How many games can we handle?

The number of active Draw Something players has come back down to Earth. This Forbes article captures a few big reasons:

  • The novelty of the game mechanic has worn off
  • The same words are repeated frequently (“DORITO again??”)
  • The app takes too much time and effort for continued engagement

The last point (and the most common answer in my unscientific poll of ex-Drawers) raises an interesting question: is there a practical limit to the number of games we can play at once?

While good game mechanics can make certain tasks rewarding and spare our willpower reserves, perhaps games simply drain a different mental reservoir. Gamification fanatics (myself included) dream of games everywhere, turning the mundane (Expense reports! Answering the phone!) into fun and engaging quests. But what happens if we all just have a five-gallon tank of Giving A Shit?

If there is a upper bound to the number of simultaneous games that an individual can care about, then the race to consume this attention should result in better, more engaging game dynamics. Companies hoping for a magic motivational badge system, however, will be disappointed; if your attention is already being consumed by nine concurrent sessions of Scream At Friends (see: Voxer), why engage with your company’s strained support ticket system that designates you a “ninja” if you close twenty in a day?

In a game-saturated world, the app that generates the greatest emotional reward for the least attention input will have the best chance of winning those last few drops of engagement. Of course, input and reward are often positively correlated and unintuitively intertwined — a wickedly complex human behavior optimization problem. Solving it means, essentially, creating the game equivalent of methamphetamine: massive satisfaction for minimum conscious effort.

And I’ll play it. As long as I get to keep my teeth.