alternate reality games community computer games design GDC 2009 reputation systems

GDC09: Meaningful Social Reality Games

Austin Hill, Akoha


Conference organizer introduced this as “during this first talk, think about the platform they’ve made, as much as you do the game; that could be especially interesting for this audience”.

I totally support the principles and the ideals. The game looks fun and interesting, and at the same time taking a very “Don’t worry, be crappy” approach to core game design: lots of classic mistakes made, obvious stuff. Is this a case of being brave enough to deliberately make the mistakes they understand (because they’re easy to fix later when you’re more successful – and it leaves you more spare time to focus on fixing/avoiding the mistakes you don’t understand yet) – or just naivety?

Interesting to hear the philosophy that fed into the creation of the game, the speaker’s personal journey and how it informed the design. On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed how little actual content there was in this talk. It was perhaps 50% or more made up of a few long video clips. They were long and very little was pulled-out / emphasised from them. Most had very little information content per minute. Worst example was a mildly entertaining video of one of their players giving an intro to the product – but, frankly, so what? This was “new” and “interesting” 4 or 5 years ago, but by now it’s happened thousands of times over, and we’ve all seen it for many games. I didn’t understand why we were watching it.

I have a sneaking suspicion that – given he’s a VC – the speaker was pitching that video stuff to show “look, we have players who love our game”. That’s interesting and exciting to investors who have little or no immersion in the online world, but IMHO for game developers that’s just par for the course these days. No?

My own commentary in [ square brackets ], any mistakes/misunderstandings my own fault :).


I started off doing startups in the cryptography, privacy space. We wanted to protect civil liberties. Dot com crash happened, things went back, and then my younger brother was diagnosed with cancer. Left the industry to spend time with him while I could.

After the funeral, I knew I didn’t want to go back to security industry etc. Went to TED, saw things on the Science of Happiness etc. In particular, a talk by Robert Wright (author of NonZero). Cited a “death spiral of negativity” in the world today.

Robert: “all the salvation of the world requires is the intelligent pursuit of self-interest in a disciplined way”

My partner met with Jeff Skoll, who’s using movies for social change. At the time, he was making GTA4, a stark contrast.


How would we get leverage, get to scale easily and to a very large audience of people?

How could we harness the crowd of the entire internet to make the world a better place.

Looked at social media. Youtube videos, facebook microgames/use as a social metagame. These things show that massive self-organizing collective action is possible. If we could just get a large enough group of people together we were sure it would work.

Then we looked at open source too. Wikipedia as a Knowledge-War game, and the artificial danger of wiki-wars motivates good actors to work harder and make better shared free knowledge, that they wouldnt do without the griefers.

Aiming to use erotic commerce: eros (emotional / gift economies) as opposed to logos (direct exchange/barter of goods as a contract). Reputation in logos economies is based on accumulation … in eros economies, based instead on emotional connections.

Core principles we picked

  1. Witnessing – public displays
  2. Reciprocity – your status is related to how much you give back
  3. Social Reputation
  4. Organic and authentic

Design goals we picked

  1. positive social game
    • no PK
    • no “negative modes of play”
    • based on gift economy
  2. players are affected “positively” while they play the game
  3. commercially successful so that I could fund social projects and philanthroy afterwards

[ADAM: “no PK”? Everyone has to be nice? Interesting. Default expectation would be: that’s not going to work. This game, of course, is architected to change human behaviour – so they might manage to make this work through a recursive “fix ourselves by being successful” success – but I’d imagine it’s going to make their jobs much harder, doubling-up on their problems. Given he name-checked Bartle types etc, I’m surprised there was no explicit recognition of this problem during the talk]

We felt that MMORPG wasnt wide enough in its appeal, and they take too long to play, so we went for “something casual” as our target.

Didn’t want to do “virtual world as a space” because e.g. ClubPenguin players “grow up” and then stop being interested in that product.

Aimed to hit a wide audience – 0-75+ years, male, female, different communities, etc.

Ultimately: how do you get on Oprah’s couch, and get her audience interested in games, because that’s hitting “mass market”?

[ADAM: I love that as your measure of mainstream success. I’d like to see “are you on Oprah’s Couch yet?” get picked up as the measure for games. It’s a lot better than some of the ones people currently use :)]

Looked at Webkinz as a great example of a success simultaneously on the commercial and motivational side.

Looked at Jane McGonigal, and at ARG’s in general (e.g. The Beast). Beast players were still looking at movie posters with suspicion many years after the game ended – this really (permanently) impacted the way they see the world around them.

Collision of online/offline worlds

Focus on the collision of online/offline worlds. Examples:

  • geocaching [he gave a brief explanation of geocaching here]
  • couchsurfing [ditto]
  • bookcrossing [ditto]
  • SFZero
  • Where’s George?
  • GoGame

…so we concluded that we wanted to do a “Social Reality Game” [as opposed to ARG?]

[CNN clips of people “giving-forward”]

[cited the starbucks in seattle where no-one pays for their own coffee, but … theres a huge difference there: in that situation, you never pay for your own coffee, but you (implicitly: must) pay for someone else’s instead. It would have been interesting to explore how that affects it, that it’s seemingly a very literal zero-sum situation, but in fact turns out to be more than that. Akoha, as far as I know, isn’t even zero-sum on the surface; there’s no trade, it’s all one-way gifting instead?]

[showed example Akoha cards. No PXC namecheck? :)]

Mission cards are tracked on a googlemaps interface, etc [look this up online if you haven’t seen it already, this part was just a brief/fast explanation, running out of time in the session]

How we get to leverage/scale is what’s most interesting. What we’re going to do is decks for different audiences. We won’t do most of them. We want to get hte community to deign their own cards, design games for their own communities, on top fo the Akoha platform.

[ADAM: spot the VC :). Gets excited about the concept of owning a new Platform]


  • online
  • retailers (e.g. walmart)
  • partners (e.g. starbucks)
  • print-on-demand
  • social networks

People will be able to link their custom decks to a charity of their choice.

We’ve had around 3,000 missions in 37 countries during our beta test so far. Starting to hit problems:

  • loss of agency (act of faith that players who are passed-on the card actually carry on; 60% of all cards are disappearing from the system; you are totally dependent upon other people to move YOUR avatar forwards, because you give away all their cards as part of the game. Then you get bored because you have nothign lef tto do until/unless the recipients carry on the game for you and keep your cards moving)
  • feedback systems
  • scoring of community missions (gaming the system)
  • moderation of community designed missions

[ADAM: well, some very classic obvious problems there, all easy to predict when writing the business plan, way before development started. No surprise. The scoring one has, I know, stopped people from trying similar games before because they couldnt see a way around it. This is going to be interesting to watch and see how they deal with them]

3 replies on “GDC09: Meaningful Social Reality Games”

I’m pretty sure I would have been the enthusiastic YouTube guy. :)

If all the kinks can get worked out, I think the potential for this game is pretty awesome. I’m as hardcore as they come when it comes to gaming and I’m very diverse. From Go to Chess to Xbox 360 to Soccer to Settlers of Catan to Connect Four to Uno to… :)

I also don’t blame them for the “classic mistakes made, obvious stuff” because launching a start-up of that magnitude is a TOTALLY different kind of game than actually creating a game (if you know what I mean). To expect someone to have a deep knowledge of gaming and the skills necessary to put something like that together would be… having rather high hopes. I think what they have put together as a start is pretty good.

What I think needs to be done more than adding more bells and whistles is focus on the core gaming elements of the “game.”

There is currently an arbitrary leveling up that happens (I think I’m at level 9 and I have no idea what that means… lol). Also, the points don’t really have any significance. The “game” as it is is far to open ended. There needs to be some actual tasks. I’ll give you an example on one:

A card where the mission was to get to every state capitol, then it’s done.

Or here’s an idea (that’s in rough draft form) for how the platform could create real change:

Working with a “Boys and Girls Club” type place that has a computer lab, there could be a card that encouraged youth there to teach another youth some computer skill (Twitter, Window Movie Maker, How to Put Pictures on Flickr). When the task is completed one of the volunteers signs off on it and records it with a picture or video. Then there are some kind of prizes offered to the kids who help the most people (directly or from the ripple effect) in a month or whatever.

This could be something that just uses the platform and doesn’t even have to run through the actual Akoha game.

I don’t know. Seems like there are a lot of possibilities with it especially as things get sorted out better.

Hi Adam,

Thanks for the great feedback on the presentation & a pretty comprehensive review of the talk.

A couple of corrections & points:

-60% of cards not showing up in system, is actually the reverse. Approx. 65% of all played missions get confirmed by recipients. This stat may be skewed because we are learning that some players distribute missions cards, replay them and then don’t register their hop on the site. Just pointing out that some of our stats are evolving since we are still learning about modes that players our using Akoha in the real world.

-One point I passed over that I should have spent more time on (maybe cut one of the videos :) was the conflict model that does exist with inside Akoha. While there is no negative mode of play or PK, the conflict model is internal to the players own sense of social boundaries. Some players are bold & outgoing and find it easy to play with strangers. Others are timid and only play with friends, then find themselves experimenting by pushing themselves to play with strangers. I think this is only at its infancy, but I believe that the game (and other reality games) allow players to fight their own fears / apprehensions which is where some of the conflict and resulting sense of empowerment can come from.

-On your point re: classic mistakes, some of feedback mechanisms, the lack of depth on what points get you and other items are things that we’ve tackled in design but have not pushed out to the community. Other elements are like you said, simply stuff that we should have considered but took the ‘get it out the door & improve it later’ approach. Hopefully once we get our currency, badges & powerups/buffs systems rolled out we will see some of the more strategic & goal orientated play take off.

Thanks for the positive feedback & treating the VC part of me with kids gloves :)

Comments are closed.