Interview: Matthew Jensen

AOK (Acts of Kindness) is a web-based and smartphone-enabled application that playfully challenges the notion that “You don’t have to be a constant saint, dedicated volunteer, or name-taking activist to make the world better.” Matthew Jensen from Natron Baxter Applied Gaming – the developer behind this game as well as several other prominent projects such as Urgent Evoke and Find The Future – spoke with me about AOK and other goings-on via email on June 15, 2011.

Can you describe AOK – what it is, who’s the team behind it, what’s its business model, and what (if any) are the project’s future directions?

AOK is a “social game for social good” where acts of kindness are the objective and currency of trade. From our marketing language:

“AOK is a fun way to get recognized for contributing and becoming aware of the millions of kind acts happening somewhere on this planet, every day. Record, tag and share Acts and Observations of Kindness (ie AOKs) with friends and follow other AOKers, while earning points and rewards for your actions. Points convert into cause currency that gets donated to charities and relief efforts available that month. It’s a double-whammy of good! AOK is a “social game for good” so while earning points and leveling up gets you status, you’ll also get a heightened awareness and engagement with the world around you, and the people, creatures, and things in it. It’s a new kinda kind!”

There’s more info on the basics at http://aok.tv/about_us and a Gameful interview at http://gameful.org/the-mayor/behind-the-scenes-of-missions-of-kindness-challenge-3/

The business model is still being explored (unexpected opportunities have continued to pop up here and there), but it is primarily sponsorship-driven. Our hope is to work with socially conscious businesses and organizations to craft custom community challenges that both do organized good for the world and increase esteem of the sponsor.

Your company – Natron Baxter Applied Gaming – is behind some of the most visible and important recent examples of projects that merge innovative real-world play with “social good”: Urgent Evoke, Gameful.org, and Find the Future. Can you talk about where you think Natron Baxter might be headed in the near future, and what you see as the main challenges to this progress?

We didn’t necessarily set out to make “doing good” a mandatory characteristic of our projects, but we’ve come to realize that we’re most often drawn to those projects that will have a tangible positive impact on communities, the environment, and the self.

As we press forward, we’re making our social good druthers much more overt. Even in profit-driven corporate contexts, we’re stressing the value of authenticity and meaning, and leveraging the power of relevant causes. Really, we’re navigating a major shift from “productivity” and “fun” to “engagement” and “meaning”. But we also want to heighten the craft within the social good category. Perhaps unfairly, games for good tend to have low expectations for production value, high-touch interaction, and stickiness. They often suffer from diadactic storytelling (or, really, “lessontelling”). They can be judicious with the introduction of antagonism and evil which, in this Baxter’s opinion, excludes truly compelling storytelling opportunities. Overall, the category is trending favorably, but there is still a ways to go to equalize the perception of “serious games” and AAA titles.

We also hope to become more deliberate in targeting underserved communities (the elderly, minorities, public assets like the park system, etc.).

One major obstacle to our progress is the emergence of gamification and its diversion from holistic, player-first games. Some potential clients see this grafted solution as a silver bullet, and thus our proposals — which often involve a comprehensive, custom platform and entirely new interaction paradigm (you know, a game) — can come as a bit of a surprise. But we see games as solutions, so we hold our ground. To that end, we’re also challenged by the need to identify unique insights within an organization and create custom solutions. We can build on our knowledge, sure, but we’re making a new monster every time.

Can you speak to how social impact was/is evaluated for Urgent Evoke?

The intent of Urgent Evoke was to instill the spirit and skills of entrepreneurship in young people — particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa. But we needed to begin with real engagement. Over the 10 week run of the game, some 15,000 players from ~190 countries and territories posted ~30,000 pieces of unique content (blog posts, photos, and video). During the process, mentors identified and connected with key players, advising and supporting their real-world activities. Some participants took things to the next level: at last count, Urgent Evoke inspired some 50 start-up businesses throughout the world, including a Dell innovation award nominee.

Now to be fair, while the reach and impact of Urgent Evoke exceeded our expectations, any future versions will be more elegant and deliberate in better targeting the specific communities which inspired the project (sub-Saharan Africa, for instance). Some under-addressed gameplay limitations (internet reliability, mobile use, etc.) made for less than perfect results.

Would you say that location is important to the notion of being civically engaged?

Though catastrophes often inspire a flood of generosity from the other side of the globe, I think that people have trouble truly connecting to concepts if they have not come into close contact. While it’s not the only path and there are heaps of exceptions, experience through proximity seems to be a shortcut to real, meaningful engagement. And certainly, there’s still an undeniable importance to travel and a feeling that one can affect greater change within arm’s reach. So important, yes, but mandatory, no — technology continues to shrink the world and change the very notion of location.

Do you think that mobile and location-aware gaming poses new or unique redefinitions of civics and activism?

No doubt! AOK seeks to generate challenge-based and spontaneous “kindness mobs,” and it’s certainly not the first game to explore the space. Most curiously, I think, mobile and location-aware games can inspire activism in a place where there is/was not a perceived need — but the approach of critical mass generates attention in and of itself. Games of this sort will eventually make cities run better, frankly, reorganizing human and vehicle traffic patterns, optimizing public transport, and creating systematic maps for citizen-based city cleanup, for instance. Games might also organize and increase the vigilance of citizen reporters during civil unrest, revolution, and natural disaster — as we’ve already seen Twitter and YouTube supporting in an ad hoc way.

From the system perspective, mobile and location-aware gaming might become a means for governments track real use and opportunity costs (of a particular stretch of road during that player’s commute, for instance) — and assess personalized taxes accordingly. Or (as is already being done in a limited way) provide opportunity for corporations to oversee the health choices of their employees.

What is your perspective on gamification?

We’ve dabbled in gamification, and done our level best to introduce more meaning to the method, but ultimately gamification means well but misses the point. Insight into the use of a system is valuable for understanding progress toward goals, sure, but gamification is a grafted solution designed to serve the system rather than the player. For the most part (as there are some very smart exceptions), gamification proponents introduce points, badges, and achievements as intended objects of desire without meaning. Holistic game design approaches badges as a representation of meaningful achievement — not the achievement itself. (For instance, an astronaut wouldn’t be proud of his or her NASA badge, but they might be justifiable proud of their achievements in the space program.)

Gamification also wholly omits the power of story in gameplay, on two fronts. People are natural storytellers and naturally drawn to storytellers, and yet gamification leans on the mechanics of games — but rarely, if ever, their narrative. Additionally, gamification largely disregards the story of the player’s experience — the player’s journey — because the solution is not necessarily designed to contend with real player growth, gameplay mastery, and self-betterment.

Gamificatication does not generally consider the insight of latent gameplay in its design (which run afoul of one of Natron Baxter’s key design principles, certainly). Instead of embracing the hacks and workarounds that users may introduce into a system, gamification more often forces behavior in a contrary direction. Personally, I have a hard time believing that artificially induced desire will offset the profound human need to Do Things Our Own Way.

A more snarky version of the above is in our old blog post here: http://natronbaxter.com/gamification-is-pointless-get-it-pt-2

Proponents may argue that gamification involves the everyday and the urban in new, unexpected and empowering ways. Do you think that there is civic action potential?

Yes. We happily contradict ourselves a bit here: AOK is an experiment in gamification (for all of its faults) and civic action. The intrinsic rewards of kindness and positive social action come infused with such meaning that gamification might even be appropriate under the circumstances. And gamification is really quite good at one thing that really motivates activists: perceptible impact. The challenge is to assess player participation and provide game responses that are less abstract (points, badges) and more tangible (officials elected, laws overturned, communities empowered).

Do you think there are constraints or even dangers inherent in this trend moving forward?

Surely, but at this point we’ve got to poke things with a stick a little bit to discover what those constraints and dangers might be. Certainly, the more that player / activists provide nuanced behavioral data the more they would place at risk should their data be compromised. Particularly in more volatile and punitive regions, should the opposition come to possess a detailed transcript of a player’s political actions there would be a real risk for retribution. Even ecological activism or other seemingly harmless gameplay can be seen as threatening by someone.

Of course, there’s also the potential for extrinsic rewards to overshadow and/or devalue the intrinsic reward of civic participation. At what point could pursuit of game status even change one’s political or moral fiber?

Similarly, what is your view on crowdsourcing – particularly in context to non-profit models, social change and participatory civics?

Iceland’s crowdsourced constitution is a fascinating exercise, but surely the majority of citizens don’t truly comprehend the nuances and geopolitical ramifications of a national makeup. I surely don’t. Crowdsourced social change is practically redundant, yet a bit frightening in the face of these more complex matters. How could the majority rally around issues that only a tiny minority are equipped to understand?