TEDxUoN: Communication and the power of video games

This post is the text, more or less, of a talk I just gave in Nottingham for TEDxUoN.

The summer that I was eighteen years old, I went on a bike trip to Ireland. I borrowed my older brother’s bike and got my own plane ticket. I was going alone. It was the first really big thing I did on my own. 

                    Irish countryside in The Burren, County Clare.

Biking around Ireland was great. It was pure liberty. But it felt incomplete. Here I was seeing all these new things, and no one knew what I was discovering. So through the whole trip I bought disposable cameras so I could take pictures and show people back home. Every time that I saw something cool, I took a picture. I took hundreds of pictures. The irony is that since they were all printed on paper – this was still in the days of film – they’re all stuck in a box in my mother’s apartment in Montreal. But they’re there.

The funny thing is that without the photos, it seemed pointless to have gone on the trip at all. 

There’s a saying that I love. It’s from Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali philosopher.  

“All that is not given is lost.” 

I think I wanted to take those pictures to show people, so the experience wasn’t lost. 

Sharing, communicating, makes experiences worth more. 

I believe deeply in communication. I believe in the value of transmitting understanding across minds. 

This is something that’s always fascinated me. 

That’s why, some years later, I became a journalist. I worked for the CBC in New York and in Montreal and then, later, I moved to London and eventually joined the BBC. That’s when I left TV and radio reporting and started to work in digital journalism.

I’ve done a bunch of things since then. Now I work for Edelman Digital, a big communications agency. The work I do there is basically the same as what I did at the BBC. It’s about sharing understanding. I get some information, and I think of the best way to get the right people to understand that information. 

I think that’s really important. Communication is what defines us as human. Communication is essential to humans because it’s our survival advantage. It means we can work together and share understanding, across space but also across time. We can adapt to change and threats much faster than any other animal. Communication is what has allowed us to dominate this planet. 

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Alone against a tiger, none of us stands a chance. Ten people who can talk and plan can take out any tiger. One hundred coordinated people, communicating and working together, is all it would take to destroy all the tigers. 

Or preserve them. 

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Of course, in the past, tiger-level threats is all we had to worry about. The threats were complex, but they were small-scale. So we could deal with them in a small-scale way. We’d gather around the fire and tell each other stories and legends. 

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Legends teach lessons. The stories of the Aboriginal people of Australia are tied to the landscape, telling you what happened in this valley or at that waterhole in the dreamtime, when the world was young and all things were made. A childhood spent listening to stories like that leaves you with a pretty good idea of how to survive in that landscape. 

We teach our kids with stories, too. What’s Little Red Riding Hood? It’s about an animal predator preying on an innocent, naive little girl in her new red cape. Think there’s a survival lesson in that one?

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We’ve grown since then, and our society has become more complex. Now we have a mass society and we need mass communications. 

The printing press brought us standard texts and wider distribution, but we lost the interactivity we had before.

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Broadcasting allowed us to communicate quickly across great distances to many people at once. It was one-way communication for a command-and-control society. 

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Now the Internet has changed communications again, and it’s changing everything. For the first time, many-to-many communications are possible. Communications are interactive again. The Internet allows us to build networks of communications and influence. Communications, as a survival tool, are becoming more powerful than ever. 

And it’s about time. Because we’re going to need some survival power tools. And we’re not even using the power of what we have, yet. 

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The threat of atomic war may have receded – slightly. But what new threats face us?

Dealing with climate change. 

Finding enough energy.

Feeding seven, eight, nine billion people. Maybe more.

Managing a volatile economy fuelled by the increasing pace of technological change. 

These issues are huge and complex. They’re not like tigers. Linear stories aren’t going to cut it anymore. One-to-many communications aren’t going to cut it anymore. 

Let me give you an example. Another story. 

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This one is about a town. It’s Churchill, Manitoba, in Canada. Churchill is a small place. There’s not much there. It’s remote. It’s in the Canadian Arctic. It’s only home to about a thousand people. 

But the railroad goes there, and it has a good deep-water port. In fact, it’s the only deep-water port in that part of the world. It would be the perfect place to ship out all the grain that grows in the vast Canadian prairies. It’s actually pretty close to East Asia, Russia, and Western Europe, if you can sail straight and don’t have to worry about the ice. 

Now, until recently, no one much cared about this, because there’s ice. It’s in the arctic, so the port is icebound eight months of the year. But lately, the ice has been breaking up a little earlier in the spring, and it’s been forming a little later in the fall. The port authorities figure that they’ve already gained an extra month of shipping time. Last year, the last ship full of grain shipped out in November. That’s never happened before. 

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The port authorities want to expand. See, there’s another thing that the Canadian prairies produce: sweet crude oil. Churchill would be a great place to export all that oil from. Imagine. Fleets of super-tankers lining up to take on millions of barrels of crude oil and sail off, between the icebergs towards China.

Is this a good story?

Well, it’s a story about climate change, but I hope that a few of you are thinking “Hey, wait a minute. There’s more to it than that!”

Yeah, there is. And you can’t express it through a story. 

See, stories are powerful, but they’re limited. We engage with stories because they are abstractions of reality, bent into very particular configurations that are easy to understand. Seven particular combinations, in fact

Churchill’s story is just one strand in a really complicated system of climate change. The system is massively complex, and it poses all of us a massively complex challenge. Ecological change, global trade patterns, weather, commodity price fluctuations. You can’t understand all that with linear, non-interactive communications.

As we’ve grown as a society, we’ve had to deal with increasingly complex problems and challenges. We need to be equipped to deal with that complexity. Not just the experts, not just the elite. The whole, networked mass of us. We’re highly educated, we’re literate, we’re deeply connected, and each of us is a powerful broadcaster in our own right.

The good news is that we have the tools. Interactivity is the answer. 

See, there’s three ways of transmitting understanding. 

The first and least effective is what I’m doing now. Lecturing. 

The second, and very effective, is storytelling. 

The third is interactivity. When interactivity works really well, we call it play. When interactive communications tools work really well, we call them games. 

We like games. Games are fun, right? 

But what is fun?

Can you define it? 

I can.

In games, fun is learning. 

It’s true. And I’ll prove it to you, right now. Let’s play tic-tac-toe, or noughts and crosses as you call it over here. 

Tic tac toe, or noughts and crosses as it's called in the UK.
Your move, punk!

Now, was that fun?

Of course not. We all knew exactly how it was going to go from the very beginning. And yet, once upon a time, when we were little, this game was fun to all of us.

What changed? Why did this game stop being fun?

We learned all the game had to teach us. We discovered every option. That happens pretty fast, because there are only 26,830 possible games of tic-tac-toe. That might seem like a lot. But consider this: there are ten to the power of a hundred and twenty possible games of chess. You know how big a number that is? It’s ten thousand trillion trillion games of chess for every atom in the observable universe. Even if you were immortal, the universe would die before you played them all. 

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Chess is still fun because it offers inexhaustible new challenges, and inexhaustible solutions to learn.

Fun in games is learning. Once you’ve mastered a game, its challenge fades, and it stops being fun. Unless the game is pushing you, there’s no point.

Now, that doesn’t mean that every game is teaching you something worth learning. The lessons of Angry Birds are quickly absorbed. Once you’ve figured out the perfect angle to launch birds at in every level, the fun is gone. 

But in a lot of cases, you can learn things by interacting with a system that you never could just by hearing stories about it.

For instance, Grand Theft Auto is about exploration. Once you’ve discovered everything the world has to offer, the game loses its appeal. That’s why I’ll bet none of you are still playing GTA 4. 

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Fighter pilots learn on simulators. They spend thousands of hours in simulators before we let them anywhere near a real plane.

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The games we play are powerful and effective teachers. And they’re subtle. Look at this picture. These are kids from Canada in the 1940s playing house. Who’s holding the baby, and who’s holding the newspaper? These kids were learning something.

Just a game of house . . . OR IS IT?

Not only are they subtle, games as learning systems are incredibly powerful. Let me give you an example. It’s a true story.

It’s the evening of Tuesday, November 12th, 2008 in Laholm, a town in Southwest Sweden. 

A fifteen year-old kid is lining up outside a store. He’s really excited. He’s lining up to buy a copy of Wrath of the Lich King, an expansion for the super-popular World of Warcraft video game series.

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Exactly at midnight, the boy is let into the store – he’s at the head of the line – and buys the game. He takes it home, installs the module, starts playing with his friends. There are seven of them. He starts on playing at about two on Wednesday morning. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, he’s still playing. Parents come home from work and go to bed. He’s still playing. He plays all through the night. The sun comes up on Thursday. He’s still going. He goes for a good bit of Thursday, as well, until finally he collapses from exhaustion on Thursday afternoon.

This is an important story, and not because of the obvious question of what the hell this kid’s parents were doing letting their son play non-stop for over 20 hours.

The point is that we have here a medium so powerful, so compelling, that people will forget to eat or sleep for using it.

What was it that held this kid’s attention so completely? 

There are three basic principles to compelling interactivity. 

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The first is Challenge. The system needs to give you something to do. And that thing has to be just at the level of your ability. As you improve, the challenge should get harder. All good games do this.

The second is Motivation. In every game, it’s always clear what you should do next. There’s nothing more frustrating than blundering around not sure what to do. 

The third is Feedback. The system has to show you how you’re doing so you can adjust your input. 

By adopting these three principles correctly, it’s possible to create intrinsically rewarding experiences. That means we can create learning experiences so compelling that people will participate just for the sake of doing so.

And these experiences are really complex. How many of you are WoW players? 

OK, for the rest of you, here’s what World of Warcraft looks like.

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Here’s another popular game – EvE Online. It’s a space simulator, but some people have compared it to flying a spreadsheet. It’s so detailed and involved it has a functioning commodities market where you can trade derivatives. Tens of thousands of people are playing this game right now. It costs $15 per month to play, and it’s Iceland’s main export.

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We can build interactive communications to transmit understanding of any topic, no matter how complex. Wouldn’t it be great if we could build a system like this to help solve a big problem like climate change? 

Well, we haven’t done climate change, yet, but we have done a big interactive project around another complex system. The British class system.  

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I’ve been fascinated by the class system here for a long time. Working, middle, upper class right? 

The last big project I did when I was at the BBC was an interactive experience called The Great British Class Survey. 

Most polls show that about two-thirds of Britons consider themselves working class. Now, what does that actually mean? Two-thirds of Britons don’t work in factories or out in the fields. What is it actually based on? We set out to investigate this and find out what Britain’s class system is actually like. 

Instead of going out and recording a whole bunch of interviews with people and reporters looking thoughtful while walking, we did it interactively. We partnered with professors Mike Savage and Fiona Devine, two of the UK’s lead experts on social class. With them, we devised an interactive questionnaire that anyone could fill out. It looked at three things: your wealth, your social connections, and your cultural habits. 

Over a hundred and sixty thousand people participated. We re-drew the map of class in the UK. It turns out that there are seven distinct social classes in the UK today. And they’re not based on what you’d expect. You can still go take the survey right now and find out how you fit in to this country’s class system. 

Now, this wasn’t a game. It was an interactive experience. But it used game principles and the power of interactivity to transmit understanding of a complex topic.

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At the beginning of the 21st century, our society is more sophisticated and complex than ever before. We’re also facing bigger, more complex threats than before.

As always, our most powerful advantage as a species is our ability to communicate. Without it, we’re just monkeys. All our science and our tools mean nothing without communication. How many of us individually know how to make a smartphone? No one. It takes a team, and that takes communication. The bigger, the more complex the challenge, the bigger and more complex the communications needed.

We are the species who do things together. It’s what we do. We need to communicate to survive, and to thrive. 

And we’ve just discovered a form of communication capable of transmitting understanding of the most complicated, subtle systems. People can use it together. They want to use it. In fact, it’s SO powerful that people will forget to eat or sleep while using it.

These tools need to be developed, they need to be improved. That’s why I made interactive journalism at the BBC, and that’s why I’m making interactive projects at Edelman now. That’s why I’ll keep doing it. Because we need these better tools.

Because we are lost if we can’t share understanding. But if we can, one day our children will reach the stars.

2 thoughts on “TEDxUoN: Communication and the power of video games

  1. Scary this oil shipment through the north….

    But aren’t games simply there for the survival of the species… What the difference (obvious aside) between playing a game of chess (insert any other board game) and competing in a 5k. I win this or that, therefore I’m better than you and likely can attract a wider selection of possible mating partners. My evidenced superiority in what ever will ensure that my offspring will carry in these traits.



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