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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]

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