Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The possibilities of Pretending

For this year's Father's Day, I gave the first season of Pretender to my Dad. It was one of that our favorite shows to watch as a family, so beyond the fact it's an amazing series it holds a deeper meaning in particular to me.

Watching it again, though, with a more mature mind, made me realize something. The fictional organization "The Centre" was really onto something with their Pretenders.

Essentially, what The Centre would do, would get genius children into a state of lucid daydreaming in order to figure out major historical events. For instance, there's a flashback where the main character is pretending to be in Lee Harvey Oswald's shoes - only he realizes there's absolutely no way that he can be the only shooter. This was done with sensory deprivation and a loop of the assassination being projected in front of him, if I recall correctly.

Whenever I work a non-game related job, I tend to naturally break it down into game mechanics and possible video game representations. Door-to-door sales, for instance, became a mix of Paperboy and Pokemon to me.

Big Box Retail has become an RTT, similar to MechCommander.

I start to think about how I'd feel playing the game, controlling minions and barking orders. Equipping some of them with handsets and monitoring their charisma, morale, and endurance levels. Giving them re-stocking missions and setting them on autopilot. Or more specialized events, like fire drill. Balancing discipline with praise.

Very quickly I realized that I'd only be able to really monitor and develop a handful of employees at a time. What's weird about this is that the vast majority of people employed at huge retailers are actually not very talented.

In other words, they're the minions the User is choosing to ignore, while they focus on levelling up the store's Hero characters. You know, that one with the fast hands who can refill an entire aisle in the blink of an eye. Or that cashier that never, ever, screws up. Or that devilishly handsome ninja in the Media department who makes a sale whenever he opens his mouth. Everyone else just kinda coasts.

What's the point in thinking about this? Well, simulations can bring new perspective to situations that would normally take far too much time and money. Here's an example.

Big Box Mart holds huge pow-wows every shift, where the employees are all summoned to a point in the store by the managers in order to promote teamwork and competition and relay some relatively worthless information that doesn't actually effect how they do their jobs. Toss in a cult-like chant and applause reminiscant of yesteryear's pep rallies, and you've got a Bad Idea gone Worse.

Thinking about this situation, if put into the suggested game framework, would yield at least the following results:

1. Massive morale hits to employees, for humiliation
2. Lost sales, because guests can't find people to help them
3. Charisma reduction to managers, due to employee's lack of respect
4. Customer confusion as to what the hell they're doing shopping at a cult

Now, some of these are obvious to most people. However, the top brass of retail chains are not like most people. Most often, they're completely detatched from what the front lines are like. The kinds of people who let the ridiculous kinds of rules get into place - or better yet, put them there themselves.

Something blatant like a simulation, though (especially a 'consulting simulation' that they pay money for) will get their attention more than someone they don't respect telling them the obvious. It's a highly effective troubleshooting mechanism, but it's also a great way to discern paths of innovation.

Yet another example. Big Box Mart is Big. It is so big, you cannot see one wall of the store, unless you're jumping up and down at the opposite wall. Guests follow the 'flow' of the floor layout, and tend to hope that what they're looking for floats on by. Essentially, a bunch of question marks appear on the User's mini-map - and if they stay too long, the customer will stop actively looking for the item, and may very well walk right past it later without flinching.

So what would help in this situation? It's not like you can individually target these people and ask them what they're looking for, since real people can't read minds. Instead, you have to make your employees look inviting - but if their charisma is shot to begin with, they're not going to bother no matter how many ieces of Flair they're wearing. Even then, there's no guarantee they'll know the answer to their question.

This is where Pretending comes in. If I could drop stationary, designated help desks at a couple places in the store, then surely people will get the help they need. Well, with only two desks, though, what happens if more than two people need a question asked? If only you had a teleporting, telepathic employee...

Well, you can. Make several, cheap (video?) phones, and place them around the store, with maps next to them that can be manipulated. Then, stick someone behind a main Information desk at the front of the store, who can interact with each of these kiosks from afar, and highlight the areas on the respective maps, including routes to take.

It's almost as if Game Designers will become the blacksmiths of Common Sense, in the future.


  1. Man, I loved that show!

  2. It's so much better than I remembered it being.