Game Over

Money isn’t the ultimate arbiter of cultural significance, but it’s surely the next best thing. And iff you buy that, video games, a creative industry generating some 100 billion dollars a year, long since made the grade.

Video games have a distinctive culture and aesthetic that is increasingly influential on and visible in mainstream culture. The bleeps and wump-wump-wumps of Dubstep nostalgically recall the playtime sounds of a late 20th century childhood. The televisual language of sporting events is a dialectic of sports video games. The field is flattened and augmented with statistics, infographics and advertisements.

I don’t claim that such cross-fertilisation is unique to video games: it is the nature of ideas, forms and motifs to osmose across cultural membranes. However that interplay has become more obvious in recent years. There have long been games of movies of books; now there are books of movies of games too.

There is much that could be written about video games, but I want to focus on one increasingly significant way in which games are influencing our broader culture and society. It’s called gamification.

The current fad for gamification can be traced back to the conspicuous success of a 2009, Silicon Valley start-up called Foursquare.

Foursquare is a location-based social network. It has one feature: you can check in to real world locations using your GPS-enabled smartphone. Thus, they boast, you can “connect with friends”.

This may not be a particularly compelling package of benefits. However, to date Foursquare has done very nicely clocking up some 15 million users and raising $50M on a $600M valuation last June.

They built this userbase and the cash that follows them by grafting game-like features onto the core service. Regular patrons of a particular business may earn “Mayorship” of that location simply by visiting it with sufficient consistency. Medals such as “Newbie”, “Entourage”, and “Warhol” reward service use with brightly coloured virtual badges. The more recent “CNN superfan”, “Louis Vuitton Insider” and “Wall Street Journal Urban Adventurer” medals are especially brightly coloured. There’s also a points system although its role in the business model isn’t so glaringly obvious yet.

Foursquare have enough cash in the bank to hold out for a few more years but I suspect the prognosis is not good: Facebook and Google want to eat their location-based lunch.

If Foursquare make it through the great spam filter of history, it will be as a pioneer of gamification. They were the first web service to tap into the latent, human predisposition towards competition and performance and ruthlessly exploit it to condition behaviour.

Following Foursquare’s lead, other internet companies like LinkedIn and Facebook have grafted on game elements and seen similarly gratifying uptake.

The aftershock of these successes have been felt far beyond Silicon Valley. Across the globe government and industry have been taking notes.

In the 20th century Fordism revolutionised production by tapping into the science of time and motion. By breaking traditional forms of labour down into their atomic constituents and rebuilding them, refining them, replicating them, Fordism unlocked efficiency savings that could be passed on to consumers. The iconic Model T dropped threefold in price over the course of a decade. Goods could be more plentiful and more affordable than ever.

Indeed one of the tenets of Fordism was that workers should be paid decent wages so as to enable them to purchase the products they make. This acknowledged the obvious truth that mass production is worthless without mass consumption.

Though Fordism brought a scientific lens to bear on the processes of production, little thought was given to the motivation of workers. Or rather industrialists and governments trusted that increasing the wealth of workers and citizens provided motive enough.

But this rationalist approach to work had problems. The ideal assembly line is endlessly reconfigurable, optimised to meet the changing demands of improving technology. So the ideal worker must be interchangeable. This ambition is hostile to skill and knowledge — at least amongst the labouring class. A skilled and knowledgeable worker represents an inefficiency to be excised. The goal is to embed skills and knowledge in machines, machines that can be used by anyone.

The Fordist world is dispiriting and dehumanising — at least for those who tend the machines.

Governments and think tanks were amongst the first to respond. The Department for Work and Pensions runs a game called Idea Street to decentralize innovation and generate ideas from its 120,000 employees. In the first 18 months, of operation Idea Street generated 1,400 ideas, 63 of which had gone forward to implementation.

The RSA runs a forum to explore such matters. The chair Pat Kane put the agenda thus: “We are increasingly aware that the standard economic models of prosperity and wealth are not delivering the satisfactions they promised – never mind the costs to our environment and health. Placing “wellbeing” as an attainable goal of society is a real and important shift.” Kane’s solution is to graft more fun onto life. researching, advocating and practising play as our enduring principle of possibility and optimism in the human condition

The Volkswagen-sponsored Fun Theory project is a case in point. This project is “dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.” Both the name of this project and its strapline border on odious, but some of the ideas they’ve commissioned have been rather lovely.

There’s a rubbish bin that electronically reproduces the echo and clatter of items falling into a cavernous space.

There are subway stairs, painted to resemble a piano keyboard, that play an ascending series of notes as you scale them. In that case, the goal was to persuade commuters to take a healthier alternative to escalators. And it worked — 60% more people used the stairs.

To the extent that responsible disposal of waste and mild cardiovascular exercise can be seen as social goods, these examples demonstrate that bringing elements of fun into people’s daily lives can have a powerful and positive effect.

Outside the social and social enterprise sector, gamification is seeing widespread adoption in big business. Gartner research report that by 2012, 50% of organisations will have gamified their “innovation processes”. I don’t know what an “innovation process” is, but another prognostication from the same report is clearer: by 2015 70% of the top 2000 companies will have at least one gamified application.

The examples cited by such studies make it clear that what began looking outwards as a way to enhance customer engagement, has turned within. The goal is to graft gaming elements onto internal processes ostensibly to make workers happier, more creative and more productive.

Ironically, at the same time as work is getting an injection of fun, games are increasingly beginning to resemble work.

Farmville is the flagship game from a four year old company called Zynga. You may not be aware of them, but they raised $1B in their IPO last December and currently have a market cap of around $9B. Facebook’s recent S-1 filing in preparation for their imminent IPO revealed that 12% of their $3.71B revenue came from Zynga.

Like all great money-spinners, Zynga games are highly formulaic. There are no strong flavours. The settings are comforting and familiar. In Farmville, players run a farm. They grow crops by clicking on an on-screen map. At higher levels, they might raise a pig, or a barn. There is no direct competition. Instead the game rewards players for cultivating their friends.

In essence they can sell access to their friends for benefits in the game. This is the trade at the heart of the social gaming economy.

In Farmville, there are highly-coloured icons everywhere. It’s like a box of chocolates, something that Apple understood well when designing the mouth-watering interface for the iPhone. But behind the endless options and unlockables, there’s a very simple game/simulation. There’s choice, but no real strategy, no real trade-offs, no real risk.

There’s something infantilising about Zynga games. They suckle players with a constant drip feed of reward. Every other click is a triumph. You farm a melon. Fanfare! You farm two melons. Achievement unlocked! Share a melon with a friend. It’s a ticker tape parade! Every other click triggers tastefully muted applause, an unearned burst of endorphins.

There is no failure in this motherland. There are just grades of success. The game affirms your worth. It loves you unconditionally.

And nobody ever dies.

And it’s free.

But if you want to keep playing, you have to pay. In games like these, you pay to speed things up. You could wait 20 minutes for that barn to build or pay 50p and have it done now. In other words, you pay to get the next fix sooner.

In August 2011 a Greater Manchester court heard that 23 yo Adam Hamnett was so desperate to buy virtual animals for his FarmVille account that he stole a credit card from a blind manand spent £70 on the service. When the victim threated to report him to the police, Hamnett went to the house of his step-father Peter Boustead. An argument ensued which resulted in Hamnett stabbing Boustead 26 times.

Hamnett is clearly a man with many problems and I don’t mean to imply that Farmville incites people to robbery and murder. But this tragic story is at least suggestive of the sort of grip Farmville’s precision engineering of meaningless desire can have.

Farmville looks to me, an outsider, like a crazily addictive form of drudge work.

And Farmville makes me wary of moves to incorporate gaming into the workplace.

First, I fear that it tilts the balance too much in the favour of those who devise and run the games, the employers. Put bluntly, if your employees are addicted to their jobs, you can pay them less. You can replace real, costly incentives in other words wealth with shiny gewgaws that have no meaning outside your enterprise. Money — real liquid currency — creates an environment that incentivizes innovation, the creation of new things to spend money on. And it enables choices, however superficial to be made. It was possible to effect change by choosing what to buy. If you didn’t like South African Apartheid you could get your oranges elsewhere.

If all you have is a gold merit badge and 20 Amazon points, you’re denied even this limited opportunity to effect change.

Second, I expect that gamified business processes will both rigidly structured, and highly monitored leaving little room for initiative or creativity. Gamified processes will center on key performance indicators disguised as colourful badges. As an empiricist I think that KPIs have their place, but perhaps ironically it’s difficult to construct measures that can’t be gamed.

If you link police bonuses to reduced levels of reported crime, don’t be surprised that fewer crimes are reported. I believe that this sort of problem is endemic in any organisation that makes quantative measures its only focus.

Finally, I’m concerned that it trivialises work and by trivialising work, it trivialises the greater part of people’s lives. I’m skeptical of the protestant work ethic, but it’s deeply ingrained in me. I want my work, and the work of my fellow citizens to count for something, to contribute to something greater. Introducing reward structures that are designed with scientific precision masks off the possibility of an adult conception of that contribution and eliminates yet another locus of value. Maybe the work ethic was a socially or commercially useful illusion, but at least it contained some acknowledgement of human worth.

The dystopian vision of a world hollowed out by the pursuit of ever-increasing efficiency, is perhaps a familiar one.

In 1950, in the introduction to Brave New World Aldous Huxley, wrote “the most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast government-sponsored inquiries into what politicians and the participating scientists will call ‘the problem of happiness'”

Huxley envisaged a future driven far beyond Fordism or gamification to extremes of biological and psychological manipulation, all in the service of the greater good. The force of his argument against utilitarian trends borrows greatly from whatever disgust and horror those extremes inspire, but you don’t need eugenics of hypnopaedia to make it work. The argument hinges on a sense of isolation and existential dread that must be familiar to anyone who has seen even 5 minutes of The X Factor.

But for all that I’m suspicious of gamification, I do welcome a renewed focus on fun and quality of life. And although I’ve been skeptical about the infantilising tendencies of games, I am broadly in favour of neoteny, or at least — speaking from my mid-30s — in some form of extended adolescence. So I want to close by looking at two positive trends that can be discerned, two rays of hope that I think may permit a certain cautious optimism for the future.

First not all games are of a piece. There are many games and diversions that, to paraphrase Othello, take a minute to learn, a lifetime to master.

There are games, such as chess that develop mysteriously deep intellectual skills. There are games, such as poker, that hinge on a subtle understanding of human nature. There are games, such as charades that develop social skills and imagination. If systems of reward in the gamified workplace or society can be structured so as to encourage increasing mastery of such cognitive abilities and the increasing autonomy that brings, that will only be for the good.

Second, and moving somewhat beyond games, there are forms of play that deserve closer examination.

Game-like narrative settings have been used with some degree of success to encourage discussion around topics of import. World without Oil, a poster child for socially-responsible gamification, provided players with a narrative setting — the first 32 weeks of a world oil crises — and challenged them to respond with chronicles of their imagined lives through this crisis.

The impact of World without Oil is difficult to assess, but the game had thousands of players who responded enthusiastically. “Usually games take away from real life,” one player Ironmonkey wrote, “but WWO taught me a lot, lowered my electric bill, and focused me on doing things that matter to me.” In short, this game inspired at least some of its players to effect positive change in their own lives and to become active in their communities.

I’m also drawn to forms of play that center on simple, flexible interactions with things. The piano staircase and bottomless rubbish bin nod in this direction. Although they pattern the way you interact with them, their normativity is at least gracefully concealed.

There are echoes here of Walter Benjamin’s notion that the less directed or purposeful a toy, the more available it is for imaginative play. A good toy should be as open-ended and undefined as possible — “Because”, he says, “the more appealing toys are, in the ordinary sense of the term, the further they are from genuine playthings; the more they are based on imitation, the further away they lead us from real, living play.”

As ever there are risks. There’s a melancholy to Benjamin’s anlysis which may come as no surprise in the context of this essay. It locates play at the heart of habit, or of social norms. Repetitive play is “the way to master frightening fundamental experiences – by deadening one’s own response”, but Benjamin goes on to say, “it also means enjoying one’s victories and triumphs over and over again, with total intensity”

Benjamin was thinking of the ways in which simple, relatively indeterminate toys — a ball or crude doll — condition play. But there are more sophisticated artefacts that encourage creative and articulate interactions. Real, living play can be found in construction toys such as Lego. Here the indeterminacy essential for play inheres in the endless reconfigurability. Extensions of lego into virtual spaces through simulations such as Minecraft show that the spirit of lego can outlive its primary coloured flesh.

I think it’s provocative to ask whether these more flexible modalities of play can be infused into work and life. The goal must be to harness playful impulses to transform mundane experiences and imbue them with pleasure and meaning.

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