Monday, September 25, 2006

Google folds

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I've just noticed that Google has embraced The ESP Game, which you may remember from prehistoric days. You can play Google's version here, but if you can't be bothered, the long and short of it is that it's an extremely rudimentary game which gets pairs of players to co-operate to agree on tags which describe images they're shown at random.

I don't know how long the Google version has been running, but the highest scorer, currently jessicapierce, is sitting on a cool 20389900 points, which, through some highly spurious voodoo-arithmetic, I estimate to represent just over 15 days continuous play. That means she (or he) has spent 45 working days plugging away at this thing. Which nine working weeks, which is two and a bit months, which is enough to make you cry sand. All just to improve Google's image search results and therefore increase its competitive advantage. I hope she's got shares.

It's interesting for about a thousand reasons. One is that it's more evidence for the fact that Google as a company is beginning to get its head around the potential of games (an idea we covered in a recent issue of Edge). Another is my consistent amazement at how even the crappiest of games are capable of exerting a hypnotic pull on their players. World Of WarCraft is taking all the flack at the moment for being addictive, but it's amazing how rarely people talk about games like Bejewelled and Weboggle (on which, at least, Tracie-Greacie's 24-7 reign of vocabulorational terror seems to be over) and the frightening number of hours players can rack up on them. The games industry doesn't seem to have quite got its head around the problem it's facing from the addiction scaremongers: whether or not games can properly be described as addictive, we're about the only vice that tracks, and then publicises, the total amount of time people spend indulging. Can you imagine the flack TV would have attracted if it had published the WatcherTags of the people who clocked in the most hours? If bars had internationally tabulated high-score tables? If Cadbury gave out S-Ranks for fastest consumption?

Like it or not, games make the mundane, the repetitive, and the joyless into narcotic, irresistible pleasures. When I'm grinding my healers in Disgaea 2, I know that what's going on is no different, computationally, than what our accounts department does every day. There's a spreadsheet underneath all those buxom valkyries and accident-prone Prinnies. I work my way through a stack of invoices (or enemies), alloting enough money (damage) to pay them off (death!). I pile up all my resources (characters) into one account (tower) in order to maximise the interest (EXP) I receive. Games, all in all, are just maths made palatable. Once employers realise this, there's no reason why all repetitive work couldn't be played for points.

But here's the thing. What if they've already realised? What if you're already doing their work by playing your games? Sony's made a big song and dance about taking serious advantage of the 'super-computer' they hope to put in your living-room. But what if, for PS4, the super-computer they really want to exploit is the one sitting on the sofa, not the one under the telly?