Magic and fun – those are two words most people do not associate with today’s corporations. Nevertheless, I came away from a recent conference more convinced than ever that these two words will become central to corporate performance.
I had the good fortune to attend Tim O’Reilly’s Emerging Technologies Conference in San Diego last week. I spoke on the growing role of China in applying co-creation to physical products as diverse as motorcycles and consumer electronics. In contrast to most conferences speaking engagements which are hit and run affairs, I was able to stay on and participate in a number of fascinating sessions. In the process, some interesting patterns and connections began to surface.
Magic - From magicians to enchanted objects
Magic - the theme of the conference, was inspired by a quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At first, I was skeptical, because I have always associated magic with illusions – very artfully done illusions, but illusions nonetheless. Also, magic is often associated, especially today, with magicians who specialize in displaying mysterious powers that mere mortals could not hope to possess – we can only watch in awe and show our appreciation with applause.
As the discussions unfolded, though, I began to see another perspective on magic, one that focuses on pushing the frontier of performance and capabilities beyond levels that we expect and that therefore appears to be “magic”.
Mike Kuniavsky in his presentation on "The Coming Age of Magic" in particular focused on the role of “enchanted objects” that embed unexpected performance and capabilities in everyday, familiar physical objects that becomes tools for everyone to use. As computing and communication resources become more widely embedded into everyday objects, we see the potential for “enchanted objects” to surface in the most unexpected places. Rather than relying on professional magicians, this approach seeks to empower everyone with access to these tools. Mark Weiser’s “ubiquitous computing” vision leads to the dissemination of magic in all areas of our life and to all people who have access to these objects.
By the way, when we think of enchanted objects, we should not neglect our physical bodies as another great presentation by Quinn Norton on “Body Hacking” made clear. Quinn was particularly interested in the opportunity we have to use technology to push the frontier of performance and capabilities of our physical bodies. Of course, our ability to fully exploit this potential hinges on societal norms and the degree to which we can assert the rights required to hack our bodies.
So far, this is interesting, but what really got me intrigued was the connection between magic and fun, triggered by a great presentation by Raph Koster on "The Core of Fun".
Raph was the lead designer of Ultima Online, one of the early massively multiplayer online role playing games, and a deeply thoughtful analyst of game design as revealed in his book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design.
His talk discussed the deep, fractal structures that underlie all forms of entertainment, including games. He differentiated four different classes of fun – hard, easy, visceral and social – and suggested that games focus on “hard fun”, where the challenge is solving problems and mastering new techniques. What struck me is how analogous this challenge is to business in general, especially if you believe that the only sustainable edge comes from getting better faster than others. I won’t attempt to reproduce the richness of his presentation here, but instead wanted to pull back and reflect on its relevance to the broader business world.
We are all under growing pressure to get better faster. In a previous posting, I reflected on the role that games can play in terms of acquiring skills and even shape one’s dispositions to the world. But Raph’s presentation got me thinking – maybe the real opportunity is to more consciously structure our working environments along the gaming principles of “hard fun”.
Listen to Raph’s basic principles and apply them to the broader challenge of building capabilities in the business world – core actions have to be repeatable, they have to require skill, they have to be able to handle statistical variation to facilitate learning, they have to be competitive, they have to provide ladders to climb and things to see, everything you did before must matter (never start an interaction without context), users should be able to solve the challenge with their choice of tools, results have to be highly visible to everyone and the best feedback is a greater challenge. (Note, these are just some of the principles covered by Raph, but they give a sense of where he is headed.)
Bottom line, Raph observed that “low risk activity for high reward is bad for fun”, “you need to drive users to challenges at the edge of ability” and “fun does not exist where you have zero consequences.” My key takeaway from his talk was that you enhance fun by providing a sequence of escalating challenges that push you to the edge of your capabilities (but not beyond them) with flexibility in terms of how to respond to these challenges and appropriate and visible rewards for succeeding. Now, what if we reconceived our business operations with “hard fun” and learning as the primary objective rather than simple efficiency?
JSB and I have talked about the transition from push programs to pull platforms as a key force re-shaping our business landscape. In hearing me talk about this, many executives tend to get excited about the flexibility that pull platforms provide in responding to unanticipated event. From my perspective, though, that is only a small part of the rationale for this shift – the big reason to make this shift is to provide a robust learning environment for participants so that they can improvise, tinker and bootstrap their way into greater capability. Raph’s principles cannot be applied to business environments without a shift from push programs to pull platforms. His principles then provide a set of guidelines for institutions to maximize the learning that can be achieved through the use of pull platforms.
Adding in the social context
Talking about fun and gaming and the mixing of virtual worlds and real worlds leads naturally to Jane McGonigal’s great talk on “Creating Alternate Realities” addressing the opportunity for technologists to become happiness hackers. McGonigal is also a noted games designer and games researcher. Once again, I’m not going to try to reproduce the richness of her provocative talk (in particular, don’t miss her insights about integrating virtual and physical worlds in game design) but instead I'll zero in on her comments on the “science of happiness”. Building on the work of a growing number of researchers in this field, Jane highlighted three different realms of happiness:
- pleasure – satisfying experiences
- engagement – immersive, responsive systems
- meaning – a powerful role, as actor and observer.
Tying this back to Raph’s talk, I heard him as primarily focused on pleasure and engagement, but not spending enough time on meaning as an element of fun, especially as it highlights the social dimension of building connections and relationships with others.
We construct meaning and roles in a social context. Once again, executives often misunderstand the role of pull platforms – they tend to view these platforms as interesting ways for people to access and mobilize the physical resources they need. They miss the fact that pull platforms are designed to help people connect and collaborate with other people in ways that are very difficult to anticipate in advance and in ways that accelerate learning through these interactions. Danah Boyd’s talk at the conference on “Incantations for Muggles” focused on the need to pay more explicit attention to social architectures and the impact that technology can have in re-shaping and amplifying these architectures. As JSB and Paul Duguid remind us in The Social Life of Information, learning occurs in a social context. We cannot hope to accelerate learning without an explicit consideration of the social context and the ways that it both inhibits and enhances learning. If there was one area that the conference did not adequately develop, it was this social dimension of magic.
Summing it up
There you have it – my grand synthesis of four days of extraordinary and stimulating sessions: magic, in the sense of pushing the frontiers of performance and capabilities beyond expectations, requires an integration of three very different elements – environments architected to foster “hard fun”, enchanted objects to amplify the capabilities of mere mortals and platforms to foster collaboration with others to get better faster than anyone possibly could on their own. Bring these elements together in a reinforcing way and magic happens. While this form of magic was largely discussed in the context of games and consumer life, it is highly relevant to business challenges as well. In fact, I would go so far as to assert that our ability to apply this kind of magic and fun in our enterprises will make the difference between the companies that survive and thrive and those that fall by the wayside.
As an aside, magic and fun most frequently occurs on the edge. The challenge for institutions of all stripes is to import this magic and fun into the core.
This is the real promise of Web 2.0 – not just creating environments where applications and data harness network effects but where people and institutions harness network effects to get better faster. From my perspective, the missing element in Web 2.0 is the opportunity to go beyond applications and data and harness technology to accelerate talent development. Now that would be magic.