The Agenda

Thoughts on Epic Win

As social gaming emerges as a major industry, I’ve been intrigued by the notion that we might apply practices pioneered in alternate reality games as an educational tool, and more to the point as a means of helping young people develop noncognitive skills. Rexbox, a visual design shop, and Mr. FungFung, a well-regarded video game developer, are giving us an early indication of what such a tool might look like with their forthcoming iPhone app Epic Win. The game will be released on August 19th. Last month, Brian Barrett of Gizmodo describes Epic Win as follows:

 

This might actually get me to cross some items off of my ever-growing to-do list: an app called Epic Win that turns chores into quests, and rewards completion with experience points, loot, and leveling up. And it looks great.

That’s probably not surprising, given that one of the minds behind Epic Win was also Little Big Planet’s visual designer. And even though it doesn’t look like there’s anything to stop you from cheating—other than the realization you’d be cheating at a productivity RPG app, which would be a unique level of sad—it looks as though Epic Win’s brand of focused fun might be the perfect spoonful of sugar for the iPhone generation. 

The cheating question had been the stumbling block for me. Harvard economist Roland Fryer has been working for years on finding incentive systems that would encourage learning among inner-city children, including cash payments tied to reading books, etc.. The fact that Epic Win can be so easily gamed means that it won’t be terribly useful in that context. But of course this is just the start. A tool that is first used by affluent, productivity-obsessed consumers might eventually spread to the wider public, in a pattern familiar to students of baby names, like Levitt and Dubner:

Many people assume that naming trends are driven by celebrities. But how many Madonnas do you know? Or, considering all the Brittanys, Britneys, Brittanis, Brittanies, Brittneys, and Brittnis you encounter these days, you might think of Britney Spears; but she is in fact a symptom, not a cause, of the Brittany/Britney/Brittani/Brittanie/Brittney/Brittni explosion—and hers is a name that began on the high end and has since fallen to the low. Most families don’t shop for baby names in Hollywood. They look to the family just a few blocks over, the one with the bigger house and newer car. The kind of families that were the first to call their daughters Amber or Heather, and are now calling them Alexandra or Katherine. The kind of families that used to name their sons Justin or Brandon and are now calling them Alexander or Benjamin. Parents are reluctant to poach a name from someone too near—family members or close friends—but many parents, whether they realize it or not, like the sound of names that sound “successful.”

We’ll see. For now, I’m excited. My sense is that scalable, for-profit tools that capitalize on our “addictions” will prove more effective at imparting noncognitive skills than slow-moving public efforts that involve training an army of social service providers, for whom the incentives aren’t always well-aligned.  

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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