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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Mike Lee on Game Design and Gamification

Mike Lee on Game Design and Gamification


1. Welcome I’m Barry Burd, I’m here at the QCon Conference talking with Mike Lee. Mike introduce yourself.

I’m Mike Lee, I live in Amsterdam, I started a thing call Appsterdam, which is kind of this international organization serving the needs of app-makers, before that I worked at Apple, before that I worked on a couple of starts-up’s, working to Obama iPhone app. Before that there was no iPhone, so I worked on Mac apps, something called Delicious Library 2 and in the meantime a lot of teaching, trying to guide this community and lead us toward a greater destiny than just, you know, making money.


2. In what way do you guide the community, what are your guiding words of wisdom? Briefly - twenty five words or less.

For one thing when people get into a tiff with each other I can only try to jump into it and give people some thoughts, I generally try to get people to get along with each other, I try to get people to think about things a little bit beyond their own noses and actually project themselves in other people. I try to get people to think about why we do this in a greater sense.


3. By "this" you mean something specific or in general, anything and everything or mobile app development?

I mean kind of both, right? Do you have kids? See I don’t. I don’t have kids because I spent all of my time doing mobile app development and helping people. I have memetic children, I’ve sacrificed my genetic legacy for that, but most people have….

Barry: You have what children?

Mike: Memetic children.


4. Am I supposed to know what that is?

No, not necessarily. So you know what a gene is, a gene is a piece of a chemical that reproduces itself, animals such as ourselves, plants and pretty much any other living thing. But across the medium of the genes, are these waves called memes, thoughts, ideas, so most people have genetic children, which carry on their genetic legacy, which carry on my memetic legacy which carry the thoughts that are stored up here. This is what is important, the stuff that is up there is what separates us the animals.

A lot of people don’t really think about what they are doing, like they genuinely don’t, they live the default life and that is not a good thing, especially if you have kids, because at the end of the day when you're off to work, when you make apps, when you get in your car, when you do anything, you are taking that away from your family, and most people if they really thought how they felt about their families they'd think very hard about what they are doing. If you want to make an appointment with me most of the time, you don’t make an appointment with me, you make an appointment with Judy.

Judy is my partner, not just in business but also in life, and the reason why you make an appointment with her is because I overpromise, I make six appointments at day, but she won’t, and the reason for that is because she’s my family, she’s the one that people are taking time away from, if you want a slice of my time, you have to get it from her, because opportunity costs. Opportunity cost is a really important thing that we don’t normally think about, opportunity cost is everything that you aren’t doing with your life.


5. Let’s bring that back to tech: is there a moral for us as tech developers? What is technology?

Technology is new things, if we asked an economist, technology is new things and technology is what enables us to for example go from a planet that can support one billion people to a planet that can supports seven billion people or more, and the difference between these two states is technology. Technology is what enables us to move forward, technology is the future. As technologists, we are arbiters and bringers of the future, everything that exists on this planet exists here because either nature put it here or we as part of nature put it here. All of this, this hotel, this city, this society it’s all built by people, people like us. We bring the future, we are responsible for what is happens next.


6. The natural next question is, the consequences of what you do as a developer, for the world, not for your own family necessarily, but can we apply this to one's work as a practitioner of the technology, that technology in particular?

A lot of cool stuff that could be worked on right now, a lot of cool stuff I'd like to work on right now, but what I am working right now is educational games, and the reason why I’m working on educational games is not because it’s easy or because it's fun, but because I feel it's the necessary first step, I feel that our generation is responsible for a massive knowledge injection that will enable the next generation to do what they need to do to get the third generation, our grandchildren, able to fix this whole organism, because I see us - you, I, her, everyone - we are all cells on this organism that is Earth, and we need to be mindful of these things. The things that we make, they have consequences, drones that are flying around and shooting missiles at wedding parties, that is technology, the software that flies those drones, that is technology.

The stuff that enables the government to eavesdrop on citizen, that is technology, the people who made that, who brought that present, those are technologists, and where the future is some dark 1984 dystopian bullshit or some wonderful utopian paradise, that is technology and we are the ones who make that, and so to suggest that, we as technologists have really no sort of power or responsibility, I think is wrong.


7. I think it’s like voting, you have some responsibility but you realize that you are the only one piece of responsibility among millions and millions?

Sure, that is true, but the thing about voting is that in voting everyone is equal but in technology not everyone is equal.


8. So the moral that I will take from that is: make the most effective technology but also make it socially responsible?

Yes, I mean socially responsible is one way of putting that, I mean I think of more in terms of the big picture, the hundred years picture. It’s not just a question of social responsibility, I think it’s a question of responsibility to the organism that we are part of.


9. And that is more than social responsibility, I guess environmental, I guess what I’m wondering is what better term?

I don’t know, this is one of these things that you come to realize, this is a problem with semantics. I have memes, they are in my head, they vibrate and that causes words to come out of my mouth, the words are an imperfect representation of what I’m trying to say because, I mean for one thing I only can use the rough words that I have, another thing the words are imbued with meaning that I don’t intend, those travel, those good to you and those vibrate to memes in your head, you have different memes, you will hear something that I said and you'll get a meaning completely different. It’s semantic, so I guess what I’m trying to say is, we have the greatest possible responsibility.


10. Best case scenario, worst case scenario - what its stake right now as far as you are concerned?

Everything and nothing. In the grand scheme of the universe this planet doesn’t matter, there is a lot of planets, life is everywhere and I think that is going to be very clear to us if it is not already, I mean when I was born and educated on this planet I was taught that we lived in a dead universe, we are not only the only life in the universe, we are the only solar system in the universe there are no other planets in the universe.

Barry: You are not that old!

Mike: I’m going to be thirty six this year, I’m not that old but the fact that let’s say………


11. You were taught that we are the only solar system, that is right, they had not discovered other planets circling stars!

So now we have Kepler, now we see, the Drake equation use to describe impossibly long odds, now the Drake equation is a completely different thing.


12. Now you realize of course, that whereas life is probably plentiful in the universe, the span of time where what we call intelligent life has been on the planet is extremely small!

Yes, that is exactly right, we are talking about fifteen billion years for the universe that we know and that is just the universe not the whole multiverse, and intelligent life about ten thousand years maybe fifteen. I mean a good way of describing is I think the Museum of San Diego and basically what it said is that if the birth of the universe and the life span of the universe thus far was a roll of toilet paper, man’s time on Earth would be the piece of lint on the end of the roll. That’s about right, the cosmic calendar way of looking at it says that one minute to midnight we show up and what comes next. And you know the reason why for this acceleration? Because there is a pattern in the universe, one of the many elegances of the universe and that is the pattern again of waves, waves transmitted across a medium.

Energy can travel across a medium much faster than that medium itself can move, which is why energy can move across for example space, very quickly, energy can move through water way faster than water can move, I grow up in Hawaii and at one point in my life I was carjacked and almost murdered and I had post-traumatic stress disorder which was untreated because the employer that I worked for basically refused to pay for my medical treatment, which meant that I was left alone with crippling anxiety, not just like I’m afraid of talking with people, but I could not leave the house during the day, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t see a car, I was terrified.

I had a friend's parents and I had to explain this to them, they said “So you are saying that if I told you that I had a gun right now, and this was a robbery that you would totally freak out?” and all I heard was “I have a gun right now and this is a robbery” and I totally freaked out. And the way that I was able to heal from that, was that I had a friend, who wasn’t a very good friend, but he did one thing for me and that was every day for thirty days he'd pick me up in the morning, took me to the ocean, and we got in the ocean, and we had body boards and we'd catch waves until the sun went down, for thirty days. And after about a month of being in the ocean I'd try to catch a wave and failed to catch the wave but lined of in that such a way that the wave went through my body, it entered my body through my feet and traveled all the way through my body and went out the top of my head, and my entire body just moved with the water against my control.

And I realized something that I had known intellectually which is that waves are not water, waves are energy, pure energy moving through the water, and it moved through the water a hell a lot faster than the water could ever move, so when you consider that memes are waves that move across the genes, when we become hybrid animals, when we become not merely genetic but also memetic that enabled us to move very, very quickly and so it might have taken us one, two, six billion, billion, who knows how long to get to the point of mankind and then ten thousand years to get off the planet and look at her from above, that is pretty impressive. So now that we have the internet it should not take us more than a hundred years which it’s good because that is all we have.


13. Why are we so special, why is there a dividing line, who cares?

[Barry's full question: Let me bump an idea off of you. We divide the world into things that are natural and things that are not. I think my cat divides things in the world and the things that are cat like and things that are not. Why are we so special, why is there a dividing line, who cares?]

There is no such thing as natural and not natural because everything is part of nature, we are part of nature, I mean you know the comic XKCD, there was this one thing that was positive in one of those comics, and it was like “Puf!” and that was, what if human beings are the chemical reactions that produce the transuranic elements? Every element beyond Uranium are men made not natural, but we are nature, we are the chemical reaction that produces those elements. So I mean that is kind of how I think of everything, we are part of the system and the software is part of the system too.


14. If we really get down to the software, nuts and bolts now, what should we be doing and what should not we be doing?

This was the conclusion that I came to, there are probably five thousand different routes, but here was my thinking: I started with the singularity and it worked backward from there, basically the conclusion that I came to was to, basically the idea of building a computer that we can upload our consciousness to. I have a vision of the singularity that I thought I can build it, and I realize that the singularity is not a technical problem, the singularity is a sociological problem, because if we had a big computer that all rich people could upload their brains into, guess what would happen?


15. All the rich people and only the rich people would upload their brains?

And what would happened to the singularity? It would be destroyed by everybody else, we cannot do that, the world is not ready for the singularity, it would destroy us, and so in order to be ready for the singularity we have to fix that problem, and I thought about that problem, and I said where does that problem come from and I realized that the problem is one of equality, not sameness but equality. I realize that until we are all equal, we cannot move to the next level because we'll never let each other move to the next level, always will be crabs holding the other down, you know the metaphor? Crabs in a barrel will not escape because if one crab starts to crawl out, another crab will grab it by the leg and pull it back down, and that is us.


16. And you don’t have kids but you know about this?

Yes. So working backwards from there, working on a book about Steve Jobs and really getting into the men’s head and going back to a lot of videos and listening to a lot of the things that he said and not so much because he is Steve and his word is Gold but because when you are thinking of somebody else’s thoughts it gives you a chance to put your own thoughts in order. And the conclusion that I came to is that if we look back on a many attempts to equalizing society, what we see is that, first of all we can’t force people, we can’t kill people, we don’t agree with, that doesn’t work either, we can’t take things from people and redistribute them that doesn’t work either.

Barry: Taxes help?

Mike: Sure, yes, in a certainly limited sense, but it's not about equal results and it can't be about equal results, and equal opportunity, and not just for me and you, but for everyone. Somebody born in sub-Saharan Africa should have the same opportunities same as your children do, they don’t but they should. Education is the key to that, education is the great equalizer, and education is the thing that the plutocracy fears the most, that why the school in this country is so expensive. Being in Europe where I live now….

Barry: They also have to pay professors like me!

Mike: No, I’m right there with you, but here's the thing, if you do the math and add up all the money that students are paying and then you look at what professors get paid, I think you are going to find quite a disconnect.

Barry: I should not admit that publicly, strike that from the record!

Mike: You know I went to college too, I’ve never met a rich professor.

Barry: Well you are not meeting one now!

Mike: Yes, I don’t think there is such a thing, Dean maybe, professor no. So living in Europe I've really come down to understand European history in a way that living in the United States would never allow, we have a tendency to really kind of box things into really easy things and the big problem in Europe over the past hundred and fifty years was the birth of a new country called Germany and that was a country made of the aristocracy that was a company of industrial barons and their workers, that’s where things like Communism and Marxism come from, because that is the heart of the industrial machine and what was once the civilized world.

And the problem was that the workers began to look around and they began to demand better for their children, and they begin to demand schools where they can be educated and the aristocracy of Germany was really not into that and so they decided that they needed some way to distract people and so they started to going abroad rattling sabers and getting this whole patriotic fervor whipped up so the people would be completely destructive. The equality that they were steeped in, and eventually that shit came to bear, we called that World War One, and it destroyed Germany so badly and Europe so badly that it led do something called World War Two that almost destroyed the whole world. I look at the United States and people say: "This is like Nazi Germany", I see you guys are full of shit, this is nothing like Nazi Germany but what this is like is Germany 1880, I do think so.

We are making it harder for people to get educated and we are doing a hell of a lot of saber rattling abroad, whipping people up in a patriotic fervor, it makes me very nervous and I don’t want to make the same mistakes again, because the stakes are a lot higher now, a lot higher.


17. There are certain aspects that are making education more wide spread, and then there are other currents that are making it more difficult.

[Barry's full question: I think we are doing both, I think we are making it harder for people to get educated and in a way we are making it easier. There are certain aspects that are making education more wide spread, and then there are other currents that are making it more difficult. Would you agree with me because I don’t have any examples, and I hope you do?]

I agree with you and I would say that the ones who are making education difficult are the ones we call the establishment and the ones that are making education better and easier and more accessible are the ones we'll call technologists, and that’s us.


18. So can you describe any particular features of the stuff that you are working on in terms of educational games?

Yes, so here is my feeling about games, I produced the first really successful iPhone game, it’s called TapTap Revenge, and was the first app that have a million downloads, Facebook claimed that they had a million downloads, before they actually hit a million before they did. So I learned a lot about making games and I tried to avoid making games because it's not a lot of fun, it’s a lot of work. Everybody thinks they want to be a toy maker but it's not the same as playing with toys. Games are based on learning, are based on something called ludemes which are units of learning. The fun in a game is in challenging yourself and overcoming that challenge, and the fact that those challenges are broken up until these little hunks, so that you get just enough challenge and just enough reward is what we called Gamification.


19. Very difficult to achieve from a developer point of view, a designer point of view?

Very difficult to achieve, it’s true, and so because it’s difficult to achieve, what we tend to do, is we tend to make arbitrary systems that we end up teaching to people in order to create these ludemes, but if we replace those arbitrary systems with natural systems, then what we create is a game that would be not only………

Barry: Natural systems way?

Mike: Such as physics or chemistry, as opposed to imaginary system which you can argue is natural because it exists in every person. So if I have a game that’s based on physics for example, like Angry Birds, Angry Birds is eighty percent of the way there, and if I want to explain this really quickly, I say what if Angry Birds actually taught you physics. That is a start, so I’m starting with….


20. The artificial intelligence people call that quality of physics?

Yes, I’m starting with chemistry, and then I’m doing electronics and the reason for that is because both I and my hero Steve Jobs, one of my heroes, had an experience, shared an experience, that changed us in the same way and that experience was basically having somebody teach you something then make you realize not only the things that they are teaching you but the ultimate meta lesson which is all of this was created by people like us and now we have the power to change it. For Steve it was electronics, for me it was chemistry. So I’m starting with chemistry and then I’m moving to electronics.


21. Can you make a compelling game that doesn’t feel to a person playing it, like it’s a propagandistic lesson of our chemistry?

I hope so.

Barry: Have you made tracks?

Mike: We’ve made tracks, we definitely have made tracks.


22. My experience is as soon as a game looks like learning, somebody who is not particularly into the learning aspect will back away, but you’ve got strategies for that?

I mean, I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers, I’m not going to pretend that is going to be easy, but what I’m going to tell you is so I’m dedicating so much of my life that I feel unable to actually dedicate myself to raising children, to actually get this pulled off. I very well may not succeed but I will in to try.


23. A few of your other heroes, briefly?

The first hero that I ever had was Martin Luther King Jr. and there was a quote that he had about life and he basically said: “Whatever you do, be the best at it, if it’s your destiny to sweep the streets, then sweep the streets such as everybody will say there goes the greatest street sweeper who ever lived”. And I think it’s very clear for my career that is how I live my life. The other big hero of mine was a woman named Elisabeth Blackwell, she was the first female doctor and you know I was not put it in a good situation, and my destiny was nowhere near as great as my destiny has become, but I figure it that if Elisabeth Blackwell could overcome, you know, all of that to become a doctor, then what a hell excuse did I have.


24. There is also, I guess one response, contrarian that I am, be the best that you can? Yes, but love life and don’t worry about best in the sense of winning, don’t worry about the best in the sense of competing, or even competing with yourself?

The way I feel is that, in the last minute of my life, when nothing else matters, I’m going to ask myself what it was all for and what if it was worth it, and I find that one of the ironies of life is that in the pursuit of happiness we find suffering and through suffering we find happiness, the greatest happiness that I ever felt is when I suffered for others.

Sep 17, 2012