The other day I linked to this video, of Carnegie Mellon professor and Disney Imagineer Jesse Schell talking at DICE, without comment. I should probably have said something, but my mind was blown. I’ve watched it a couple of times, taken some notes, and generally had some more time to think it through. My mind is still blown, but I think I know where some of the pieces went. First, the video again. I’m hoping embedding works this time. It didn’t before.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Jesse Schell’s presentation of himself combines the manic energy of a salesman-turned-CEO with the flat affect of a professor in calculus class. It’s an interesting stylistic choice, one that immediately makes him more watchable than most of the presenters at conferences like DICE (who, for some reason, year after year, insist on choosing “smug” and “self-important” as the key color components of their presentation glamors). I think it is his presentation style, as much as anything else, that has made this video into the linkbait that it seems to have become. That, and the dire part at the end (but, again, it’s the presentation of that dire part — ah, but I get ahead of myself; we’ll talk about that later).

Some facts I did not know:

There are more Farmville players than Twitter accounts.
I find this difficult to believe.

I wish he’d handed out actual numbers, and sources for same. Googling the phrases “number of Farmville players” and “number of active Twitter accounts” is useless. You get data from all over the timeline, much of it conflicting, even more of it from random sources that aren’t necessarily any more reliable than a DICE presentation.

On top of that, there’s ambiguity in the words Schell uses, at least on the Farmville side of the equation. He uses the word “players” when talking about Farmville, but the word “accounts” when talking about Twitter. That’s the kind of very careful language choice that you’ve got to watch out for when it comes to these dotcom types (myself included). That he uses two different nouns is telling: the two groups are probably not exactly the same in terms of their engagement with the respective services.

Most specifically, how is Schell defining Farmville “players” here? Is a “player” somebody who logs into Farmville every day? Or somebody who has logged in several times? Or somebody who has actually spent real money within Farmville? Or just anybody with an account (I’m thinking no on that last one, since he’s so careful to use the word “accounts” for Twitter, but not for Farmville). I played with Farmville for one day, because the whole offices needed to play it and understand it a little bit, so that we could incorporate whatever we learned into our own games. People still send me requests to do stuff, and sometimes my friends go in and do stuff on my sadly neglected farm, even though I don’t ask them to. Does that mean I count as a Farmville player, or not?

Either way, Twitter comes off looking bad compared to Farmville, and even worse compared to Facebook itself (of which Farmville’s user base is only a subset). Note, by the way, that I said I found this difficult to believe. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe it. Ultimately, despite the difficulty, I do.

Club Penguin is completely free to play.
I don’t have a Club Penguin account, because I’m not a kid, and I’m not a parent. It just feels creepy to go on there and set up account under false pretenses, so I haven’t. That means that the subtle variation on “freemium” that Schell ascribes to the Club Penguin business model (you play everything for free and earn virtual money, which virtual money you can’t actually use for anything unless you spend real money to get a paid account) had escaped me entirely. I like it, though.
Wii Fit has earned more than one billion dollars.
That’s not as surprising as the other stuff above, but it is something that I did not know.

One major quibble:

Forget the sensationalistic Big Brother stuff at the end. That stuff will happen or it won’t, and if it does, our children and grandchildren won’t mind it (our great-great grandparents were concerned about automobiles causing people’s legs to atrophy away — if they had, I doubt we would care). What I’m interested in is the on-the-ground stuff that will help, or not help, those of us interested in earning a living making digital entertainment. Schell’s most important thesis in that regard is that videogames (or digital experiences) that have an effect, or a presence, outside of the game itself, that span into reality, are currently making billions of dollars, and represent a strong trend for the future.

He cites Club Penguin, Guitar Hero, Xbox Live Achievements, Wii Fit, the Wii itself, Webkins, and Mafia Wars as examples. Some of these “reality spans” are obvious (Wii Fit, Webkins); he explains others pretty well (Xbox Live Achievements don’t span out into “real” reality, but they do cut across the individual realities of specific Xbox games; Mafia Wars uses your “real” friends to perform imaginary missions, etc.); but others are not as clearly “reality-spanning” to me. How, specifically, does Club Penguin affect reality? How is Guitar Hero evolutionarily different from any number of peripheral-driven videogames from the past, even the distant gaming past, like the steering wheel I bought for my ColecoVision in the 80s? Schell doesn’t make any case at all for Club Penguin‘s reality-spanning characteristics, and he makes an unconvincing case for Guitar Hero (“You’re playing a real guitar,” he says, which you’re very obviously and specifically not doing).

Which, again, is not to say that I don’t believe him.

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