On Gamification

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about Gamification. Applying the principles of video games to every day tasks – notably, the addictive “compulsion loop” of grindfests like World of Warcraft and other rpgs. Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken is leading the charge.

The author had recently suffered a concussion, and was consigned to bed rest. She designed some sort of meta-game to make her stay in bed, getting points and leveling up for every tasks (napping, reading magazine, calling a friend on the phone) she completed.

The ironic thing is that lots of gamers have come out to decry this effort as being neither new, nor a good thing. In fact, most corporations have integrated “gamification” into their marketing for the last few years. “Games” that force the “player” to jump through hoops (finding clues on websites or codes under bottle caps) merely to reveal more marketing. Beyond that, gamification adds another layer, a digital / artificial layer on top of reality. Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget goes into the moral reasoning against this. The crux of the argument is that software attempts to digitize the fractal, analog nature of reality in order to control it and manipulate it.

This is one of the fun things about video games. Playing a game takes two stages. The first stage is training your muscle memory to react to the situations on the screen – the timing and button combos, etc. You are basically deciphering the system of the game world. The next step is exploiting this learning to defeat harder and more complex challenges. Because the entire reality of the game (movement in the world, interaction with characters, etc) can be broken down into discrete button pushes, it’s possible to maximize power and utility in that world. This is why video games are fun – lots of power for a few minutes of brain expenditure.

The real world is much more complex. Of course you can’t distill real life conversations, with all their awkward pauses, meta-level politicking, stammers, faux-pas, burst of passion and serendipity into a binary tree of conversation paths (Bioware RPGS). Of course you can’t distill the physics and friction of real life skateboarding (or ninjitsu) into a few flicks of a joystick.

But gamification says you can. It says you can break down reality into these discrete chunks, and the “user” of the system will not only complete the real-world tasks, but feed off the endorphin bursts that come from the “Ding-buzz” of video game accomplishment.

The art of video games is partially because they reside in the realm of escapism. If I play a flight simulation to zoom through the mountains or even drop some digital bombs on pixilated bad guys, it can be fun, even approaching a form of interactive art. If a trained operative is doing the same thing from Langley Virginia, and those bombs and bad guys are no longer digital, what is the difference? For the CIA bomber, inside his own brain, maybe not much. But from a moral standpoint, it’s night and day. See: Ender’s Game.

As our own professions become increasingly digital, and most of our workday consists of manipulating symbolic information on a screen, the lure of gamification will be to turn every tasks into something fun. The danger is that this will mask what those symbols mean in the real world, and the worker bees won’t be directly engaged in moral compromise, because they’ll be having too much fun leveling up their crops in Farmville, or their headshot count in Call of Duty.

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