Lemmie replay you an especially cringe worthy clip from the 2016 presidential election.
This clip from ol’ crooked Hillary got some well-deserved internet fame as a stellar example of her inability to sound like a relatable human being instead of the half-cyborg creature we’re all pretty sure she secretly. In-context, though, it makes enough sense (even if it’s still a bad joke): she’s talking about the challenge and struggle of trying to get young people to vote during elections. An issue she would no doubt be passionate about, given how people under twenty-five tend to be overwhelmingly Democrats, which was kind of her whole base.
Now we’d be here all day if we were to let the conversation slip into elections and politics and all that, but that’s not what we’re actually here to talk about. Rather, I want to talk about what ol’ Hillary is suggesting in this clip, even if she doesn’t name drop it explicitly: gamification.
Now we’ve talked about Gamification in the past, or at least, touched on adjacent subjects when we were talking about Educational Games. But gamification extends beyond the realm of cheap games for children to trick them into doing math or paying attention to their spelling: for many, “gamification” is the future. Specifically, because the mere act of turning something into a game immediately makes it more appealing for people: we turned “running” into a game and that’s how we got things like Basketball and Football (both American and European). Educational games show how we can turn math into fun problems that kids want to solve. And of course, just one look at those stupid clicker games and you can see we’ve even managed to turn ‘clicking a mouse’ into an engaging, satisfying activity.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what Gamification could, in theory, do.
According to a model proposed by Klimmt and Vorderer, the process of playing games can be broken down to four key features:
Possibilities to act (or the lack of constraints to do so) – so basically the ability to act on a system and have it react in turn. Purpose to act (a specific reason why possible actions are taken or should be taken) – or basically, the fact that there’s always a logic to what action you take. Necessity of action (applying possible actions to a problem) – or acting within the mechanics of the game to meet a certain challenge. Emotion of action – which is simply the resulting emotions that come as a result of doing an action.
In many ways, these systems broadly define everyday life: even something as mundane as a 9-to-5 office job technically ticks the boxes. You have the choice to go to work or not, you have goals at work you have to meet to satisfy purpose, and you need to work to get paid and pay rent, which covers necessity. And even if the emotions aren’t always strong – or positive – you certainly feel something when you’re at the desk that day. So gamifying, then, isn’t so much dramatically changing the way things are done, but rather, it merely changes the perception and incentive.
Games, for example, are measurable. It’s easy to tell at a glance to anyone playing a game how well or badly they’re doing. The HP bar, a point score, a ticking clock, an XP meter… all of these things are immediately identifiable gauges of how well or badly you’re doing, and they’re immediately reactive. It doesn’t feel good to eat a carrot in real life (if you say you like carrots, you’re lying) because you don’t see or feel an immediate, tangible benefit for having done so. But in games, you can scarf a trash-chicken and watch your HP slide back to full. Similarly, it’s easy to compare your performance with someone who’s playing the same game because you can check one of these metrics and compare theirs with your own, which fosters a sense of growth, community, and most importantly, competition. In work, that’s typically not the case, and if it is, it can be seen as… intimidating. But perhaps the most important thing is that games remain challenging and stimulating. As you get better at a game, it ramps up challenges that it knows you can meet, and there’s satisfaction in rising to the challenge, which helps translate the experience into “fun” for all parties involved. Work can sometimes provide increased challenge the longer you play, but not always… and even when it does, it might not feel very fun.
So what Gamification aims to do is to shift perspectives on what we’re already doing and make it more like games. Turning in a report is boring and sad. Turning in a report and getting a bit of XP that goes to your next level up? According to science, it’s less sad: not only because you’re getting an immediate reward for your work, but also because the exp bar acts as a progress meter in a job that may likely feel endless and draining. You might have to file the same report over and over and over, but tedium can become enjoyable if it’s building up to something big: that’s where the whole process of “grinding” even comes from.
Now, there’s a lot more to gamification, of course, but I don’t want to dwell too long on the mechanics, because you probably understand it by now. We know Gamification is good, it’s motivating, and it’s very likely going to be a future for all of us. The question is: should it be?
I bring this up from time-to-time in my articles, but when I think of the future of Gamification, I don’t stop at “gosh it would be nice if my workplace rewarded me with some vacation days if I leveled up”: it goes on to the Sesame Credit system they’re currently rolling out in China.
Now, when I first heard of the “Sesame credit” system a few years ago, back when it was in its infancy, it was an enormous, terrifying deal. These days, they’ve toned it back some, but it’s still extremely troubling: it’s basically a system where people are ‘graded’ on how good citizens they are, getting more points for doing patriotic things like buying Chinese goods, and going down for doing bad things like smoking or playing too many video games. Going high rewards you with some pretty nice bonuses, while going too low means you’ll lose privileges, like the right to use public transportation or buy a plane ticket.
And while that’s scary, a part of me thinks that it could get worse, and that we could let that happen. Gamification is basically making real life more enjoyable by making it act like a game, but the thing is, modern games are famously exploitative and evil because they take advantage of our psychology to keep us playing and spending money. And while I’m not too worried about people being able to buy in-game advantages with real-world money (that’s already a thing), I’m more worried about the kind of in-game tools used to encourage grinding and unhealthy gaming habits.
Like, for example: in Overwatch, you might be tired of playing and having a bad time, but if you notice you’re just one game away from getting a loot box, you might keep playing anyway just to hit that checkpoint. Imagine doing that at work, except instead of just making you stay up a bit later, it also meant you spend less time with your family, and putting more time and energy into a job that’s soul-draining.
Obviously, there's the risk that all the ways free-to-play games encourage you to spend money can be utilized in these systems, although frankly with things like customer loyalty and other rewards systems they've been trying to crack that egg for a while now.
Even worse: so many games these days inadvertently encourage players to get mad and spew venom at each other, it’s not too large a stretch of the imagination to see that translating into the real world. Say a close friend of yours is somehow bringing down your score and constantly keeping you from leveling up. You might decide the benefits of staying friends with that person is outweighed by the benefits of hitting that level-up, so you either chew him out for being a bad person and getting in your way, or you cut him out of your life entirely. I love games, but I can’t love them without also acknowledging that they can bring out the worst in people. And bringing that hyper-competitive, hateful side out of the realm of games and into daily life…
…well, it might not actually be too different from what we have today. But it’s still not a risk I’m terribly comfortable taking.
Gamification has the potential to be a game-changer, pun intended. It could actually make our lives better and encourage us to do things that are both good for ourselves and good for society – like go to the polls. But we also have to remember that games can be bad for us too, and that no matter where that xp bar is, sometimes a good nights sleep is just more important.
And of course, there’s who decides what’s “good for us and society”. But, let’s not go crazy today.