Of lucky cats, lameness and game-like logics

So of course Russell’s spot-on here, about the terrible things that await us as poorly-considered game-like logics are superimposed over everyday life. He never comes right out and says it, but I assume he’s reacting to Jesse Schell‘s recent epiphany about networked life, gaming tropes and the motivational mechanics they afford when brought together, and maybe the recent popularity of Foursquare, with its badges and mayorships.

Schell’s argument (or one of them, anyway) is that the everyday environment is now sufficiently instrumented and internetworked that the psychological triggers and incentives developed by game designers to motivate in-game behavior can be deployed in real life. A poster on MetaFilter puts it in a nutshell: “points for brushing your teeth, doing your homework, eating your cornflakes. Gain levels for riding the bus instead of driving. Net-integrated sensors in every device to keep track of your score and upload them to Facebook or wherever. Tax incentives if you get a good enough score on your kid’s report card or read the right books.”

And this is more than passing scary, because these motivators work. Just as food designers have figured out how to short-circuit our wetware with precisely calibrated doses of fat, salt and sugar, game developers trip the dopamine trigger with internally-consistent, but generally otherwise worthless, symbolic reward systems. That they’ve (knowingly or otherwise) learned how to play this primordial pathway like a piano is attested to by the untold gigahours gamers worldwide spend voluntarily looping out the most arbitrary actions, when most of them presumably have a choice of other pretty swell things they could be doing. Like, y’know, their partners.

What happens when incentive mechanics like this leak out of gamespace and into the world? In the long run it may be for the best that ad agencies remain so densely provisioned with the manifestly unclued, because this way of doing things would be nothing short of terrifying in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing. The short term picture, though, is clearly less reassuring; as Russell puts it, “we’re going to encounter a bunch of crappy sorta-games foisted on us.”

You think he’s jumping the gun, assuming the worst, maybe being a little hyperbolic? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Exhibit A.

But fortunately, there are other games to be played, much cleverer and more interesting ones. Bruce Sterling offered a lovely vision of networked rewards in the real world in his 1998 short story “Maneki Neko.” The story has dated badly in some ways — in a precise inversion of what came to pass, it’s amusing to see the story’s Japanese wield sleek, protean “pokkekons” while their clunky American counterparts suffer with clunkier Silicon Valley PDAs — but in other ways it’s clear that Bruce had the notion sussed.

His depiction of a sweetly networked gift economy, in particular, makes the Schellian universe look tawdry. “Maneki Neko” would seem to argue that you don’t need “points” and meaningless achievements unlocked to motivate behavior, when enlightened self-interest and the joys of participating in reciprocal agalmics are sufficient.

I think we could all see it coming the moment Schell’s DICE2010 talk went up on the technology blogs. “See”? You could practically smell the agency nation bruising its collective index finger on the mouse key as it raced to scrub through the half-hour video in search of bullet-pointable content for the next morning’s PowerPoint. Russell’s probably being too generous by half: I think we’re in for a Laird Hamilton-sized wave of pointlessness, as too many not-bright-enough parties fall all over themselves trying to enact and deploy incompatible, mutually incoherent Schell-style solutions.

In some ways, it really is too bad. Given that vice is generally its own reward, that they need to be incentivized at all suggests to me that there’s nothing inherently wrong with most of the behaviors such structures are designed to motivate. For that matter, I tend to be favorably inclined toward any incentive system that begins, however tentatively, to jimmy our lives from the grip of the money economy. I just wish fewer people had described Schell’s video enthusiastically, as “the most mindblowing thing I’ve seen all year,” and more as “something potentially troubling, that we need to think carefully about.”

Because the dopaminergic system can be an inhumanly powerful force, beside which all our notions of “will” are laughable, and where it can take a person is not at all pretty. I just don’t like thinking of it as a tool available to someone bent on designing my life for me. And with all due respect, especially not to a community dedicated to the proposition that “reality is broken [and] game designers can fix it.

That’s a heavy place to wind up, and here I’d intended this post to be both briefer and lighter. But maybe some of these notions could do with a bit of taking seriously.

7 responses to “Of lucky cats, lameness and game-like logics”

  1. Andrew says :

    The gaming of everything, down to entirely replacing democracy with, well, World of Warcraft, is the subject of “Freedom(TM)”, the sequel to “Daemon”.

    • AG says :

      Oh, yeah…I never did read that. I just didn’t trust either its bona fides or its ability to function well as fiction.

      The fictional precedent I couldn’t stop being reminded of offers a lot less hipster cred, to the point that I probably lose some Hip Points for even mentioning it: Larry Niven’s wireheads.

  2. Peter Richardson says :

    The actions of Warcraft-style grinding may be arbitrary, but the contexts are not. They are generally satisfyingly unpredictable within safely predictable bounds: an easy reward, at just enough cost to make it feel meaningful. By comparison, the rest of the world (not to mention conjugal relations) is extremely unpredictable, with complex and mysteriously interrelated factors, and full of risks which whole religions have deemed Not Worth It. As a game, by modern standards, life fails.

    The parallels to food science go on and on, and the results are all negative. But that’s because the goals of these particular systems are inherently evil: to maximize profit at the expense of the rest of the world.

    We need a framework for applying such root-kits to any given goal, instead of merely increasing shareholder value. Advertisers have long relied on fun, but mostly in its social context: “It’s fun to not be an outcast.” In their quest to get more fundamental on us, they have a major Dunning–Kruger handicap, being egotistical sociopaths accustomed to imagining they wield major nam-shub power.

    VW’s “Theory of Fun” campaign, with the Stockholm piano staircase, is one example of such an experiment in public, wearing green gloves, but it’s still a very paternal angle which boils down to The Quiet Game. How fun can we make it for you to Do Our Bidding? Or at least Eat Our Brand? If you’ve seen the back of a cereal box in the last 30 years, you’ve seen plenty of “crappy sorta-games” exemplified by the vapid “Kid Zone” phenomenon. As any kid can tell you, larding a game with hidden agendas only makes it lame.

    The trick is to make the game transparently self-serving, which by definition a third party can never do for you. That means we have to make these games ourselves. We have a long history of whistling while we work, but it rarely goes any further. We’ve taken some first awkward steps, including Lifehacker and the /a> iPhone app, based on Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. (Sadly, it’s kind of lame, but that’s mainly due to the execution.)

    McGonigal has a few good points, but her description of the online game ecosystem is incredibly utopian. Warcraft is much more like Doritos than problem solving: empty calories that make you feel bad. Her solution is also utopian, in fine Segway style: futurist and top-down, and thus neither immediately applicable nor fun. The guy who ignores his girlfriend to level up will not play Peak Oil.

    There’s undoubtedly an area where funness balances lameness for maximum result, and game designers doing social engineering may squick us out, but tiny widely-available games as seen on the iPhone are the lab where these interfaces and reward schedules are being tested. It’s all stochastic at the moment, in a free market sort of way, but it could very easily be less chaotic.

    And it should be. We would benefit, immediately. Even in the age of enlightened self-interest, most arguments for the social good (including McGonigal’s) seem to stem from the Puritainical position that all good must be the result of self-denial, which never plays well, and must rely solely on very distant goals, like thermohaline circulation, or heaven.

    Luckily, that position isn’t true, only weirdly compelling. We just need a compelling replacement. For years I’ve wanted a system that plays the Mario coin noise every time I wash a dish.

  3. Peter Richardson says :

    The missing link: the Level Me Up iPhone app.

  4. Christopher Fahey says :

    I like to think of Clay Shirky’s “cognitive surplus” when it comes to evaluating game-like experiences, especially so in a Schellian world.

    Basically, there’s the surplus. And we who design stuff have a bunch of ways we can tap into it. Some of these methods produce increased organization and knowledge, or make our experiences as individuals more fulfilling. Others simply suck on that surplus and either create nothing at all out of it for the participants (Farmville). Still others devastate and pillage the participants (gambling, swoopo.com).

    It’s fairly easy to put any gamelike experience up to the cognitive surplus test: Does the “fun” it produces actually have any positive effect on the life of the participant, or does it simply take advantage of our hard-wired need to compete and solve shit to suck away our intelligence, potential, and time?

    I’m fairly liberal with defining “positive effect”, too: I can be open to arguments that games hone our intellectual skills, they facilitate socialization, spacial and motor skills, that they give us life stories and emotional thrills that stimulate our experiences in empowering ways. But the “games” Schell describes, and the general proliferation of leaderboards and follower counts and all that, suggest that experience designers are racing to the bottom, creating experiences that make massive withdrawals from individuals’ time, energy, and cognition and then simply vaporize whatever value might have been there.

    • AG says :

      Very well put, Chris.

      You’ve pretty much sketched out the criteria I use to make my media-consumption choices. To be overly literal and Aspergerian about it, there’s a cascade of questions I need answered regarding anything that’s proposing I spend my time with it, and that cascade looks a little something like this:

      - Will I grow from this experience?
      - Will it take me somewhere I haven’t yet been or want to explore, psychologically?
      - Would spending time on this address any of my various weaknesses and deficiencies, or otherwise make me a better and more well-rounded person?
      - Is there some generalizable skill I can derive from this experience…like, say, the way Go taught me about strategy and space?
      - Failing all of that, is it at least good stupid fun, or something like dancing that gets me out of my head and into my body?
      - No? None of that? Sorry, I’ll pass.

      Like you suggest, I’m pretty liberal about my interpretations of these — ask Nurri how much time I’ve spend cackling at Stair Dismount this week. But anything I’m going to indulge with my life time has to give something tangible and real back. Even if it’s just a larf.

    • Peter Richardson says :

      No question, making a time-sink is the easy part. Hooking it up via some sort of transmission to any arbitrary result is harder, but doable — Games That Give on the Hunger Site turns puzzles into cups of rice via advertising, but I’d guess the efficiency is fairly low.

      Running this setup backwards seems to be the big challenge, with the most potential for good: making a game that has a given “positive effect” embedded within, the lower-level the better. In this case either the outcome or the brain-hack has to be more directly connected to the desired result, but artfully, or it doesn’t work. In my youth I was subjected to many horrible “learning games” like Math Blasters, which paired one distasteful goal with another.

      The motivators of these games can be the same as any other — competition, collection, progression, exploration, territory marking — but if the mechanism isn’t something that can be accomplished on one’s phone or pc, the bottleneck becomes data collection, and self-reporting isn’t as satisfying as direct feedback. I suppose sensors are the answer again, à la the Nike+.

      Do either of you know of anyone studying this, or of any other unusual examples of practically useful gameplay?

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