Playing, The Numbers

E3, the biggest video game conference in the world, takes place this week in Los Angeles. In addition to raising questions about why violence and mayhem sell so well, it also offers insight into the datafication of play.

Take Destiny, one of — if not the — most expensive games ever produced. If you’re not familiar with this kind of thing, Destiny is a sprawling shoot-em-up that manages to combine the otherwise distinct genres of first-person shooter, multiplayer competition, and collaborative role-play. It’s immersive, visually stunning, and highly addictive.

Created by the powerhouse game studio Bungie, Destiny is a peek into a future where products tell their makers how customers use (and abuse) them.

For example, just days after the launch of an expansion module that pits three-player fireteams against each other, Bungie reported that 3,798,561 of these matches had been played. The players racked up 118,627,301 kills (you can get killed more than once per match). And 299,001 of these folks had achieved perfect scorecards, winning all nine rounds of a match and, by implication, utterly humiliating the other team.

But these raw tallies are just bragging rights. What’s more interesting is Bungie’s observation of players’ behavior, like cheating. The gamemakers could see some players bailing out as soon as they saw tough opponents on the other team. Bungie spread the word through its weekly newsletter that this welching can get you banned from matches if you keep it up. A similar warning went out earlier when Bungie saw that some players were hanging back in certain sections of the game, letting their teammates do all the work but reaping the rewards of victory anyway.

This may sound juvenile and irrelevant. However, this freeloading is a first-person-shooter version of an economic concept called, well, freeloading. Freeloading happens when you get the fruits of someone else’s investment without making the outlay yourself. When shoppers research a product at a retailer’s meticulously well-designed site but then buy from the lowest-priced discounter, the discounter is freeloading on the other retailer’s investment in design, photos, and information.

In Destiny’s case, freeloading is a particular problem because in many cases teamwork is essential to the value of the game. No teamwork, no fun. No fun, no play. No play, no return on the most expensive game ever made.

And this is why digital strategists should play video games. The best ones are complex digital worlds that provide a preview of the real world fully digitized. At least, that’s my excuse.

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