    We’re a serious games company that for a number of years have been designing and producing games to change the world. I invite you and your readers to check out the following and join us. We need lots of help.

    Our games can help cities do a multitude of things they currently struggle with: getting citizens to allocate time to various community projects, facilitating discussion and prioritization of budget proposals, and identifying opportunities for improving current government services. Below is just a quick sample of that work:

    Grameen America: In Oct. 2010, we partnered with Grameen America (http://goo.gl/q7XL5) to produce games to engage the global product management community in fighting poverty (http://goo.gl/lK6AL).

    City of San Jose: In Jan. 2011, we brought together more than 100 community leaders from San Jose City to play a custom designed game (http://goo.gl/lDlhT) that helped the Mayor prioritize contested budget items (http://goo.gl/rm1iD). See video testimonials from the participants (http://goo.gl/S7X1Y).

    Stanford University: On July 14, 2011, at the Triple Helix IX at Stanford University, we debuted Trilicious, a custom-designed game to help people solve complex problems by bringing together government, industry and academia (http://goo.gl/WN160).

    City San Jose: In the coming weeks, TIGC will design games for the City of San Jose to explore what young professionals and local businesses want as San Jose grows (http://goo.gl/oo1Q9).

    I’m hopeful that you and readers will be excited as we are about using Innovation Games to change the world.

    Thanks so much for your time,

    Luke Hohmann
    CEO, The Innovation Games® Company
    Author of Innovation Games®: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play
    http://www.innovationgames.com: The seriously fun way to do serious work — seriously.
    Follow me on twitter at lukehohmann
    Knowsy knows…

  18. Gwen Bell Avatar

    Julien, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Buster Benson & his work, but I see parallels. Happy meeting if not. And, hello! if so.

  19. Mark Avatar

    You know Christopher Vogler made millions be “upgrading” the Hero’s Journey for film. There’s a purple cow for the guy/gall who’s going to do it for gaming.

    I’m not, because I am a teacher. I believe that actual experience “aesthetizes” people, while surrogate experience “anesthetizes” people.

    In fact, the DRIVE for gaming, is based on the very thing that Hero’s Journey implicitly criticizes: leave your zone of cozy and jump in the pool…

  20. Aristotle Bancale Avatar

    Hi Mark! I developed The Terran Journey based on the mono myth.

    Any kind of experience can be observed actively as it is experienced. Awareness will bring your perspective into reality without the artificiality of aesthetics or anesthetics.

  21. Sean Feretycki Avatar

    A great example of game mechanics leading to actual benefit for society was highlighted in the news about a month ago. Groups of gamers playing FoldIt were able to solve amino acid puzzles that allowed researchers to learn a lot more about an AIDS enzyme. That particular enzyme had stumped scientists for 15 years, and was solved by the gamers in 3 weeks.

  22. Sarah Avatar

    You, sir are brilliant!

  23. Meredith Avatar

    As an English consultant, I’d be delighted to read more about making a game out of writing. So far I’ve mostly worked with college students, so it’s been appropriate to show them silly comics by The Oatmeal. For the K through 12 crowd, I’m sure I’ll need a whole new bag of tricks to keep them engaged in the learning process. Perhaps a game of Scrabble? You’ve inspired me to rethink my handy-dandy English books.

    Also, thank you for recognizing that writing is just as important as math. How are we to expect the next generation to write compelling scientific articles if they cannot write without abbreviations and emoticons? The ability to read and write opens our worlds to any knowledge we wish to consume.

  24. Kenny Avatar

    I’m not sure if you’ve seen this before. I haven’t until a friend of mine mentioned it today. Thoughts?


  25. John Avatar

    Hi, I am from Melbourne.

    Please find a site inspired by the ultimate Master


  26. Susan Giurleo Avatar

    As a psychologist who works with kids on social skills (many of them gamers) I just need to say that advanced social skills can’t be taught or gamed. Too many variables and how do you “level up” in a social skill? Get invited to more parties? People try to teach social skills as a game and it doesn’t generalize to real life situations. Practicing social chit chat or asking the girl out isn’t the same as doing it in real time with emotions, extraneous factors and the other person not scripting their responses. Just saying…

  27. Dan Avatar

    Kenny (post #25) mentioned Fitocracy.com — I’d like to also suggest that site for you, it turns fitness into a game similar to D&D (which I also played as a kid). Every exercise gives you points, get enough points and you go up a level. Completing certain exercises are “quests” which get harder as you complete them. For example, cycling starts off with just getting on the bike and riding around the neighborhood, and then builds all the way to doing a 100 kilometer (60 miles or so) ride.

    It is very social, follow others, they can follow you, join groups, tag yourself, post to Facebook/Twitter if you want, etc.

    Still in Beta, but I’m sure you can get an invite if you search.

  28. Shawn Levasseur Avatar

    So next time I’m wasting time on the internet I’ll be able to say I’ve failed my saving throw vs. procrastination.

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