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Power-Ups 🍄 and the Gamification of Dining
Some thoughts on why restaurants need to start serving magic mushrooms...
Last year, I bought my five-year old son a Nintendo Switch, as well as the latest Super Mario Bros. game: Super Mario Odyssey. I’d be lying if I didn’t say these purchases weren’t intended for Dad, too. But whereas my five-year old immediately took to the game’s seemingly boundless levels, intricate patterns, and problem solving, I was less enthused. My inability to cotton to Super Mario Odyssey came down to one thing, or a lack of one thing: just where were the power-ups?
As per Wikipedia: “in video games, a power-up is an object that adds temporary benefits or extra abilities to the player character as a game mechanic.” In other words, a power-up allows your hero to more easily vanquish enemies, become invincible, garner extra lives, and so on.
Pac-Man pioneered the power-up. By consuming a “Power Pellet,” Pac-Man was periodically able to eat ghosts instead of running from them. But, as any kid who came of age in the 1980s or ‘90s will attest, it was Super Mario Bros. that firmly put the power-up in pop culture. Enter the Super Mushroom. Once deployed from a hovering mystery box and consumed (i.e. run into) by our hero, the mushroom doubled Mario in size, thus rendering him super and conferring upon him all the powers commensurate with said stature. He could jump higher, break bricks, and if you accidentally ran him into a Goomba or similar foe he shrunk back to his un-super size rather than straight up die. This feature, and others like it (the Fire Flower, the Invincibility Star, the extra life), made the game more fun by incentivizing users to explore the Mushroom Kingdom beyond the linear, face-value framework of getting from point A to point B in each level. Power-ups lent Super Mario Bros. some more-than-meets-the-eye mystery, giving players the ability to cheat or circumvent the rules of the game.
Of course, power-ups are primarily satisfying for two reasons: they are hidden, thus requiring extra effort to find, and once found they grant you extra abilities beneficial to gameplay. But, as the Super Mario Bros. game designers found out, there was something gratifying to players in simply seeing Mario double in size upon consuming a mushroom. As Shigeru Miyamoto put it, his team backed into this aesthetic choice: "When we made the prototype of the big Mario, we did not feel he was big enough. So, we came up with the idea of showing the smaller Mario first, who could be made bigger later in the game; then players could see and feel that he was bigger."
This sentiment — that a power-up is gratifying in and of itself — is echoed in a 2019 gaming academic study. By comparing “the experiences of players depending on their exposure to power-ups in a recreational video game,” authors Alena Denisova and Eliott Cook found that “players who collected power-ups felt significantly more immersed in the game [and] experienced more autonomy.” According to the Self-Determination Theory, autonomy is one of three tenants that humans require in order to thoroughly enjoy activities.
There are plenty of other examples of power-ups and the incentivizing ways in which we’re encouraged to hunt for them, from specific skins in Call of Duty to all the classic examples ranked right here to even food power-ups. But what about power-ups IRL? Humans, after all, love the idea of changing their status. For evidence consider the weight-loss challenge, or the movie montage, which allows us to watch some of the hero’s journey in hyper-lapse. If Super Mario Bros. was an app today rather than a video game franchise dating back to the 8-bit ‘80s, we would attribute some of its stickiness to features like Super Mushrooms, Fire Flowers, and Invincibility Stars — these ephemeral advantages that players can earn and just as easily lose.
So what real world examples spring to mind? Airline status, certainly, which allows people to skirt some of the humdrum realities of modern flight. Being listed at a club, sure. Or garnering a blue check on Twitter before Elon mucked that up. This latter point leads to the rub: for power-ups to matter, to grant us that sense of satisfaction, they must be earned rather than bought. By earning a perk, that perk confirms our identity — a skilled gamer, a thought-leader, a world-traveler. And products that reinforce and deepen one’s sense of identity are found to maximize customer value in the longterm.
And so, as we always asks ourselves here at Blackbird, but what of dining? According to The New York Times, game designers think of the world (along with all its rules) within a game as being inside a magic circle, one that can be drawn in chalk on the sidewalk.
“The chalk line casts a spell on that space of sidewalk and turns it into a space for playing…Humans have always been drawn to this trick, finding novel ways to play within their environments.”
App-designers in other industries seem to understand this. Consider Duolingo, which rewards users learning a foreign language for consecutive days — or “streaks” — spent studying. Or fitness app Strava, which ranks cyclists and runners on leaderboards for GPS segments (the fastest is given the KOM or QOM crown). Strava will also notify you when you set a new PR or obtain “local legend” status for having completed a certain segment more than anyone else.
Dining platforms seem ripe for all this, and yet there is no gamification layer currently augmenting the experience. Odd considering how much of a gambit dining is these days, from snagging a reservation to being seated at the best table to getting that iconic burger at Raoul’s before they run out for the night. If you think about it, dining is — at its essence — a form of a power-up to begin with. By stepping into a restaurant, we’ve entered the magic circle of a game, one with its own atmosphere and set of rules, while at the same time we’re also bypassing the rules of the real world — we’re not cooking for ourselves, we’re certainly not saving money, and chances are we’ll be indulging in food and drink that our physician might frown upon. In other words, we’ve eaten the magic mushroom, now it’s time for a platform to reward us for doing so.
Thanks for reading, and more soon…
Blackbird Labs, Inc.
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