Just a little meditation here…
Lots of chatter this morning already over a speech given at DICE by Jesse Schell (author of the excellent Art of Game Design) on games Beyond Facebook: How social games terrify traditional game makers but will lead us to gaming everywhere.
I have a long long article brewing on Facebook game snobbery by traditional gamers… and Jesse touched on this in his speech. But he also touched on something that folks like Jane McGonigal have been talking about for a long time: the gameifying of the world.
Where is this going? Schell says that the achievements and incentives that have wired us into playing Facebook games compulsively will soon be built into everything. Your toothbrush, for instance, will give you 10 achievement points for brushing your teeth in the morning, Schell said. Then it will give you more points for brushing for the right amount of time. Then it will give you points for brushing every morning in a week.
You may also get credit for eating your Corn Flakes. If you take the bus to work, your local government will give you 10 achievement points for reducing traffic. You will get credit for walking to work, as your digital shoes will testify. If you kid gets straight A’s on a report card, he or she will get 2000 points. And the Obama administration will give you 5,000 points for being a good parent.
The quote starts someplace that sounds amusing to innocuous, and ends on a note that probably sounds disturbing (“good parent by whose definition?”) to many, particularly to those who are freaked out by the microscandal over Cass Sunstein’s behavioral economics approach to politics.
Some will find this questionable on the grounds of who sets up the incentive structures — I can hear the echoes of the “games teach you to obey the rules, and who sets up the rules?” argument, perhaps most famously articulated by Chris Suellentrop. We don’t have any issues with rewards that are even more tangible, like giving your kid money for a straight-A report card… as long as we are comfortable with who is setting up the reward and what criteria.
Others will see it as a big invasion of privacy, something that today is a tad more resonant than usual given that some enterprising folks put together a site that datamines players of the location-based Twitter game Foursquare in order to demonstrate that they are telling thieves that they aren’t at home. (The site is tongue-in-cheek and intended just to make a point).
Yet another group will worry about the fact that the incentive structures here are likely to be based on psychological hacks and reinforcement tricks. In other words, playing with the brain structures of addiction — something that has repeatedly been raised as an issue with games (though there’s news on that front, as the draft DSM-V is being circulated for comment on the Internet). Some recent research has found (inadvertent) brain hacks even in things like the optimal length of scenes in movies — and there’s certainly plenty of prospects for this sort of thing to be used for purposes somewhere between commercial and nefarious. They’re calling it “neurocinematics.” Hello, future.
Extrapolating this from Facebook games, as Jesse does, is valid. The social games market makes extensive use of psych hacks, datamining, and incentive structures, in a small way very much like the above three concerns:
- There’s a reason why you invite people with gifts in those games — it triggers a reciprocity effect.
- The architecture of farming games exploits commitment.
- The whole premise is based on sitting atop the social graph — in other words, making use of the fact that you are supplying a giant pile of personal data to the service providers.
- And, of course, there’s been plenty of evidence that they can get you to do things using these structures.
There are plenty of valid concerns to be had here. But it’s not going to go away. Instead, we need to be thinking about what our accommodation is with these technologies and approaches. Almost all of this arises simply out of better knowledge of ourselves and our psychology paired with improvements in communications technology. And that is not a new problem — it’s an old one.
Are games in the vanguard here? Maybe, maybe not. After all, the world is changing around us pretty quick. If anything, we already need to distrust what we see and what it tells us to do, because quite a lot of the perceptions we absorb from media are not so much “wrong” as just “non-factual.” Spotting it has become a cottage industry, from Photoshop fails to political fact-checking. And we shouldn’t by any stretch think that games or game tactics are the only place where this stuff will be used or even most impinge upon our lives.
All these things are linked and are essentially part of the sweep of history, and the concerns that arise from gameifying the world apply in larger measure to non-games.
Just food for thought, as I leave you with a fun example of that convergence…